College Hoops: Love the Game, Hate All the Players

I have no idea who this is, but apparently he's leading the NCAA tournament in points per game. (Photo by Michael Heiman/Getty Images)

Whenever March Madness comes around, my non-sports friends usually start asking me questions. Who do I think will win it all? How do I pick my brackets? Who are the key players?

Honestly, I barely know anything about college hoops. Too many teams, too many players. I can’t keep track.

In college football, you can get by knowing maybe five key players and schools. But I just can’t keep track of 68 teams’ worth of people I have no earthly reason to care about. Seriously, only three University of Montana players have ever gone to the NBA, they were all terrible, and one was a racist.

Why bother keeping track of schools like Montana, South Florida or N.C. Asheville? For God’s sake, Red Sox season is about to start!

So how do I decide who’s going to win it all? I watch 20 minutes of SportsCenter, and whichever team discussed sticks in my brain for the next 20 minutes gets my pick. This time, I picked Kentucky. If UConn or Wisconsin (the two schools I always root for) get a number-one seed, I pick them.

That’s it. That’s my entire system. I fill the remainder of my brackets using the following criteria:

1) No, 16-seed has ever beaten a No. 1, so I’ve never pick one. I also rarely pick against a 15-2, though that does happen occasionally.

2) If it’s UConn or Wisconsin, I pick them to win their first game unless that would break Rule 1.

3) If I can’t remember what your initials stand for and you’re an underdog (you’d be surprised how long it took me to remember VCU stands for Virginia Commonwealth University), I don’t pick you.

4) If I think your school name sounds dumb, I don’t pick you. Teams like Western Kentucky and St. Bonaventure never go far on my bracket. San Diego State does go far, but only because I learned how good they are while researching them a bit for my WEEI internship.

5) I generally pick the higher seed to win, but occasionally I pick a well-established basketball program with a lower seed. I picked No. 10 Purdue over No. 7 St. Mary’s for this reason, plus St. Mary’s is an elementary school in my hometown. I just couldn’t imagine 5-year-olds in school uniforms beating Purdue.

6) I choose my first-round winners, then choose my Final Four, championship contenders and winner. I know at least one low-seed team always goes far, so I then go back and somewhat arbitrarily select which semi-crappy team will make some headlines.

7) I spend no more than 10 minutes on this entire process.

And that’s it. Basically, I dance somewhere between cold probability, semi-blind guessing and unfair prejudice. I’ve won a couple pools with this strategy, finished high in the standings a few times and pretty low more than once. I’ve never benefited from a dark horse like Cornell going deep.

But that’s all I’m willing to do. I’m amazed anyone – fan or analyst – is willing to do more. How some people keep track of every conference, every team and every player astounds me. These people can speak intelligently about all 63 March Madness games (67 counting the play-ins).

Maybe those who do this on T.V. just research the specific teams to be discussed in their segments, but plenty of people actually know all the teams. And they learn them without any hope of benefiting beyond their office pool.

I rooted for three teams in the 2012 torunament: Wisconsin, UConn and Harvard. I entered the tournament knowing exactly one player on each team:

• Wisconsin: Jordan Taylor. He’s been the biggest-name Badger for the last couple of seasons, so how could I not?

• UConn: Shabazz Napier. Because once you see read that name once, you never forget it. BTW: if his nickname isn’t “The Rapier,” it really ought to be.

• Harvard: Oliver McNally. After seeing him in a Harvard regular-season game, I made a joke about him that’s still among my favorite DigBoston jokes.

All three teams exited the tournament with me knowing not all that much more about these guys.

I love March Madness. It’s brilliantly constructed, naturally generating forward-momentum and publicity and drawing in an audience that just wants to root for an underdog. The story of how far they go basically sells itself, and all because some teams are noticeably stronger than others.

March Madness gets America through what’s otherwise among the worst sports months of the year. I just occasionally wish sounding knowledgeable about college basketball didn’t require me to actually know quite so much.

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