“I’m not a big fan of patterns. I like the unexpected.”---James Purefoy
Predictability in life is essential. A man has to know what to expect from his wife, his family, his job, the traffic lights on his way to work. Society cannot function without a high degree of day-to-day predictability. The train cannot show up at nine a.m. one day and ten a.m. the next, except in Mexico, where they’ve learned to cope. We get a hearty sample of what would happen in an unpredictable society a few times each year when horrendous weather conditions ground thousands of airplanes, leaving hordes of people and countless businesses in a state of temporary turmoil. But predictability can be carried too far. Daily schedules become entrenched. Deviations are cause for fretting. Life becomes rote, a circular pathway to boredom and depression. We need to shake it up now and then, which is why somebody invented weekends. At five o’clock each Friday afternoon, the Green Flag is waved from the tower and everyone races off to get crazy for awhile. Some of them turn to sports.
One of the things we like about sports is their unpredictability. Despite all logic, impossible results sometimes occur. Once every five years, Alabama will lose a football game or Tom Brady will be intercepted. And the champion of all upset possibilities is the annual NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, aka “March Madness,” occurring now at an arena near you. This multi-faceted affair starts out with almost six dozen college teams contending for glory and winding up with one eventual winner. In the process of funnelling, unforeseen and unlikely things can happen. Things like these:
In 1966, the University of Kentucky basketball team was ascendant under legendary coach Adolph Rupp. Rupp could spot the most talented players in the country a mile away and he cajoled many of them into joining him for tea and crumpets in Lexington. Well, the white ones, anyway. Rupp was an admitted racist who, for all his roundball acumen, could not discern the future and he paid a price for his failings. Don Haskins, the future Hall of Fame coach at little Texas Western (now the University of Texas at El Paso) had no such inhibitions. His all-black starting five, heavy underdogs to “Rupp’s Runts,” saw the Confererate flags all over Cole Field House at the University of Maryland where the championship game was played, but they just snickered. Texas Western, 72-65.
In 1983, North Carolina State had lost 10 regular season games and nobody expected them to reach the Elite Eight, let alone the championship game. But there they were, under star-crossed coach Jim Valvano, winners of the prestigious ACC Tournament and now advancing in the NCAA past Pepperdine, Virginia and Georgia in tight games.
The top-ranked Houston Cougars—known as Phi Slamma Jamma to their friends---were cocky, and with good reason. They were led by dunkmeister Akeem Olajuwon, who predicted “The team with the most dunks will win.” They almost did. NC State had to overcome a 17-2 Houston run at the start of the second half to tie the game at 52 with two minutes left. It looked like overtime when the Wolfpack’s Dereck Whittenburg fired up the last shot of regulation and saw it falling far short of the rim, but Lorenzo Charles went up, grabbed the ball and slammed it in with one second left. North Carolina State 54, Houston 52. When Valvano, riddled with cancer, made his famous “Don’t ever give up” speech several years later, people listened. He had walked the walk.
In 1985, Georgetown whacked St. John’s in the Big East Championship game, 92-80, the Hoyas’ second straight league tournament championship. Villanova, the lowly eight seed in the Southeast Regional, had never cracked the top 20 all year and lost to Georgetown twice in the process. GT was coached by the legendary John Thompson and led on the court by future NBA superstar Patrick Ewing. Made no difference. The Wildcats, playing on April Fool’s Day, led 29-28 at the half and Georgetown kept waiting for the joke to end. In the second half, Villanova missed only ONE shot from the floor for an unheard-of shooting percent of 78, and this against the best defensive team in the nation. Some days are diamonds, some days are stones. Villanova, 66-64.
In 1991, the University of Nevada Las Vegas Runnin’ Rebels were considered unbeatable, even in the briar patch called the NCAA Tournament. The defending champions had not lost all season and were rarely challenged. In the semifinals, they were facing Duke, a team they had mortared by 30 points in the previous year’s final, scoring a giddy 103 in the bargain. The Blue Devils decided to slow the game down. Good idea. UNLV was frustrated and unused to close games. Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley played brilliantly for Duke and UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian admitted his team had noone who could handle Laettner inside. “In last year’s game, we were intimidated,” said Duke’s Thomas Hill. “This year, we knew what we were facing and we were determined not to back down.” Duke 79-77. The following year, Duke repeated. The Devils’ 104-103 win over Kentucky in the semis is still considered by many to be the greatest college game of all time, Laettner hitting a long jump shot as time expired.
