Thrill of Victory

When March Madness throws us a curve

I have a love-hate relationship with the March Madness.

For years, I have spent an inordinate amount of time on Monday and Tuesday after the NCAA Tournament field has been set, looking at the brackets, pondering which upsets might happen, who’s going to go to the Final Four, and so on. It may be a weak comparison, but in some respects, it’s like being a kid waiting for Christmas morning, wondering if what’s on your list matches up with what’s under the tree.

Yet, it’s the opening-the-presents part that can drive me nuts. I can be hyper-competitive as it is, and it’s always a dagger to the heart seeing that 3-seed that you had in the Elite Eight get knocked off by the 14-seed, whose point guard throws up a prayer at the buzzer and sends your bracket into chaos.

Being a family man now, I spent less time filling out my bracket than I have in 20-something years, excepting the one year that I didn’t fill out a bracket. That season, I decided not to fill one out so that I didn’t have to be conflicted between rooting for teams that I picked in my bracket, but didn’t really like, and then having to watched with mixed feelings.

Not filling out a bracket was supposed to be liberating that year, but it wasn’t. As aggravating as it gets when Directional Tech knocks off one of my Elite Eight picks four hours into the tournament (and seemingly, this happens every year), I missed my bracket. I missed not being able to gloat on Thursday when I got 14 of 16 first-round games right, and nobody in my pool did better than 12. But at least now I knew the fun of it was worth the downsides.

So as it happened this year, just after it appeared that my bracket crashed and burned early last week, I got late life when… well, everyone else’s did also. I got through the first weekend without losing a single Final Four squad. Yes, I had ground to make up thanks to last Thursday, but I also didn’t have Gonzaga or New Mexico in the Final Four.

My ships were coming in. And then, of course, came last night. Syracuse 61, Indiana, 50. Goodbye, hopes of being 4-for-4 on Final Four picks.

Look, I’ve followed college hoops long enough to know that nothing’s a sure thing. But I also know that you have to be able to put points on the board to advance, and nobody did that this year like Indiana. The Hoosiers were No. 1 in America in offensive efficiency. They could score inside with Cody Zeller. They could score from outside with Christian Watford. They could score anywhere with Victor Oladipo.

Syracuse wouldn’t be a pushover, but if the Orange couldn’t get to the Final Four last year with a better team, it wouldn’t this year, either.

I guess that’s why they play the games.

It was obvious early that Indiana had no answers for the Syracuse match-up zone. It was if the Orange had nine guys on defense the entire night. The Hoosiers averaged 80 points per game coming in, and yet Indiana was stuck on 11 points for forever, finally breaking that drought with 3:22 left in the half.

It wasn’t just that the Hoosiers couldn’t score, it was that they looked completely inept for much of the game. So often, they turned it over without even getting off a stinking shot. A zone is supposed to have a weakness somewhere, but Syracuse’s didn’t.

I hoped, for bracket’s sake, that IU coach Tom Crean would find some answers at half, and make this nightmare end. But it never really happened, as IU fell by a score of 61-50.

Did I know that Syracuse could make things interesting, or perhaps even win? Of course I did. Did I think that the Hoosiers score a measly 50 points? Of course I didn’t and neither did you.

Was it aggravating anyway? Of course it was.But this time, only mildly so.

As I sat and watched, it occurred to me: I watch because, with the NCAA Tournament, you never know. If I got my bracket right every year, I wouldn’t watch. It’s the possibility that something so out of the blue can happen — that Florida Gulf Coast can beat Georgetown; that George Mason and VCU can get to the Final Four; that Butler can get to the title game, not once but twice — that keeps us tuning in.

The whole NCAA Tournament is a suspense thriller that Hollywood could never script as well as things play out. It’s not just that we’re surprised with what we see, it’s that we’re often stunned — like when the nation’s best offense looks like a middle-school squad for 40 minutes.

And that’s precisely why, even after we’ve crumpled our bracket and throw it into File 13, we come back the next day and tune in for more.

Actually, that’s not entirely it. We also watch sports because we’re fans. Amazing athletes and outstanding coaches show us things we could never dream of doing ourselves. If you wanted a reminder as to how special a coach Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim is, you only had to watch Thursday evening and sit in awe as to how one of the greatest coaches the college game has ever known was able to script such a brilliant scheme, and get his athletes to run it to near-perfection.

If you’re an Indiana fan, you’re forgiven for not sharing my sentiment here. It’s different when it’s your favorite team.

As for the rest of us, if you can’t appreciate that effort, then you’re missing the forest for the trees.

So, this Dr. Strangebracket has learned to stop worrying and love the bracket bomb. Hopefully, it won’t take you a year of not filling out your brackets to do so as well.