NCAA tournament: Will bigger field scare folks out of the pools?

March 13, 2011

The NCAA men’s basketball tournament field will be announced at 6 p.m. Sunday night, the official opening bell for the spring rite known as March Madness.

For the past quarter-century, the tournament bracket — a study in right angles and symmetry — has appealed to casual and hard-core fans alike because of its simplicity: 64 teams playing down to two over the course of three weeks.

Over the 31 / 2 days between the bracket’s unveiling Sunday evening and the start of play Thursday at noon, lawyers and construction workers joined high school students and retirees in scribbling their predictions on Xeroxed copies of the bracket, usually in the hope of winning a little money from their colleagues.

This year, much to the chagrin of pool organizers nationwide, the process will not be nearly so neat.

Over the summer, in an effort to generate more money in the form of additional television inventory, the NCAA decided to add three teams to what had been since 2001 a 65-team field. At first glance, the result means three additional games, to be played Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Practically speaking, it means confusion:

Should the extra results count in the pools? Do players have to complete their prognostications by Tuesday evening, rather than Thursday at noon? Should those four results be ignored altogether?

“Bracket pools are the lifeblood of what is the greatest event in America sports. They are the oxygen that fuels March Madness,” said Don Ventre, a 42-year-old Washington television director who has run his pool with close to 150 participants for two decades. “The move to 68 has just caused a world of problems. This is all formula either for chaos or simply a lack of participation. And a lack of participation in office pools could spell the downfall of this unique, fantastic event.”

Office pools, despite the warnings of law enforcement officials, are among the country’s most popular illegal activities. The FBI estimates that roughly $2.5 billion is gambled on the NCAA tournament, and only $80 million is bet legally through Nevada sports books. A good portion of the rest takes the form of $5 or $10 entry fees to participate in a bracket-pick NCAA tournament pool.

“One of the key components that March Madness has going for it is familiarity,” said Tim Moyer, who runs the blog March 24 7. “Everyone knows the jingle CBS plays coming and going from commercial breaks. Everyone knows the nicknames for each round — Sweet 16, Elite Eight, etc. Most of all, everyone knows the bracket.”

The perfect symmetry of the 64-team bracket — four regions, each with 16 seeds — was blemished when the NCAA added a 65th team to the field in 2001, resulting in a play-in game on the Tuesday night before play began in earnest. Some fans griped, but most discounted the extra game because it pitted two of the least-regarded teams in the field, with the winner earning the right to play one of the tournament’s four top seeds in the first round.

This year, the three additional teams means there will now be four games playing into the main 64-team bracket. And while two of them can be ignored as competitively insignificant because the winners almost certainly will be pummeled in the next round, the other two will pit higher-caliber teams, such as Michigan State or Villanova, against each other for spots in the main bracket as Nos. 11 or 12 seeds.

Experienced pool players know such teams cannot be so easily dismissed. After all, George Mason was a No. 11 seed when it won four games in the 2006 tournament to reach the Final Four. And picking at least one No. 12 seed to win in the first round is staple of experienced pool players. Thirty-five No. 12 seeds have won a game since 1985 — when the tournament expanded to 64 teams — and in 2009 three of the four No. 12 seeds won in the first round.

This leaves pool organizers wondering how to handle such games, which many are referring to derisively as P.I.Gs.

Some are imposing a close-of-business Tuesday deadline and counting all play-in games. Turner Sports, which now has the television rights to the tournament along with CBS, declared Monday to be National Bracket Day and is urging everyone to complete brackets before the play-in games. But ESPN.com, which has staged a bracket contest on its Web site since 1998, established a Thursday deadline for all entries, as has The Washington Post for its Bracket Challenge.

The issue with a Tuesday deadline, says West Coast Web site designer and independent analyst David Mihm, is that a lot of people “actually enjoy the mental anguish associated with the ability to change their picks right up until noon on Thursday.”

There is no universal deadline or generally understood scoring system any more.

There is “a lot of confusion,” said Annapolis resident Matt Blaney, who runs a decade-old pool called The $heriff’s NCAA tournament Challenge. “This changes everything.”

Consider Michael Williams, a lawyer with Kirkland & Ellis in Washington, and his family pool, “The Rocco Invitational,” named after his then-1-year-old who correctly picked eventual champion North Carolina. Eight bracketologists, ranging from 5 months to 11 years old, take this seriously. They are high on San Diego State because Diego is Dora the Explorer’s cousin. Montana is a noted sleeper because of Hannah Montana. And Butler remains a popular pick because some cartoons feature manservants.

“As one of the poor volunteers who is trying to run a tournament pool, the new system creates too much uncertainty,” Williams said. “It was already hard enough to get participants to submit their picks by the start of play. With new questions about how to score the play-in games, everything has gotten even more complicated.”

Stephanie Crowe is a Minneapolis librarian who coordinates an office pool — winner gets a collection of chocolates — with many casual participants who pick teams based on the ferocity of the team’s mascot — i.e. UC Irvine Anteaters over the Stanford tree — or the uniform color scheme.

“I don’t believe the casual fan even knows these additional play-in games exist,” said Dave Weifenbaugh, a Duquesne student who refers to himself as an “expert bracketologist.” “I am intrigued to see how three other games are going to fit on one sheet of paper!”

While most are thankful that the NCAA did not expand the tournament to 96 teams — which was rumored and panned — they acknowledge that the bracket pool has irrefutably changed.

“I think we’d all agree that 64 was the perfect number,” said college basketball enthusiast Casey York, “but once it hit 65 and now 68, brackets will never be the same.”

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