Everybody loves the underdog, unless they bet money on the top dog. And millions of people put their money into NCAA basketball pools. Offices and other work places buzz with anticipation before the NCAA Tournament as people fill in their brackets and hand over their cash. Some of them haven’t watched a single game all season, but they dive right into the pools.
But I don’t even dip my big toe into NCAA pools. I fill in the brackets for fun, but I’m not about to waste my money. And one reason I never play NCAA pools is because – and this is not false modesty – I’m not smart enough. I watch a decent amount of college games on television, but I just don’t pay much attention to the Missouri Valley Conference or the Sun Belt Conference. Or, for that matter, the Big Ten, Big 12, Big Sky, Big South or Big West. Not even the SEC or ACC.
I’m mostly a Big Five-Big East-Atlantic 10 fan, because I grew up watching Eastern teams on television in an era before ESPN and its relentless hoop coverage. Back then, all they had was the ECAC game of the week and you had a better chance of seeing Canisius than Kansas.
Even if an ACC game is on now, I might watch it for a minute or two, but, hey, there’s a John Wayne movie on TCM at the same time, so I usually end up watching the Duke instead of Duke.
So I’m clueless and the only way I’d ever win a pool, or even last through the first round, would be pure luck. And I’m usually luckless as well as clueless, so I see no reason to throw away money, even a measly 10 or 20 bucks.
But the main reason I refuse to play a pool is so I can enjoy the tournament without having to worry about whether I picked Syracuse to beat Montana. If anything, I want Montana to win. I want the upsets, which happen every year and are the best thing about the NCAA Tournament.
So I want to cheer for the underdog. I want to pull for the Western Kentuckys and Belmonts and La Salles of the world. But I don’t want to bet on them.
Case in point: Several years ago, I was watching some second-round action with a friend and North Carolina was playing George Mason. Naturally, I wanted George Mason to win, and under normal circumstances the other guy would, too. But, of course, he had North Carolina winning in his pool and actually had the Tar Heels going all the way to the Final Four.
So instead of pulling for unheralded George Mason — a conference cousin of Delaware – he was cussing when the Patriots shocked the Heels to advance to the Sweet 16.
On the other hand, I could appreciate the joy of the George Mason players, who had just done what nobody thought they could do. For a team like George Mason, beating North Carolina means as much as winning a national championship means to Connecticut. Maybe more, because Connecticut is supposed to contend for the title and George Mason isn’t supposed to belong on the same floor with Carolina.
Those are the games that make the NCAA Tournament memorable. Eventually the top dogs will chase the underdogs out of the tournament and the Final Four will be filled with high seeds and familiar names. But I’m going to pull for the underdogs as long as they’re in the tournament, and it won’t cost me a cent.
Contact Kevin Noonan at firstname.lastname@example.org.