It was going to be my crowning achievement of college.
I didn’t go to class all that often during my four years, preferring to spend my time in bed at the school newspaper instead. Because I spent a lot of time covering basketball in college instead of going to class, I liked to think I knew the sport better than most of my peers. I didn’t, but what I did in March of 2004 almost made me think I did.
Going into the Final Four, I’d missed just six winners in the NCAA tournament. I was in line to win both my mom’s and dad’s work pools and five pools at my college. I was going to clear so much money from my NCAA tournament pools that going into journalism didn’t seem like such a bad idea after all, even as job rejection letters started to pour in. So what if it took a while to find a gig? I could live on the interest from the 2004 NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Championship indefinitely.
It gets worse: Instead of Duke beating Oklahoma State in the final, like I predicted, Connecticut beat Georgia Tech. I went from winning thousands of dollars, cruising around the Caribbean in my March Madness yacht drinking Johnnie Walker Blue to winning nothing, sitting in my bedroom in West Philly drinking Yuengling Light.
You’re not going to win your NCAA tournament pool. There’s undoubtedly someone in your office who knows more about college hoops than you. Even if you’re a college basketball super fan, there is so much noise and luck involved in the next three weeks the odds are against you. But don’t fret. I’ve been losing NCAA tournament pools since 1991, when I picked UCLA as my national champ; the Bruins lost to Penn State (Penn State!) in the first round. That’s over 20 years of not winning my pool. I know what I’m doing. I can help you make it fun if you take just a few of these pieces of advice.
1. Spend as little time on it as possible if you want. See those little numbers next to each team? That’s the seed. Just pick the highest one most of the time! This is probably the easiest way to fill out a pool, and chances are you’ll do just as well as you would if you put loads of research into your picks. Pick the higher seed unless you decide you like the lower seed’s mascot or colors or name better, then flip a coin when there are seed ties.
2. Don’t pick Villanova to win any games. I actually think Jay Wright’s team is fun to watch, and the Wildcats have had some good tournament success under him. But it’s Villanova, and you should never pick them. Not to mention Villanova’s playing North Carolina. You just know the Tar Heels are going to get every call. If you pick Villanova, you’ll be getting your hopes up only to see them crushed. That’s what the Flyers are for.
3. Pick a Philly team to win a game or two. If either Temple or La Salle wins even one game in the NCAA tournament, the local press will go bonkers with enthusiasm. Why not join in the fun knowing you knew Temple would beat North Carolina State? You can sport a smile as wide as John Clark’s for a day at least.
4. Don’t pick Louisville to win it all. Nearly every national writer is picking Louisville to win the tournament. Your office pool is going to be the same. Louisville, the No. 1 overall seed, does have a good shot at winning the tournament, but what’s the fun in picking the winner and not even finishing in the top 10? I correctly picked national champ Kentucky, the favorite, last year. It wasn’t memorable. I won nothing.
5. Pick teams you hate. This is what I was doing the year I almost won every pool I was in. I picked Duke to win it all because I hate hearing about Coach K and Duke more than any other college hoops team. The plan was that, even if my pick lost, I’d be okay because it was a team I didn’t like. It backfired when thousands of dollars were on the line, but, hey, what are the chances of that happening again?