Christopherson Column - Why even bother with this annual bracket bloodbath?

Mike Christopherson
Crookston Times

    The only real “madness” that manifests itself every March in this country isn’t found on a basketball court where two college teams are pitted in battle. Some of the games are no doubt thrilling, and more melodramatic types might even call the nail-biting, buzzer-beater victories breathtaking. It’s the kind of last-second action that spurs yet another play-by-play guy to yell, yet again, “Are you kidding me!?”

    We’re the ones off our rockers, afflicted with this “madness,” thinking we can pay barely any attention to college hoops all season long, year after year, and then fill out a bracket that doesn’t leave our bright pink or neon yellow Sharpie highlighter ink-less before the tournament even reaches the Sweet 16.

    I don’t watch college basketball. I’ll stumble across a Gophers men’s game now and then, but I can only stand to watch for a half at the most, when I realize, again, that they will only disappoint.

    The thing that sets college basketball’s March Madness and all this “bracketology” apart from other sports is that not knowing what in the heck is going to happen runs the gamut, from guys like me who avoid college basketball like an allergy and yet get sucked into filling out a bracket every spring, to the “bracketologist” college hoops gurus online and on the sports networks like ESPN. Year after year, their brackets are as obliterated as mine.

    At least in football or hockey or baseball, an average fan like me can pick who’s going to win games and be right more often than wrong. Fans like me can pick with a certain degree of reliability who’s going to compete for division titles, conference championships and who’s going to maybe win it all. Frequently, our prognostications are just as accurate as the so-called “experts” on TV and online, whether they’re former players or coaches or any TV talking head who gets a charge out of wearing garish suits capable of detaching viewers’ retinas.

    But college basketball come every March? The bracketologists are as overmatched as I am. They, as I do, continue to allow themselves to be tantalized by the “blue blood” programs that get all of the best prep recruits year after year and steamroll through their non-conference and conference seasons with long-distance three-pointers raining down from above and swishing through the net, alley-oop dunks and dazzling fast-break finishes. But come NCAA Tournament time, these powerhouse teams built on individual highlight-reel excellence displayed by “one-and-done” players who will opt for the NBA Draft after their freshmen year are pitted against lower-seeded teams who lack individual star power, but know what it means to play as a team because NBA coaches and general managers aren’t salivating over any of their players. So these “mid-major” teams and teams with mile-long acronyms and multiple hyphens in their names stick together for several seasons, building chemistry and camaraderie along the way. They’re good ball players, sure, but they’re also mentally tough and show their mettle at the moments that separate victory from defeat. As our ink-stained brackets indicate every spring, that team-first approach is often enough to prevail over teams built around one or two young studs with NBA dreams dancing in their heads.

    I blame ESPN’s Jay Bilas more than anyone else for this annual bloodbath of fluorescent ink.

    Clearly, he knows his hoops, but why do I insist on making him my primary crutch to lean on every March when I’m staring at my blank bracket and the deadline to submit it is mere hours away?

    On ESPN.com every spring, Bilas picks the winner of every tournament game, from 68 teams all the way to the Final Four and the championship game. It’s like a drug for guys like me, and I go back to Bilas every March for my fix, even though the result is always carnage. I don’t fill out my bracket in lockstep with his, but I allow his scouting reports to infiltrate my brain and influence some of my picks.

    The problem with Bilas is that he’s overly kind to every single team, right down to the lowest seeds. Even the teams that on paper appear to be the most overmatched have “one of the most explosive” point guards in the nation, Bilas likes to write, or they have the “best power forward no one has ever heard of.” This team or that team is among the “best offensive rebounding teams” in the NCAA, Bilas is known to tease about some obscure university or tiny private college, or they play “the most suffocating defense.” His widespread accolades tempt me like the talking serpent trying to get Eve to enjoy a nibble of the forbidden fruit.

    And when the smoke clears and the Sharpies are bone dry, people like Bilas are just as hopelessly wrong as I am. Oral Roberts?! Come on, man!

    I’m done with this March Madness. April Madness is more my speed, anyway. The Masters is three weeks away, and I have a bracket to fill out.

Mike Christopherson, Crookston Times managing editor