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Joey Rodriguez of the Virginia Commonwealth Rams cuts the net after defeating the Kansas Jayhawks yesterday in the highly unpredictable 2011 NCAA men's basketball tournament.
Joey Rodriguez of the Virginia Commonwealth Rams cuts the net after defeating the Kansas Jayhawks yesterday in the highly unpredictable 2011 NCAA men's basketball tournament. Jamie Squire/Getty Images
My favorite statistic of the weekend is that of the 5.9 million NCAA men's basketball tournament brackets folks filled out on ESPN.com, two got the correct Final Four.
TWO. T-W-O. Two entries out of almost six million correctly predicted that the Final Four would be Butler, VCU, Kentucky and Connecticut. Remember, counting the new "First Four" that has two teams play for the final spot in each of the four sixteen-team regions, there are seventeen possible choices in each of four regions, and you pick one from each to get your Final Four. So that means there are — if my math is correct — 83,521 possible combinations of teams that you could place in your Final Four. So if the 5.9 million entries in the ESPN.com challenge chose their Final Four teams entirely at random and then just filled in each team's path to that point however they wanted, around 70 people would have picked this group of teams. Instead, two did.
If that's not enough to impress you, more than 70 percent of the entries have no Final Four teams right at all. None! (This is true of me, incidentally. Yay! Hooray for communal stinking!)
In other words, what completely hosed everyone who was trying to fill out a bracket was the application of conscious thought. They were eliminated from contention by their own conviction that humankind is sentient and therefore, in serious matters such as basketball predictions, owes it to itself to use the power of reason that theoretically separates us from, say, dirt and furniture.
If only people hadn't assumed that in general, better teams will beat worse teams, and if they had instead chosen a Final Four by hurling a bowl of Lucky Charms at a printable bracket and picking the teams with green clovers stuck to them, they would have, using my back-of-the-envelope math, been thirty-five times as likely to have correctly chosen the Final Four.
It's sort of wonderful, and I say that as a Duke fan who listened to a volume of gloating on Thursday night (when my team lost) that I have previously only heard from actual cats who, having swallowed a throat-clogging number of actual canaries, croaked out "Mew mew mew," which is cat for "ha ha ha, sucker."
It's a great tournament. It's not the same kind of great tournament where you wind up with incredibly powerful teams facing off in the championship — teams with legacies that will last for all time, making incredibly powerful plays against each other, proving that they are superhuman athletic specimens. That's not to say these aren't good teams; Kentucky and Connecticut are long-time powerhouse programs, and Butler was in the championship game last year — where they lost to Duke, mew mew mew! — so it's not like the Booyah School Of Drunken High-Fiving is going to face the West Southeastern Northern Institute For Gentle Hugging in the national championship. These are good programs, and you'd have to break a few toes on a team like Connecticut to cram it into a Cinderella-style glass slipper.
But these are not teams whose fans strongly suspected they would wind up in the Final Four, and in the case of VCU, it's been reported that they didn't even expect to make the tournament. And a lot of analysts made the case that they had no business in the tournament — one blog has already had quite a bit of fun compiling those reactions. To paraphrase an oft-quoted but quite possibly apocryphal review once given to Fred Astaire, VCU was generally perceived as "can't act, can't sing, can play basketball a little."
The entire reason the NCAA tournament is quite possibly the greatest sporting event of the year is that the moments for these teams are so short — even if you root for a team passionately, you have to learn a whole new crop of names every couple of years. Most of these kids will not play in the NBA. Most of them will go do something else. They'll get jobs, they'll have kids, they'll coach. They'll bore people at parties forever talking about the Final Four, and they'll deserve to.
So when they play the final few games next weekend, just grab some nachos and a drink and root for whomever you want. It's probably not going to hurt your bracket that much now, and you're already not looking at what you thought you'd be looking at, unless you're literally rarer than one in a million.