Inevitably, as you submit NCAA Tournament brackets in your office pools this week, you already know you’ll be up against two types of people — those who have watched, researched and soaked in every minute of “expert analysis” possible, and those whose picks are based off of colors, mascots and schools in states in which they’ve gone on vacation.
You also know that one is as likely to win as the other.
So, in that interest and for fun, I’m starting a March Madness tradition in my column space as I put 12 years of sports writing experience and 36 years of college basketball viewership up against my 9-year-old stepdaughter Maleah, who likes dance class, unicorns, her kitties and has dribbled and shot a couple of times in gym class.
On Monday, after math homework of course, I sat her down and explained how brackets work — seeding, records, tradition, coaches — and then realized it was much easier explaining multiplication and division than my personal process of picking tournament winners. So, outside of advancing all four No. 1 and No. 2 seeds to the second round, she was on her own.
Naturally, no bracket competition is complete without a little friendly wager. After some discussion and her insistence that cleaning couldn’t be part of the bet, we landed on this: If I win, she has to sit down and watch a sports movie of my choice (I’ll take suggestions); if she wins, I have to eat a sushi roll of her choosing.
My friends, let me stress, the stakes have never been higher.
I’ve broken it down into double-digit seeds advancing, upsets, Elite Eight and Final Four picks, our champions and overall analysis.
Without further ado …
Double-digit seeds advancing in first round
n Me: No. 11 Drake, No. 12 Georgetown, No. 11 Michigan State, No. 12 Winthrop, No. 10 Rutgers
Already, I set myself up for massive failure taking two teams (Drake and Michigan State) to not only win play-in games but also first-round matchups. Went more chalk than I had anticipated.
n Maleah: No. 12 UC Santa Barbara, No. 14 Abilene Christian, No. 12 Winthrop, No. 13 North Texas, No. 13 Liberty
Also, more chalk than I expected. I quickly realize I may have explained seeding too well.
“Because of their mascot,” Maleah said of her Abilene Christian selection.
When I ask what the mascot was, she has already forgotten. But she doesn’t forget the North Texas Mean Green or the Liberty Flames, both of which I suspect are sneaky good picks. Immediately, I’m reeling.
“I like picking the mascots and talking about football … basketball games because some of these basketball teams I didn’t even know,” she adds.
Me: No. 11 Drake d. No. 3 Kansas, No. 6 Texas Tech d. No. 3 Arkansas, No. 5 Tennessee d. No. 4 Oklahoma State
It’s as if I’m asking to get beat as I pencil in Drake again, justifying it because of the uncertainty surrounding Kansas’ program at the moment. I debate Winthrop over Purdue but can’t pull the trigger as I try to play the odds against her free-swinging approach. She’s in my head.
Maleah: No. 12 UC Santa Barbara d. No. 4 Virginia, No. 13 North Texas d. No. 12 Winthrop, No. 7 Florida d. No. 2 Ohio State, No. 13 Liberty d. No. 5 Tennessee
Maleah with three double-digit seeds making the Sweet 16 and No. 6 BYU as well, a much more likely scenario than my chalk. Now she’s just playing with me. Picking the Gators? I myself, a Florida State supporter growing up, cannot abide it.
She points to UCSB again and correctly identifies a Gaucho as a cowboy, something I can’t even do without a Google search. I jot down a reminder to delete YouTube Kids off my TV, if she can ever find the remote control that she’s lost. She’s not allowed to be that much smarter than me just yet.
Additionally, she has WVU falling to San Diego State but erases it upon further thought, her only revision on the entire bracket. Unknowingly, she saves face with most of my readers.
Elite Eight picks
Me: Gonzaga, Iowa, Florida State, Alabama, Baylor, Ohio State, Tennessee, West Virginia
Pretty straightforward other than Tennessee making noise in the Midwest. The upper half of that bracket in my estimation is the toughest to forecast. You could sell me on Illinois, Oklahoma State or Loyola making a similar run.
Maleah: Gonzaga, Iowa, Florida State, Alabama, Baylor, Florida, Illinois, Houston
Sorry guys, but the Mountaineers meet their end in her Sweet 16. Somehow, despite not showing her my picks, and despite not watching 10 seconds of college basketball in her life, she’s with me on five, and as I look, likely has a more solid eight. I’m on the ropes.
Final Four picks
Me: Gonzaga, Alabama, Baylor, West Virginia
Yeah, I went there. Just love the Mountaineers’ draw. I should know better.
Maleah: Gonzaga, Florida State, Baylor, Houston
Ok, for real though … did her teacher give her picks in class on Tuesday? Time for a PTA meeting.
Me: Alabama d. Baylor
I really like the way the Crimson Tide is playing and figure it’s just different enough to make sense. Plus, the way it’s going, I need a different pick than her to have any shot in this thing.
Maleah: Gonzaga d. Houston
So, to review, this kid somehow identifies the Las Vegas favorite as her national champion. It’s remarkable. I feel like Tom Cruise in “Rain Man” when he figures out Dustin Hoffman is also a blackjack savant. That’s it, I’m downloading the BetMGM app on her iPad.
“They have gotten 26 games this year and haven’t lost one and their number [seeding] is one,” she explained.
Sound. Rock-solid, actually.
And then she just walks away. By the end, both of our brackets are covered in eraser marks, mine because of second guessing, hers because of spelling.
As of this writing, she hasn’t mentioned it again since. Some might say disinterest. I say head games. Somewhere in this house, she laughs at my prognosticator’s remorse.
I expected cuteness and calamity. What I got from her is a bracket I like better than my own.
I almost can’t help but think with the solidity of her selections that something fishy is going on.
Yet something tells me that in the end, the only thing fishy will be my dinner.