March. My absolute favorite month. The reason is simple, just 4 letters:
If you know only a handful of things about me, you'll know that I only drink Coke, I love pizza, and that come Tournament time, don't even think about bothering me for 3 weeks. Unless we're talking college hoops, we're probably not talking about anything.
I've always loved March Madness (copyright, Indiana High School Athletic Association/NCAA), filling out brackets for as long as I can remember. I grew up a fan of the Big East, biased by my parents' alma maters (Seton Hall, Villanova), and through most of high school always thought I'd end up at UConn, or somewhere else in the Big East. Obviously that changed, and I went to Maryland, and that's where my March stories really kick in.
Until you've been to a Final Four that your team is playing in, you have not lived.
I'm serious. I can count on one hand the number of things I'm most proud of that I've accomplished, and even though I had NOTHING to do with the Terps' success on the court, going to the Final Four, and watching my team win a National Championship, is one of the great highlights of my life. It also marked the first time I had ever won any sort of Tournament pool, as I clearly had Maryland in a bee-line to the Championship.
I fastidiously studied each of the then 65 Tournament teams, watching countless hours of Big 10, Big East, Big 12, and PAC 10 games. I knew everything that was going on in the ACC. I would have been more proud to scored perfectly on my bracket than to have achieved a 1600 on my SAT (and I think it would have been harder to do). That set the wheels in motion: could I be the best at picking the brackets?
For years I slaved away, trying to manipulate the perfect bracket. But alas, it never came. When Bill Self went to Kansas, I thought to my "Self" - man, Kansas is going to get it done. For a few years I put them into my FF, even winning it all, only to be let down by early round exits. Until 2008. That's when my luck changed. With 12 of the Sweet 16 teams, I ended up with 7 of the Elite 8, the entire Final Four, and the Championship game: Memphis vs Kansas. Kansas was down 3 with time evaporating when Mario Chalmers hits a HUGE 3 and sends the game into OT, where Kansas went onto win. I won my money pool - the first time I had ever won any money playing (in college we weren't allowed to, NCAA rules, like it mattered since we won't have a TRACK TEAM in a few months).
I had decent results over the next few years, but then this year came and I was slightly disenchanted by the process. Sure, I've been watching games, but not as many as I used to. The Terps are in the middle of a serious rebuilding period, and the ACC is pretty weak all around. This causes me to watch less basketball, and also, the games are on pretty late sometimes.
Customarily I create a group on ESPN.com's Tournament Challenge and just name it "Terps in [the following year]" and I filled out my bracket there. I then copied it over to my money pool. It looked un-intriguing, if that's even a word. I have felt, all year long, that there were 4 teams that were clearly better than all the rest, and that all the rest are so mediocre that it didn't even matter who played whom. As the best day of the year came around (Thursday!) I once again felt the rush of excitement of being an ordinary human with really no impact on the outcome of the games.
By the end of the day, I had done pretty well for myself: 15 and 1. Normally I'm psyched if I can go 12-4, 13-3. Every so often I'll go 14-2. But 15-1 was a great start. Friday would be the true test. I took a hit - but so did everyone on the planet - when 2 seeds Missouri and Duke both lost. It was a big surprise, but since I didn't respect either of their chances of going very far, it didn't sting as bad. I then won two pretty big victories when USF (12) and Ohio (13) both won. By the end of Round 1 (now Round 2) I had gone 27-5. That wasn't too bad.
Saturday came, and besides being St. Patrick's Day, it was a zillion degrees down here in Baltimore - a truly beautiful day. It almost becomes sad then, that the only thing I want to do, is absorb college basketball. I got my outside things done, and only missed a little bit of the action, before going deep into the zone of 7 straight hours of basketball watching. Thanks to CBS, TruTV, TBS, and TNT, we are now able to watch all the games, rather than just the "Game of the Moment." It is awesome.
Saturday was my no-hitter, my hat trick, my triple double; I went 8 for 8. I mean, I literally had all 16 teams that were playing that day, and successfully had picked all 8 of the winners of those games. It was marvelous. By Saturday night I had moved up to 52nd place in the ESPN.com brackets, out of literally millions and millions of submitted brackets! It was cool. I knew it wouldn't last, but it was a great moment for me.
Sunday, like Friday, was the tougher of the two days. Gone were the sure-things, the can't-lose games. I cringed, I closed my eyes, I yelled, I clapped, I got excited, I got sad - and in the middle of it all I watched some basketball. The state of Florida let me down, and the state of Ohio showed it is for real. Of course, they still live in OHIO, but that's besides the point. It was a little bit of carnage, I had Florida State in my Elite 8, and they lost, and I lost a couple of other games. I went from 52nd up to 1600th, but I was still in the 100th percentile in ESPN.com, and was still in the lead of my money pool. I have 12 of the 16 teams in the S16. The question now is, how many can I land in the E8?
Do my Final Four picks have what it takes? Does Kansas have the moxy to win it all again for me? I'm putting a lot of faith in them, the least they can do for me is give me a fighting chance.
We'll find out, starting again tomorrow! Let the sleep deprivation begin again!