Bracket Busters

Matthew Esarte, Junior Analyst

When most people think about March, they think about spring, flowers, sunshine, and the end of the cold weather brought about by the winter season. But when basketball fans, like me, think about March, we think of a time of some of the greatest joy and some of the most devastating heartbreak known to man. I’m talking about March Madness, of course, and yes my bracket is almost irreversibly busted at this point. My pick of the 7th seeded Cincinnati Bearcats to the Final 4 did not age well, nor did my selection of the 13 seed, the UC-Irvine Anteaters, to the Elite 8 (the teams lost in the first and second rounds, respectively). As a self-defined college basketball expert, seeing my name all the way down in 9th in my friends’ bracket group hurts my ego a bit, but always accompanying March is the inevitable feeling of watching your slept-on, underrated underdog who you’re sure is going to win at least two games lose by 20 in the first round. It’s hard enough to pick ⅔ of the games right, much less get them all correct–but this year might be the tournament that gives us a perfect bracket. A 40-year old man from Ohio has correctly picked each of the first 48 games in the tournament, making my failures all the more unwelcome. And as he gets more and more press, his success gets rubbed in the rest of the fandom’s collective face a little bit more.


So, I’m going to explore what went wrong for the millions of people who don’t have a perfect bracket; the ones who took that underdog all the way, and lost big. Some are losing money, others pride, but the one thing we all have in common is that March Madness kicked our butts yet again.


We’ll start with one bracket that I’ve been hearing a lot about recently–my brother’s. He’s a freshman at BHS, and was in first place in our bracket pool until the third day of the tournament. He was flaunting it to me pretty excessively, so it did feel a little nice to see him slip to a distant fourteenth after the second round, but there’s always sympathy to be reserved for a fellow fallen soldier. So what was his crucial error? The East and West regions of his bracket are almost flawless, with only three missed selections in the 24 games held thus far in those regions. But the South and Midwest regions are where it falls apart–his four elite 8 and two final 4 picks have both already made an early exit. And it’s not like he picked a 16 seed to win it all–6 seed Villanova and 4 seed Kansas were accepted as fair picks to make a run in the pre-tournament chatter. Villanova has had a history of success in the tourney, has two seniors who can light it up in Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, and had just won the Big East tournament.  Kansas, meanwhile, has a bona fide stud in forward Dedric Lawson, who leads a team full of five-star recruits–and if they had won just two games, would’ve been playing with basically a home court advantage in Kansas City for the next two. So what happened? (3) Purdue and (5) Auburn blew out Nova and Kansas, respectively, in the second rounds. Nicholas made the fatal error of riding teams with fatal flaws–in this case, the teams’ inability to get a stop on the defensive end. Their opponents ended up combining for a whopping 176 points in the second round, with Purdue guard Carsen Edwards hanging 42 (with NINE three pointers) on the helpless Wildcats, and Auburn shooting a scorching 53% from the field while getting all but one of their regular rotation players a bucket.


“Upon reaching the fifth take of my bracket, I was completely demoralized and had reached a stage of depression I couldn’t escape. To be honest, I have no idea why I picked Kansas. Maybe it was a spring break high,” Esarte said.


Losing big on one or two picks is just one way you can bust, though. Missing a lot of little picks, like first and second rounders, can put you in a hole that’s just too deep to get out of. Take junior Sam Woodhouse, for example. Each of his final four picks–Michigan State, Gonzaga, Virginia and North Carolina–have survived to the sweet 16, but Woodhouse is tied for eleventh in his bracket pool. Looking at his bracket, there’s a lot of white (signifying potential points that could be earned if games are predicted correctly) but the red (incorrect pick) almost outnumbers the green (correct pick). First round picks of (5) Wisconsin and (4) Kansas State to beat (12) Oregon and (13) UC-Irvine, respectively, stand out, as pretty much any informed analyst was predicting those upsets to happen. K-State was missing star forward Dean Wade, and Oregon was red hot, coming off a Pac-12 tournament title that came on the back of a nine game winning streak in which the Ducks’ defense proved to be lockdown. However, Woodhouse stuck with the higher seeded teams, and it came back to bite him, as Oregon and UC-Irvine extended their respective winning streaks to 10 and 17 games. Woodhouse also leaned too heavily on the 7 over 2 seed upset in the second round, picking 7 seeds Nevada and Cincinnati to defeat Michigan and Tennessee, respectively, and advance to the Elite 8. Both teams lost in the first round, and both 2 seeds are currently in the Sweet 16. Here we see a combination of the two things that most do people in–too much chalk, and too many upsets.


“The 7 seeds looked great this year, but unfortunately, the 7 seeds played a lot like Adrio Bailey,” Woodhouse said. For the uninitiated, Adrio Bailey is an Arkansas forward who managed to foul almost as much as he got rebounds this year (2.6 per game to 2.9 per game). And yeah, that about describes it. Cincy’s normally stout defense allowed Iowa to carve them up, and Nevada’s fast paced offensive attack could only put up 61 points on Florida. That’s just how it goes sometimes.


But of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t speak to the failures of my own bracket. With 152 potential points, I have the least points to be earned of the fifteen people in my pool. My mistake was a classic error–taking too many upsets. Highlights include 11th seeded Belmont taking down 6th seeded Maryland (a 79-77 win for Maryland) and (14) Yale defeating (3) LSU, which in reality was a 79-74 victory for the Tigers. Of course, if Yale didn’t have a historically bad performance from deep–going only 8/37 from beyond the arc for a 37% three point shooting team is the definition of Madness–they might have been able to pull it out. If you couldn’t tell, yes, I am still mad about it. And we can’t forget about my questionable support for UC-Irvine, as previously alluded to. I had them taking down (4) Kansas State, (12) Oregon, and (1) Virginia–yes, that’s right, the one seed in the region–to advance to the elite 8 before bowing out to (7) Cincinnati. Oh yeah! I also picked Cincy to the Final Four, which…didn’t turn out well. (6) Buffalo didn’t end up making an Elite 8 run either–they were blown out by 20 points to (3) Texas Tech in the second round. All those losses has not added up to a great bracket, which is why it’s sometimes a good strategy to, ya know, pick the better teams to win. Revolutionary, right? But sometimes you get lost in the Madness, and some years, that’s the best way to do it.


To be fair (to me), though, we’ve seen an unusually easy bracket to predict this year. All four one, two, and three seeds have advanced to the Sweet 16 for only the second time in tournament history, and two four seeds have also made it–meaning fourteen of the sixteen favorites have done what they’re supposed to do, which almost never happens. The normal madness that happens just wasn’t in the cards. But excuses don’t spare me, or the millions who filled out a bracket, the pain of seeing your national champion take an L to a 16 seed in the first round (here’s hoping you’re over it, Virginia). Even so, the exhilarating highs and lows of the tournament will keep us all coming back next year–and the years after that.