LSU's run to the Final Four has been my most thrilling experience in a lifetime of Louisiana-centric sports fandom. I screamed in ecstasy as the Tigers nipped Texas A&M, ran a victory lap around my apartment when they made the Dukies cry, and was struck dumb when they beat Texas in overtime. I couldn't believe the team I grew up rooting for in New Orleans was going to the Final Four. There's just one tiny thing keeping me from unmitigated bliss: I picked my sainted Tigers to lose in the tourney's championship game. And it might cost me $10,000.
I entered ESPN's Tournament Challenge as an afterthought. On Selection Sunday I was on vacation in India, a country with 1 billion people and 0 billion college basketball fans. With no suitable office pools in Tamil Nadu, I logged onto ESPN.com and sprinkled a bracket with a few upsets and a dash of SEC triumphalism. I made my picks—a Final Four of LSU, UCLA, UConn, and Florida—in a Gladwellian three minutes. (To look at my complete bracket, click here.)
I got back to the states just in time to watch LSU beat A&M on a last-second 3-pointer. My team was looking good, and so was my bracket. I picked 26 of the 32 first-round games correctly (including Northwestern State over Iowa) and 12 of the 16 second-rounders, putting me in the top 5,000 or so of the ESPN contest. Not bad considering that there were more than 3 million entries. After getting all four of Thursday's games, including LSU's smackdown of Duke and UCLA's crazy comeback against Gonzaga, I moved up from the top few thousand to 232nd place. I began to brag insufferably around the office.
Soon, I started feeling pickers' remorse. UConn, a team of listless lawbreakers led by a cheating gasbag of a coach, was losing to my friend Chris' beloved Washington Huskies by double digits in the second half. They were going to suffer a brutal, deserved defeat. But I was rooting for Connecticut—I had picked them to win the championship and couldn't afford the upset. Shockingly, UConn won thanks to some egregious officiating and a lucky buzzer-beating 3. With that victory, I had seven of the final eight—all of them except George Mason. That was good enough for 84th place. I was no longer on the side of righteousness and justice, though. I was dancing with the devil.
After LSU's thrilling overtime win against Texas, I rejoiced on the phone with my dad. The Tigers' nimble center, Glen "Big Baby" Davis, donned a yellow boa and announced, "We've got tapeworms in our bellies and we still want to eat." I started hitting refresh on the Tournament Challenge Leaderboard. Refresh, refresh, refresh … and I was up to 26th place. UCLA beat Memphis. Refresh, refresh, refresh … a tie for 11th place. Sifting through the top few entries, I figured out that nobody matched my brilliant picks. If I got the next five games right, I was a cinch for the $10,000 first prize. All of a sudden, my girlfriend got really interested in college basketball. My mom started calling for updates. I got a stomachache.
Biased homer that I am, I anointed LSU a Final Four team. Sports-knowing-about genius that I am, I picked most of the other games right, too. But why—oh why!—did I pick the Tigers to lose in the championship game? And why, of all teams, did I side with UConn, an entitled bunch that's impossible to root for? I had forced myself to choose between the team I love and the 10 grand I'd bank if LSU choked.
Let me explain. I would never root against LSU. If Mike the Tiger mauled my parents, I'd pat his tawny hide and shake his paw. My family's had football season tickets for 60 years; this year, I paid $9.95 a month for the privilege of watching day-old LSU basketball games on the Internet. But I come from a long line of sports worriers. No one in my family has ever thought LSU would win anything, with the exception of a few football games against Vanderbilt. I absorbed this attitude at an early age and was quickly rewarded. Before this year, my greatest NCAA prognosticating triumph came when I was 10 and tapped Georgia Tech to knock off Shaquille O'Neal's Tigers.
What I'm saying is that I was trying to be rational. Then again, reason has little to do with the NCAA Tournament. To wit: George Mason beat Connecticut. Just like that, my caviar dreams were over. You probably won your office pool by picking one or two of the Final Four teams. I got three, but since ESPN.com awards only one merit-based prize—the $10,000 big kahuna—my virtuoso bracket will earn me … bupkus. Thanks for all those great consolation prizes, ESPN!
Since almost no one picked George Mason, I actually rose in the standings after Sunday's games. I'm now in a tie for fourth place, behind two entries that still have their Final Four intact. The ESPN message boards are abuzz with speculation that the perfect entries belong to robots, George Mason alumni, or possibly women, because "as we all know women usually win with their ridiculous picks." The guy in second place, Ethan Stokke, appears to be a trash-talking 14-year-old. He also seems to have filled out five brackets, the contest's maximum. I filled out one bracket, of course. Only indecisive losers fill out multiple brackets. Though a second, less UConn-friendly bracket sounds good right about now. Decisiveness is a bitch.
I still have an outside chance to best the ladies and the androids. Looking at the current Leaderboard, if LSU beats UCLA, George Mason beats Florida, and George Mason beats LSU, I'd be tied for the lead with Melissa Burchard. Then again, the Tournament Challenge Leaderboard shows only the 50 highest-scoring entries. It seems pretty likely that some heretofore-low-scoring Mason alumnus is lying in the weeds, waiting to overtake me if the Patriots keep on shocking the world. That would be fine with me. There's nothing wrong with picking with your heart.
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