In 1993, the 15th-seeded Santa Clara Broncos, described by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as “a motley jumble of eggheads, surfers and imports,” were 20-point underdogs against Arizona in the first round of the West Regional in Salt Lake City. The Broncos, who survived almost being evicted from their hotel were unranked with a 19-11 record. Unfortunately for Arizona, one of their surfer eggheads was Steve Nash, who later enjoyed great prominence in the National Basketball Association and coaches there still. Santa Clara 64-61.
Meanwhile, Back in 2017….
It’s been a quiet year for upsets in this year’s tournament, but there have been a few. On Saturday, the lightly-regarded South Carolina Gamecocks overcame a big first-half lead by Duke, slipping by the Devils, 88-81 before a screaming, jubilant home crowd in Greenville, South Carolina, less than 100 miles from their Columbia campus. That sounds odd. Generally, the higher-ranked teams enjoy the comforts of home during the first weekend, so what happened here?
Well, HB2 happened in North Carolina, that’s what. The so-called “bathroom bill,” which Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has called “stupid—I’d get rid of it” prompted the NCAA to move a regional slated for Greensboro, North Carolina, out of the state. The change of venue almost certainly cost Duke the game and came close to taking the University of North Carolina down with it. The Tarheels barely got by Arkansas with a strong finish in an earlier game.
The television game announcers were not shy about discussing the situation, claiming “what’s important is that everyone feels welcome here. EVERYONE feels welcome here.”
Maybe basketball fans in North Carolina who can abide losing venues will feel a little differently about being swallowed up by underdogs in the NCAA Tournament.
The music business has its “crossover hits,” tunes so gigantically popular they jump the boundaries of their genre and grab the attention of the rest of the world, which is probably the only reason I ever heard of Tone Loc and The Funky Cold Medina. This happens in sports, too, with football’s Super Bowl, horseracing’s Kentucky Derby and bicycling’s Tour de France. For basketball, it’s the NCAA Tournament and The Filling Out of The Brackets.
The sixty-eight tournament teams arrive either by virtue of winning their regular-season league titles, their conference tournaments or selection by an elite committee of basketball afficionados. There are four “play-in” games in which marginal teams battle for the right to be dismembered by Number One seeds, and then the real fun starts. The sixty-four remaining teams are pared to sixteen the first weekend, then four the next. The Final Four butt heads for supremacy a week later. At the outset of the tournament, the brackets appear—giant diagrams which list all the matches, dates and times of the games and where they will be played. The mission for those who choose to accept it is to select the winners of every game. This, of course, has never been done in all the history of Bracketology, nor has anyone ever come close. This does not stop millions of people from trying, for there are prizes to be won from the likes of ESPN, other television entities, sports radio and even your local BarBQ ranch. If you are an employee of Warren Buffet, he will award you a hunk of money just for getting the final “Sweet Sixteen” correct. The exact odds of a perfect score are one in 9.2 quintillion, if you were wondering. You are more likely to suffer an excruciating bout of yaws, become the next Dalai Lama, find the occupants of a UFO wandering around in your back yard or die from incorrectly using products made for left-handed people than you are to fill out a perfect bracket.
Office pools across the country expect no such miracles. They grade on the curve and the payoff goes either to the entrant who selects the winner of the most games or who earns the highest number of points, more points being awarded progressively for the later games. Overall, 40 million Americans will fill out a bracket, which even includes the president. Well, usually. This year’s president balked when he was told he would have to use a pen and not a pencil with a big eraser. Most contestants fill out two brackets, the average bet being $29. All this business got started in 1977 at a neighborhood beer joint called Jody’s Club Forest in New York’s Staten Island. The first year, 80 people participated in a $10-an-entry, winner-take-all format. By 2006, Jody’s had 150,000 entries and the pot reached $1.5 million. One of the winners had the bad form to report his good fortune on his income tax papers and the IRS went ballistic, racing in to threaten the bar’s owner with prison for tax evasion. Only a deathbed request by a former Staten Island district attorney kept the beleaguered Jody Haggerty out of jail. The bar is still around but nobody over there wants to talk about NCAA brackets any more.
