This is truly the most wonderful time of the year, when people ignore their work duties and family obligations long enough to fill out their NCAA bracket. I celebrated the bracket unveiling that represents the official start of March Madness in lovely Madison, Wisconsin - a big college town where people were really excited about the possibilities that this year’s NCAA tournament presented.

My sure-to-be-successful bracket this year wasn’t my official reason for visiting that area; I was there for the wedding of my girlfriend’s cousin. It’s the kind of social occasion that I only consider attending in cases where there will be an open bar in an interesting city full of great eating and drinking establishments. This wedding met these stringent qualifications, so I decided to skip the Chanute Pub Crawl this year to do a little crawling of my own at a matrimonial celebration in Madison.

Amidst the wedding festivities and the requisite visits to various drinking establishments that accompany those, I noticed that the enthusiasm residents of that city display for their local college basketball team at least rival the love for local teams that I see displayed here in Kansas. Madison also features annoying weather changes, plenty of heavy drinkers, and a newly reelected Republican governor best known for making a never-ending series of misguided economic cuts to vital government services. So it could really make any Kansas resident feel at home.

Madison is where I chose to start the laborious process of trying to meet my lifelong goal of filling out the perfect NCAA bracket. This is never an easy process, particularly for the majority of us who haven’t seen most of these teams play in a whole game yet. Most people who are filling out brackets this year don’t have the free time necessary to check out many tournament entrants who earned spots by winning relatively dinky conferences like the Sun Belt or the Southland.

Even distinguished and highly-paid local journalists like me haven’t done enough studying in putting together a bracket, as I haven’t watched near as much college basketball this year as I have in the past. When I was covering sports full-time, it was easy to tune into games featuring the Jayhawks, Wildcats or Shockers and convince myself that watching the contest was a part of my professional duty. Now that I cover the very different contact-sport of local politics, I haven’t watched much college basketball at all beyond televised barroom background noise and an occasional stray glance at Sports Center highlights.

Pessimists would suggest that might put a dent in my plans for the perfect bracket. If I was really worried about that, I suppose I could read what a bunch of alleged college basketball experts pen about these games and just cheat and steal all of their picks. However, I’ve noticed that those guys don’t have a much higher rate of success at predicting these games’ turnout than I do. Besides, going by their instinctual guesswork would be less fun than depending on my own.

Concentrating on my bracket this week, until it inevitably gets ripped to shreds to such a degree that I no longer care about it (this typically happens by the end of the first weekend of the tournament.) would seemingly provide a nice break from my journalistic obsession with the ins and outs and mathematical possibilities of the upcoming elections. However, I keep thinking of how building a bracket is just like figuring out which candidate to support in the voting booth. In both an NCAA bracket and an election ballot, we try to identify who is the most likely to be successful. Since our knowledge of both college basketball and local politics is somewhat limited, we try to do this by balancing what we know about a participants’ past experience with our own personality quirks, preferences, and ingrained prejudices. This tends to yield mixed results in both cases, as our instincts sometimes tend to be accurate and other times lead us in quite the wrong direction. This kind of dynamic is what makes both election results and the NCAA tournament so interesting.

It’s not a perfect analogy, partially because we can interact with local political candidates far more often than we can with elite basketball coaches and players. Surely a lot of us base our opinion of political candidates on those personal interactions. If a candidate yells at me or doesn’t want to answer a simple question, I might not be prone to vote for them. Of course, I don’t know what effect it would have on my bracket if some elite basketball coach or player yelled at me or didn’t want to answer my simple questions. If it was a coach or a player from Kentucky or Duke or one of those other schools that basketball fans in this area are well-trained not to like, I might consider that a badge of honor.

In any case, I will be spending the next couple of weeks obsessed with brackets and ballots. Here’s to hoping that people in this area do a good job at making selections on both.

Please send all questions, comments, hate mail, marriage proposals and requests to have me help to fill out your bracket or your election ballot to brian@chanute.com.

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