March Madness Planning: How to Win Your Office Pools


Last year, I thrilled to the news that the NCAA had stepped away from expanding the tournament to 96 teams, and had instead settled for 68.  In my innocence, I proclaimed, "Details have yet to be announced, but I imagine it will be something like the bottom eight teams playing each other for the right to be the 4 #16 seeds."  And then I promptly forgot all about it.  But what was there to worry about?  How could they mess this up, right?  There's plenty of garbage teams in the Dance--let them play each other, and we'll move on, just like we always do. I should have known better.

I, like a few other hundred thousand people in the United States, run a workplace pool for the NCAA's.  And I wonder how many of those few hundred thousand people know just how much the NCAA has pooped on their Sunday Breakfast.  The expansion is not just at the bottom, but at the middle bottom.  For reasons surpassing reason and logic, this Sunday's announcements will feature six #16 seeds, and six #12 seeds (or six #11's--I'm still not clear on that, and that's a bit bothersome, to say the least).
It is bothersome first of all, just from a point of logic.  You don't have six-way ties for 12th.  Or 11th, really.  Logic dictates that you when you have a field of 68, either the top four teams get a bye, or the bottom eight teams play each other (and the other sixty teams get byes).  You don't stagger the play-in, which is exactly what the NCAA has done.  It is incredibly stupid, and horribly wrong.  It is purposeless confusion.

Secondly, it seems unfair.  In the old (pretty stupid) 65 team set-up, only a single sacrificial #16 seed lamb had to play on a Tuesday and then again on Thursday.  Basically, all teams had from at least Sunday to rest and prepare.  Now, we are talking about perennial upset seeds (#12 or #11) playing on Tuesday, and then turning around, traveling and playing a rested team that is already seeded well above them (#5 or #6, depending on just which seed the NCAA has determined to screw).

Why do this?  Because people don't watch #16's play each other.  And the NCAA wants to prove the worth of expanding the field, and you can't do that with games that people don't watch.  So introduce slightly higher seeds to this unfair practice, and watch the eyeballs and advertising dollars roll in.  Which will then open the door to further expansion, under the old NFL standby of "The fans have demanded it!"  I know, for example, that I've never watched the old play-in game.  But I will watch two #12's go, just to determine if I think that winner has the goods to beat a #5.

From a practical standpoint, this does seriously effect how you do your Office Pool--#12 seeds are a fun upset pick for a reason.  They happen all the time.  Looking at the #5's predicted by Eric Prisbell in at least one ofhis last two most recent projections, I see a whole bunch of teams that seem awfully vulnerable to an upset:  Connecticut, Arizona, Kentucky, West Virginia, Georgetown, Vanderbilt.  Could a Richmond Spider team that was rested and prepared beat any of those teams?  You better believe it.  But could the Spiders also lose to fellow projected #12 seed Michigan?  If Timmy Hardaway Jr has anything to say about it, you better believe that, too.  So the NCAA is forcing you to either pick that theoretical game, or wait and pick.

So, do you ignore these games, and somehow give your office between Wednesday evening and Thursday morning to fill in their picks (obviously, difficult to do), or do you force everyone to fill out a sheet on Monday, and make them pick those games?  Or is this there a way that cheats through those games?  I'm thinking about offering about half-point bonuses to everyone who picks those games in advance, regardless of result, to encourage, but not force, early submission.  But I'm not sure that is practical.  Regardless, the new NCAA system has managed to be overly complex and difficult, and it really really didn't need to be.  I don't know if you could make adding three garbage teams a more byzantine process if you tried.

Keep an eye on the aforementioned Eric Prisbell's column.  He's been taking suggestions for how to run the new bracket, and will report on it on Selection Sunday.  I suggest having a plan in place before that, though.  At least alert your crew that they may have only 24 hours to fill out their sheets.  And when they ask why, tell them, "The NCAA is attempting to sodomize the Golden Goose."

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