Druid Priest Oscar Brock, Master of Predicting the Future. We think.
The Scientific Approach
If all this hodgepodge of teams and games is too much for your tiny brain to decipher but you feel an obligation to your office pool, take heart. Druid priest Oscar D. Brock of New Orleans offers an Alternate Plan. He casts ogham sticks to receive the stars’ reading on each of the games. This usually takes about 2 1/2 hours, but what’s another 2 1/2 hours in meshugenah Jackson Square?
In this ancient practice, Brock holds 24 ogham sticks to his chest with his right hand before tossing them onto a card table. After landing, the sticks (which are a little larger than toothpicks and include carved Gaelic letters and inscriptions) are observed, with the pile’s left side given prominence. For each reading, Brock takes the names of the various schools competing and pairs a numeric value to a team’s name and the letters present on the sticks. The team with the best total wins that game, or so says Oscar. He admits it’s not an exact science but it is, he assures us, one of the most ancient sciences known to man. It is only fair to report that Oscar lives in a modest residence and there are no Lamborghinis in his driveway.
Some people use ouija boards, bet the team with the most syllables in its name, choose the better mascot or the school with the happier colors. This sort of stuff might work for your Aunt Rosie at the race track, where there are only ten or twelve horses in each race, but it stumbles in this cacophony of 68 teams. Maybe we should go with Jonathan Templin, associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Kansas, where they know a little bit about basketball. Templin has used his statistical expertise to come up with a model for predicting winners based on a wealth of data accumulated throughout the BB season. “In statistics,” says the prof, “we’re not just interested in the prediction but how accurate the prediction is. This model takes uncertainty and predicts how far off it is from the average with the same factors that predict the score.” In KU’s final game of the regular season against Oklahoma State, Templin’s model predicted a final score of 87-85, Kansas. The Jayhawks won the game, 90-85.
“The way it works is, essentially, when a team plays at home they get the advantage of scoring a few more points and giving up a few less than their opponents. Each team has its own version of the home effect.” Well, that’s just dandy, Professor, but most of the NCAA Tournament games are on neutral ground. What do we do now? We use Standard Deviations, says the man. Poor teams can be as many as 2.23 standard deviations worse than average teams. Florida was top-rated at the end of the season, followed by Kansas, Gonzaga, Villanova, Maryland, UCLA, Saint Mary’s, Arizona, Louisville and Notre Dame. That doesn’t mean that they are necessarily the best teams but rather that they are the best at consistently matching their positive offensive and defensive outputs. In essence, the model blends team strengths with team consistency. Templin’s method seems to have arrived at most of the best teams and could probably be used with a reasonable degree of success. When push comes to shove, however, we’re going with those ogham sticks. As all of us Irishmen know, it never pays to ignore Gaelic inscriptions.
The gongs are clanging and that means we’re drawing down to the Big Day when Bill gets his cataract surgery. The right eye gets sliced into on March 30th, the left at a time to be determined. The 30th being a Thursday, The Flying Pie will appear on Wednesday next week, always assuming I can still see by then. The overwhelming variety and schedule of eyedrops may leave me blind by that time or uncomfortably goggle-eyed. If I have to write with the left eye only, I’m afraid the column could turn out excessively socialistic, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Anyway, there’s Good News to report. Dr. Hunt tells me I will absolutely require a shiny new eyepatch to protect the right eye during the night, but just to be on the safe side I might wear it in the daytime, too. I’m practicing my pirate lingo and looking through eBay’s offerings for a used peg leg (the new ones cost a fortune). I’m a little concerned that the other pirates won’t take me seriously with a brand new eyepatch so I’m looking for ways to rough it up a little bit, sorta like the tweeners do with their new jeans. I mean, nobody wants to be the butt of pirate jokes. So I’ll see you all next Wednesday, figuratively, if not literally. I’m looking forward to finally being able to read the small print. Who knows what I’ve gotten myself into over the past few years?
That’s all, folks….