By MIKE HERNDON
Every year since I left sports writing I say it, or at least think it: I’m not going to fill out a bracket this year.
When I worked in a newsroom, NCAA tournament brackets were a given. The whole newsroom participated. It was part of the fun of working in a newsroom – trash-talking over the cubicle dividers, hoping to stay ahead of the business reporter who won the year before by picking a bracket based on team mascots. And as a working member of the sports media, my opinion was expected, to be lauded if somewhat accurate and ridiculed if not.
But since I left the biz a few years ago, I have found myself considering the many very sensible reasons not to participate. You can save yourself a lot of embarrassment, of course, when the team you pick to win it all gets bounced in the first round (Looking at you, 2016 Michigan State). It’s more enjoyable to watch those amazing upsets when they aren’t ripping your bracket to shreds.
And the 15 minutes you spend “researching” it and filling it out could be put to better use, like trimming your fingernails or organizing your sock drawer.
But like a junkie who’s fresh out of methadone, I keep crawling back. And so, as I attempt to not embarrass myself this year, I will share a few things to look for when looking for teams you like to go deep in the tournament:
- Momentum. This is massively overvalued by most of us. I like to see a team enter the postseason on a hot streak, but it isn’t always predictive of success in the tournament. I’m not picking Kentucky to win it all just because they were hot in St. Louis. But I want no part of teams who come into the tournament cold or backed their way into the field.
- Injuries. Overachieving team whose best player was lost for the year late in the season? Not interested. I’m looking for teams with a full complement of players.
- Twelve seeds in the first round. You know it. I know it. At least one 12 seed wins a first-round game nearly every year — usually more than one. Where I have a problem is picking any of them to win in the second round, because if your Upset Special falls in the first round, where does that leave you?
- Outside distractions. How in the world is Arizona, for instance, going to be fully focused on basketball right now? Sometimes a team can circle the wagons when adversity strikes, but more often, it steals their edge on the court.
- Teams that take care of the basketball. There are a lot of tight games in the tournament, and tight games often come down to a turnover here or there in the final minutes.
- Guard play. This is related to No. 5, and it’s probably my No. 1 factor for picking an overall winner. Guards, more than anyone else, have their hands on the basketball and can control a game. Guard play wins championships.
These are all sensible factors to consider, and like a sensible prognosticator, I have ignored most of them. I picked Michigan to make the Finals by overvaluing momentum. I ignored Arizona’s distractions (an FBI investigation that allegedly includes tape of its coach discussing payments to its star player) and picked the Wildcats to make the Final Four. I picked the team that commits the fewest turnovers in the country, Virginia, to get bounced in the Sweet 16 (although this is partly due to No. 2 – a key injury).
But I stuck to my main one – guard play. I’m expecting Villanova to ride the play of Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges to its second title in three years.
Which probably means they’ll lose in the second round and I’ll wish I’d done what a sensible person would do when given a bracket to fill out – wad it up and throw it in the trash. That’s where it’s probably going anyway.
But good luck with yours.
(Update: So this year’s bracket wasn’t a waste after all. I correctly picked the championship matchup and the winner, Villanova over Michigan, and won my pool. Blind squirrels and acorns …. and guard play wins championships. MH)
Categories: College basketball