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Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Field Notes: Avoid multi-bracket buzzkill

By Eamonn Brennan

Still agonizing over your bracket? Field Notes is one college hoops writer's attempt to guide you through the process over the next couple of days. Note: Said writer may or may not have a horrendous recent tourney history, which is why he'll rely so much on advice from others in this series. Consider it a thinking-man's guide to the bracket.

First up: On picking one bracket and one bracket alone.

I like to think of myself as non-judgmental.

In your free time, you like to take photos of your cats and submit them to meme generators. Your favorite movie is "anything with Dwayne Johnson," and you don't mean that ironically. ("What, I like action! So sue me.") You were one of the people outraged about the Arcade Fire winning a Grammy, because you had never heard of the Arcade Fire. You vastly prefer the musical stylings of Justin Bieber. You're Team Jacob. You -- gasp -- like the RPI.

No judgment here. Promise. It's a free country. Culture is yours to consume as you please. That's like, your journey, man.

Which is why you should not take the following words as a lecture. Instead, consider them a friendly nudge in a hopefully positive direction:

When you submit your NCAA tournament pool picks this year, don't fill out more than one NCAA tournament bracket. Make one set of picks. Fill out one master bracket. Choose one path to NCAA tournament glory or scorn.

Trust me: You'll enjoy the process so much more.

Longtime readers of the blog will know I deliver this nudge in some format every year. Repetitive though it may be, this year is no different. In fact, I'd argue that this principle or maxim or screed or whatever you want to call it only gets more important with each passing year. Each year, more people participate in ESPN.com's Tournament Challenge. Each year, more and more people buy more and more shiny devices, and more and more people develop applications for said shiny devices that make it easier and easier to fill out more and more brackets. Each year, the temptation only grows.

Which is why you must be strong. You must persevere. You must fill out on bracket sheet, apply it to every pool you join, and stick with it as the tournament rolls along.

"Hey, Eamonn," you might be asking, "What's the big deal? So I like to fill out 10 different brackets. I'm trying to win this thing! What's the problem with that?"

Well, dear reader, I'm glad you asked. The answer is pretty simple: The more bracket combinations you use, the less fun you will have during the NCAA tournament. And if you can't have fun during the NCAA tournament, what's the point?

If you fill out more than one bracket, you won't have one set of picks to refer to. You'll have 10. Instead of knowing whether you picked Ohio State to make the Final Four and, oh man, George Mason's up by five in the second half, this game's close, I need to turn this on immediately COME ON Buckeyes ... you'll be that guy saying "Well, I took them to win it all in one bracket, but I had them losing in a couple of others, so no big deal." No big deal? Ohio State's down by five! No big deal?!

Instead of knowing you picked Morehead State to upset Louisville, and being either thrilled or crushed with the result, you'll shrug your shoulders and say, "Meh. I had that pick on six sheets, but I should be good on the other four."

Instead of being a college basketball fan, someone who lives and dies with every bounce and break and buzzer-beater, you'll be a college basketball portfolio manager, the type of person who applies the joyless clinical principles of risk aversion to the most joyful, thrilling competition in sports. You'll have taken all the fun out of your March. Why would you consciously do such a thing?

If you're the kind of person who would consider the latter option, you have to ask yourself why. The answer is probably: "Because I want to win a pool. I want to win 'units' from my friends. I want bragging rights. I want to be King of the Mountain." Which is fine, of course. That's why people do pools. But if you fill out five brackets, or 10, and one of them does well, how impressive is that, really? You didn't really win. Your picks weren't actually good. You merely lucked upon one combination of results that happened to work in your favor, most likely at random. Um ... congratulations?

If "units" are your concern, how many brackets will it take you to find a winner? Five? 10? How many "units" are you really going to win? Are you in the NCAA tournament to make marginal gains on your investments? Can't you do that with, like, every other commodity in the entire world? Shouldn't the tournament be an exception?

Compare that attitude to the fan who selects one field and applies it to all his different pools. She still gets the variance of chance from pool to pool, and she still has more than one chance to win. But if she does win, she gets to say she won with her picks. She gets to say she got the field right. She gets legitimate bragging rights.

And if she loses? Well, big deal. In this madcap month, chances are she was going to lose anyway.

Thing is, as cliché as this sounds, unless your team has a legitimate shot to win the national title, the NCAA tournament fan experience is not about winning or losing. The aforementioned fan gets to watch the NCAA tournament with a singular focus in mind. She doesn't have to juggle results. She doesn't have to distribute risk. She gets to enjoy the NCAA tournament and her bracket's place in it with the requisite love this brilliant month demands. She isn't waffling. She isn't equivocating. She isn't desperate for approval. She's just a fan.

Her bracket may be horrible, and it may not win her a thing. But I bet she'll have plenty of fun on the way. Here's another cliché: It's not the destination. It's the journey.

Like I said: I think of myself as non-judgmental. I hope I'm a pretty accepting guy. If you want to treat the NCAA tournament like a commodities derivative, hedging on your risk in the pursuit of one, just one, successful bracket ... well, feel free. That's your call.

In the meantime, the rest of us will be over here enjoying our pools the way they were meant to be enjoyed. We know what our picks are. We're hoping for the best. We're prepared for the worst. We're willing to accept anything in between.

When you react to a thrilling first-round upset with a shrug, when you tell us "had that in a couple of brackets, I think," pardon us if we kindly roll our eyes.

OK, so maybe we are judging you. Just a little. Fact is, you're not very much fun. Frankly, we'd rather listen to Justin Bieber.