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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: An (ex) fan’s notes

by Philip Martin | March 21, 2023 at 4:40 a.m.

My bracket is not quite busted.

That's not to say that I have any hope of winning a big prize, even if the Gonzaga Bulldogs end up cutting down the nets on April 3, but all my final four teams (Marquette, Texas and Alabama are the other three) are still alive as of Sunday morning. I'm still in, but so are millions of others.

I liked it better when we had our office pool, and we all kicked in $5 "donations." We don't do that any more, probably because most of us work remotely now and it was difficult enough to collect from people even when they were available to be glared at. And maybe because the proliferation of online brackets makes it easy to enter a dozen of so in the big payout lottery.

I won't go so far as to declare filling out one's tournament bracket to be another thing the Internet has ruined, but it's a lot more fun to print out a bracket and fill it out by hand. It used to take a couple of hours, if not days, to fill out a bracket. Now I click through it in seconds.

I never won our office pool, but came second or third one year. There was a stretch of three or four years where Karen finished just outside the money.

This always tickled me, because Karen doesn't follow college basketball. (This despite her having done radio color commentary for the Cleveland State Vikings when she was in college.) But she can produce a ballot with a reasonable chance of winning, which is what the numbers next to the school names mean.

Some people pretend that there's a lot of skill involved, but all you really need to know is that a one-seed is supposed to be a lot better than a 15-seed, and that every year somebody is going to shock the world for a week or two.

You just have to pick three or four upsets and hope they hit.

Most years you have to be willing to look dumb to do really well with your bracket, but no one can predict how a bunch of 19- and 20-year-old athletes are going to play from day to day. Apart from a few early-round mismatches, there's not much difference in talent among tournament teams.

Basketball is a game where one player can have an inordinately large effect on a game's outcome (which is why it's more vulnerable to points shaving and out-and-out fixing than other team sports). It doesn't matter how blue your blood is if some some six-foot-something three-star recruit playing for a mid-major hits six three pointers in a row.

So people who pretend there's science and field work involved in picking a good bracket are, at best, self-deluded. But I understand how it happens. My bracket would be in better shape had I picked Arkansas over defending champion Kansas.

It's hard to say why I didn't pick the Hawgs; I genuinely thought they had an excellent chance at beating Kansas after watching the Jayhawks lose to Texas in the Big 12 Championship Game, one of the few non-Arkansas games I'd watched all season. And then I heard some talking head on ESPN say they'd pick Hawgs over Kansas.

But even though my hunch was validated by someone who presumably had watched more than 40 minutes of college basketball before the tournament, I outsmarted myself. I decided the clear-eyed, unsentimental choice was Kansas, that picking Arkansas was a sucker play, wishful and weak. So Kansas went down on the line and my not-quite-busted bracket took a minor hit. I should have gone with my gut.

My secondary bracket, which I filled out in the name of my dog Paris, has Arkansas going to the final four. (In that universe, they lose to Houston.)

It would great to see Arkansas win at least another game in the tournament, setting up a rematch of last year's Sweet 16 contest against Gonzaga. (Which the Hawgs won.) If they get that far, regardless of the damage it would do to my bracket, they might as well go ahead and beat Gonzaga and win another national title. It would make a lot of my friends happy.

This might seem a strange attitude; I am deeply interested in sports, but am not exactly a fan. I like Eric Musselman and the way his teams play, I like the players on this Arkansas team, and to the extent that I follow any college basketball team I follow them, but don't really root for them. It's pleasant when they do well because so many people I know are invested in their fortunes, but I don't suffer when they lose.

I don't root for my alma mater either; in fact, I'm a little embarrassed at their football success. (I know about some of the deep problems plaguing Louisiana State University; they're like the bankrupt guy who has somehow managed to lease a Mercedes G-Class SUV. They only look like they're not in crisis.)

It's interesting that this lack of inherent rooting interest doesn't affect my enjoyment of the games. I can still get emotionally involved. Maybe it helps if I stake something on the game, even if it's only a line on a bracket sheet.

(It's easy to gamble on sports these days; I'm fine with that, even though app-based sports wagering might be the next fentanyl. It's going to be the source of a lot of heartbreak. Use at your own risk.)

I used to think that having covered sports ruined fandom for me, but the truth is probably more prosaic. When I was a kid, I could really delve into my games, and the players hung around longer, both in college and the pros. Plus I didn't have to worry about doing taxes or getting my oil changed. Being a fan takes time and effort; I watched every minute of UCLA's 1969 and 1970 basketball seasons (Steve Patterson played center in the years between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton).

Most people consume sports in bite-sized chunks; they catch highlights and watch YouTube or TikTok clips. I listen to a lot of podcasts; that's where all the smart commentary--the un-Skip Bayless/Stephen A. Smith stuff--seems to have migrated.

Yet I ought to make more effort to watch an actual game.

Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at [email protected]

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