Not So Sweet 16

The South Region and the Midwest Region sit together on the “right” side of my March Madness bracket. Those two regions have worked like clockwork in the NCAA Tournament thus far, sending eight teams to the Sweet 16, just as the rules state they are supposed to.

I have correctly guessed the identity of one of those eight teams in the bracket I’ve submitted for a pool set up with a few friends from work. My lone correct guess on that entire side of the draw is Baylor, the number one seed in the South, and a pick that millions of other March Madness fans have also selected correctly in their brackets.

So what that means, is that my Baylor pick, the only thing I’ve gotten right through two rounds on that side of my bracket, will do absolutely nothing to improve my chances. And even if the Bears advance to the Final Four (as I have them doing), it will do absolutely nothing to elevate me from the pack.

In other words, I’m toast.

On the “left” side of my bracket I’ve fared slightly better, having three of the eight remaining teams still alive on my official sheet — USC, Florida St., and Alabama. The prognosis is slightly better for me on this side of the draw, as I have all three of those teams winning their Sweet 16 matchups and advancing to the Elite 8.

Building on that small glimmer of hope, I actually have USC winning out from here all the way until the finals, which means I possess the March Madness version of a “puncher’s chance” to pull off a miracle should everything go right for me and my selections from here.

Only in March Madness could such a dreadful performance be so much damn fun. And that’s really the point of filling out all those little boxes every year, isn’t it?

If we use recent history as our guide, my 4-12 record heading into this weekend’s games would indicate it is highly unlikely I will suddenly become a college hoops Nostradamus, but hey — that’s why they play the games, right? And therein lies the excitement of the greatest sports tournament in the world.

It feels like there’s been more upsets than the norm this year (a statement I make every year right around this time, by the way), so perhaps others are suffering similar, painful reactions when they look at their brackets dotted with red “X’s” and alternate winner names scribbled into the margins. C’mon, there’s a reason Warren Buffett offers a million bucks every year to anyone who can put together a perfect bracket — picking winners in March is damn hard to do!

But here we are every year, trying to identify the next upset candidate from the likes of Grand Canyon, Iona and Hartford. Then again, is there a better feeling in the world of fandom than being the one who knew Abilene Christian would take down Texas in the first round? Methinks not.

Speaking of upset specials, I failed to mention where my predicted USC run would conclude in my tattered 2021 bracket submission. That would be in the finals against Midwest Region number one seed Illinois. The same Illini team that was summarily dismissed by eighth-seeded Loyola-Chicago in the second round, a loss that sent bracket-busting shock waves across the nation’s NCAA pools.

The Loyola-Chicago upset feels a bit unfair to me (mostly because I didn’t call it, but I digress), as I’d completely forgotten about that cool nun who comes to all the Loyola-Chicago games and roots them on. Sister Jean was a television sensation and mainstay of the March Madness fun three years back, when the Ramblers made their Cinderella run to the Final Four.

But who remembers such things? Shouldn’t there have been an asterisk next to the Ramblers slot in this year’s brackets, warning of the potential for divine intervention and to bet against Loyola-Chicago at your own risk? Some things you just can’t plan for…

Most years I’ve felt that in order to have a chance to take home the winner’s share of whatever bracket pool you may be a part of, you need to be at least 12-4 heading into the Sweet 16, maybe 11-5 if your Final Four remains intact. So yeah, at 4-12, I may not be officially dead, but let’s just say a mirror has been strategically placed under my nose and local clergy is being summoned to my bedside.

What’s a hoops fan to do from here you ask, his bracket a shambles, but still a couple of weeks of tournament action remaining?

Well, for one, you could do as I did and go enter a new pool that commences with the Sweet 16. For $10 bucks I bought my way into one of those, where eight of us “draft” two of the final 16 teams, and teams advance using a point spread system. If your team wins and covers the spread, you advance. But if you fail to cover (even if your team wins), you are out, and your opponent who owned the loser (but managed to cover the point spread) “steals” your team and advances to the Elite Eight, and so on.

I doubled down on my USC bet in this new pool, giving two points to Oregon this Sunday night. I stayed with the Pac-12 for my second selection taking Oregon State, where I’ll go up against Loyola-Chicago and Sister Jean again, this time aided by the 6.5 points the Beavers are getting.

Which begs the question, does God care about point spreads? I’m hoping no, and that way I can advance by stealing Loyola-Chicago (and all 101 years of the good Sister’s karma) when the Ramblers eke out a close one.

Another alternative for the fan looking to keep things fresh, is to root hard against whoever your closest friend with a legitimate chance of winning the pool through the first two rounds happens to be (this is a strategy familiar to Mets fans, typically deployed against the hated Yankees around the middle of August every year). For me in 2021, that means pulling for things to start going wrong for Fairhaven Mike, who’s off to a resounding start in our pool, and appears a lock to come away with the winner-takes-all prize.

But… (and there’s always a “but” when it comes to March Madness, which is part of the experience) if FairHaven Mike suffers a Baylor meltdown at the hands of Villanova this weekend, there will be a slight crack in the door. And such an opening could be exposed by either TechTitan Joe (who’s still wondering how he remains in contention after picking North Carolina to make it to the Final Four) or Bay Area Brian, who has ridden the Oregon State upset bus to a tie for second on our leader board heading into the weekend.

Both TechTitan Joe and BayArea Brian also possess an advantage that up until now has remained secret — FairHaven Mike somehow neglected to pick a winner in his Final Four matchup between Gonzaga and Alabama. A gaffe of this magnitude is the bracket-busting equivalent of Chris Webber calling that timeout he didn’t have back in ’93, costing Michigan’s Fab Five a shot at the title. Ah, the possibilities…

Saturday morning can’t get here fast enough for us hoops fans, and here’s hoping this weekend’s eight games are as exciting and unpredictable as what we’ve seen in the tourney thus far.

March Madness, indeed.

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