As far as I'm concerned, the college basketball season begins when the NCAA tournament bracket is released.
That's because the tournament, unlike the regular season or even the conference tournaments, includes one thing that can make any sport fun to watch: Gambling.
Alright, I'm a basketball dilettante (I just had to ask my editor what a conference tournament was), but I don't let that stop me from playing March Madness — and winning.
For the next four days, analysts at ESPN, Sports Illustrated and any other sports-related media outfit will be weighing the relative merits of the match-ups based on travel schedules, which teams are playing close to home, regular-season close-game records, tournament experience, conference tournament performance, age of starters, and some magical statistic called RPI. And at the end of this, they will decide that the winner will probably be ... a No. 1 seed.
Every year I take my first bracket and fill it out meticulously according to this expert wisdom. I throw prejudice and team loyalty out the window and go all Jack Webb on it — just the numbers, ma'am. I pick one 12th seed to upset a fifth seed. I pick two nine seeds to win over eight seeds. I look for competitive small schools to make a Cinderella threat, but I stay pretty chalk, with a No. 2 or No. 3 seed or two, next to the No. 1s in my Final Four.
This bracket always crashes and burns spectacularly.
Then I pick a bracket based on my own internal, nonsensical logic based almost entirely on non-basketball factors. I pick the schools I applied to for college and ones that my friends and family attended. I shut out the Big 10 conference because it should be called the Big 11. I pick the colleges of my ex-boyfriends to lose. I factor in the power of prayer when dealing with colleges like Baylor and BYU. I let the awesomeness of a mascot influence me (go, Syracuse Orange!).
And when in doubt, I pick the team with the lower number next to it.
And weirdly, this seems to work. (It probably helps that my best friend went to Kansas.) Maybe it's the negligible pool of friends and coworkers I compete against — in my bracket watching the regular NCAA season outside of your own school games is considered cheating — but in my experience the biggest problem with a bracket is overthinking it.
In addition to being ever-so-slightly lucrative, playing this way is a lot more fun. Rooting for a losing team when you aren't even sure why you picked them sucks. The safe route might be to pick my hated Duke to win (especially this year), but the points I gain for their victory doesn't wash away the taint I feel for supporting them in any way. And you never know—sometimes an unknown like VCU does come along and knock Duke out in the first round.
Now that's what I call a win-win.