Liberate yourself from March Madness brackets

By abandoning the delusion that I could predict the outcome, I was able to revel in unpredictability

This year, for the first time in a long while, I chose not to fill out an NCAA “March Madness” basketball tournament bracket. I am a man without a prize pool, zero chance at a $20,000 Best Buy gift card (ESPN), a trip to next year's Final Four (CBS), $50,000 in cash (Yahoo) or a round of drinks (my neighborhood friends).

Here's why I abstained and why, in the future, you should too.

First, it's impossible to fill out a perfect bracket. The chances of guessing the outcome of all 63 matchups correctly is, by most estimates, 1 in 9.2 quintillion, which sounds like a fake number. (A Duke professor has said it's actually more like 1 in 2.4 trillion. Does that make you feel any better?) You may understand that rationally, but when you spend time agonizing over your bracket, a part of you begins to believe that the unknowable is, in fact, knowable. With Oscar pools, you have a real chance of nailing each guess. Not so with March Madness.

Second, I wanted to spend more time watching basketball and less time examining the often minute differences among the many “professional” brackets filled out by “experts.” The data-analysis site FiveThirtyEight gave Kentucky a 41% chance of winning it all, while Power Rank gave that team a 37.6% chance (same as TeamRankings.com). Those slightly different numbers only confirmed what we already knew about Kentucky: Going in to the tournament it was the overwhelming favorite.

Of course the conventional wisdom turned out to be wrong. Wisconsin upset Kentucky on Saturday night.

Third, bracket contests aren't as fun as they used to be. Some years back, I ran the office pool at a media company and saw firsthand how some very smart people who knew little about college basketball made their picks. There was a palpable sense of randomness and spontaneity: Some went by jersey color, some by athletes' names, and some picked their alma mater to go all the way in a fit of irrational pride.

Today, the pervasiveness of the aforementioned expert brackets has homogenized the selection process. People who don't know anything about basketball, instead of going with blue-and-gold and that guy with the great hair, check FiveThirty-
Eight to better their chances at winning a gift certificate to Target. This season, Kentucky was selected to win in more than half of all ESPN brackets. That's right, millions of Americans actually agreed on something. And that's boring.

I've truly enjoyed watching this tournament. Since play began in March, there have been plentiful close calls and upsets. There were five one-point victories on the first day (an all-time tournament record).

But March Madness has always been tumultuous. What made 2015 special was that I didn't fill out a bracket. By abandoning the delusion that I could predict the outcome, I was able to revel in unpredictability. I can't promise that I'll never fill out a bracket ever again. If I relapse in 2016, though, I'll probably rely on jersey color for my picks.

Erik Malinowski is a freelance sports journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Twitter: @erikmal

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8:49 p.m.: This article was updated to include Wisconsin's victory over Kentucky.

This article was first posted at 11:33 a.m.

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