It’s March Madness, one of my favorite times of the year, and I’ve got a problem. It began with Warren Buffett. Have you heard of Buffett’s billion dollar bracket challenge? It’s the gimmicky—and brilliant—stunt wherein anyone who signs up simply fills out an NCAA tournament bracket and, if they happen to guess every single correct result, gets paid a flat billion dollars. Well, Carolyn and I caught wind of this (it’s been big news), and despite the long odds, we figured we’d give it a shot. Besides, I was going to fill out a bracket anyway—why not rise to Buffett’s bait?
So we both made our selections, taking care to distinguish our picks at various stages in the tournament in an attempt to hedge out bets. (If one of us missed a pick, our thinking went, at least the other would have guessed correctly.) Things started off well (for me) in the first game of the day when Dayton, seeded eleventh and a decided underdog, beat Ohio State on a last second shot. I say this result went well for me because, while I had predicted the correct outcome, Carolyn, sadly, had not. (This was one of the choices we hedged on.) After the very first game of the round of 64, Carolyn was out of contention for the billion dollar grand prize.
The next two games were blowouts, and they both accorded nicely with my choices. Wisconsin, after falling behind early, crushed American by 40 points, and Pittsburgh dismantled Colorado by 29. After three games, I was 3-0—with just 60 more games to go, I was confident I would at least make a run at the billion.
And then it all came crashing down. Twelfth-seeded Harvard—of course, Harvard*—upset fifth-seeded Cincinnati in the East region, which I had not predicted, and suddenly my dream of accepting a billion-dollar check from Warren Buffett was crushed. (All those charitable donations I would have made! All the live baseball I could have attended!) It had lasted approximately four hours.
Now, as you probably are aware, Warren Buffett is not a stupid man, and he has not become one of the richest men in the world by giving away money for free.** Our fervent hopes notwithstanding, no one was ever going to actually succeed in filling out a perfect bracket. The chances of that happening were, mathematically speaking, exceedingly slim.
But as it turned out, there was another element to Buffett’s challenge which I had not picked up on before submitting my bracket. Just when I had resigned myself to my usual March routine of watching my bracket crumble with no financial ramifications whatsoever, I discovered that Buffett’s challenge carried another promise: for those who finished in the top twenty—i.e., for the most accurate twenty brackets in America—there would be a cash prize of $100,000. When I learned this, I got a little excited. For one thing, $100,000 is nothing to sneeze at. For another, removing the absurd requirement of perfection made winning (at least in my mind) slightly more attainable. After all, with solid basketball knowledge (which I assured myself I possessed), and a little luck, why shouldn’t I be in the top twenty?
Perhaps at this point I should mention that I consider myself to be fairly well-informed when it comes to college basketball. I grew up in a college town, in Big Ten country, and I am a devoted fan of Iowa and Arizona basketball.† I also just plain love the game, and would watch March Madness obsessively even if Iowa and Arizona finished their seasons with not a single win between them. (Obligatory college-sports-related caveat: Do I love the game? Yes. Do I love the NCAA and the pernicious effects of big-time college sports? Generally, no. This is hypocritical, sure, but that’s a longer subject for another post, which may perhaps include the crazy news out of Northwestern that broke today.) In any event, I sometimes convince myself that I have the chops to fill out a decently accurate bracket. As if filling out brackets was a matter of expertise.
Of course, as most people well know, knowledge has little to do with it. My confidence is a delusion.
In reality, March Madness is a fantastic, riveting event because it hinges a team’s survival on a string of individual games. This means that a team which under most circumstances would lose can win in a shocking upset if just a few variables swing its way. On any given night, as they say, anything can happen. Maybe a team that, on paper, can’t shoot worth a dime can’t miss in the second half; maybe a higher-ranked team’s star player gets injured; maybe, for whatever reason, the balls just bounce the underdog’s way in crucial situations. (As a side note, this is why in the NBA and in other professional sports leagues, playoffs are made up of best-of-seven series—to make sure the unpredictable elements of sports get ironed out through repetition; to heighten the probability that the better team wins.) Unlike, say, wrestling, or tennis, where the higher-ranked competitor almost always prevails, even the best college basketball teams can be vulnerable under the right conditions.
The bottom line is that, if we’re being rational, it’s a fool’s errand to try to predict NCAA tournament results. But that’s never stopped me in the past (nor has it stopped the millions who fill out brackets every year). Heck, it’s no accident they call it March Madness. Now, with $100,000 on the line, I’m as confident as ever in my abilities (ha!). As it stands, I’ve correctly guessed 38 out of 48 games, which puts me six points behind the 20th-best bracket on Buffett’s list.†† Not an insurmountable gap; I just know I can still make up the difference.
There’s one last problem, though. In the championship game of my bracket, I’ve picked Arizona and Michigan State to meet. So far, those picks have held up; both teams have looked, at times, like the favorites to win it all. I love Arizona. They’re my team. I would be thrilled if they made the championship game. And yet, somehow, for reasons that seem unfathomable to me now, I made the mistake of picking Michigan State over my Wildcats. This means that if things pan out the way I want them to, I may have to make a choice: $100,000 or a championship for my alma mater. Goodness gracious, what have I done?
* I’m not sure why I wrote the “of course, Harvard” bit, but it just seems appropriate.
** As many have noted, Buffett’s scheme was actually quite brilliant. In exchange for the promise of a huge sum of money (a promise which mathematically would almost certainly not be honored), his company, Quicken Loans, received excessive amounts of publicity and, more importantly, millions of free, high-quality leads. In order to sign up for the challenge you had to disclose personal information, including your email address, phone number, age, and marital status—information that happens to be highly sought-after by mortgage lending companies who want to get a foot in the door with potential homebuyers. And Buffett got all this information from millions of potential clients—some estimate the leads could be worth hundreds of dollars per client—for essentially nothing.
† Iowa and Arizona have both been involved in the tournament this year, with Iowa going down to Tennessee in the play-in game last Wednesday, and Arizona currently alive in the Sweet 16 after blowing out Gonzaga last Sunday night.
†† The competition awards points for every correct prediction. Lower-round games are worth fewer points than higher-round games—specifically, a correct first-round prediction is worth 1 point, a second-round prediction is worth 2 points, a third-round prediction is worth 4 points, and so on, with the most valuable pick being the national champion. This means that if my picks are all correct, and other competitors miss just one higher-round pick, I can make up the distance pretty fast.