Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Big Board

Sometimes, filling out an NCAA Tournament bracket just isn’t enough, so for the last decade or so, I’ve been gathering with a rotating cast of seven associates to play The Big Board, named for the decidedly low-tech piece of cardstock used to keep tally. The rules are simple. Eight players combine to draft the entire NCAA field. Selection order is done by lottery. The person with the last overall pick in the first round gets the first overall pick in the second round, and you snake back up and down the ladder. Every time one of your teams wins a game, you earn a point, and two bonus points are available, one for the biggest upset in the tournament (this is determined by seed; a number sixteen defeating a number one is the greatest possible upset), and one for the lowest seed to make the Sweet Sixteen. At the end, the player with the most points wins, and each of the remaining seven players then gives the winner one *handshake per point differential (for instance, if the winner finishes with thirteen points and I finish with six, I owe him seven *handshakes).

We gathered last night for the annual affair, and I wound up with the second overall pick. As always, I tried to stay away from teams seeded seven through ten (you only have a 50-50 shot of winning your first game, and you almost always lose your second), and I hoped to focus my middle rounds on twelve and thirteen seeds, the kinds of teams that have a puncher’s chance of winning a couple of games and which also can earn you bonus points. This has come to be known as the Carl Peterson Strategy. It keeps me competitive every year, but I never win the whole thing. Typically, I’m forced to give two or three *handshakes to the winner, who typically has employed no strategy at all.

Anyway, here’s how my draft went.

1. Kansas (number one seed in the Midwest Region)

Philosophically, I had a hard time with this for the obvious reasons. But Florida went with the first pick and I was left to make a decision. If you were to put the Hawks in generic jerseys, I’d probably like them a lot. They have four or five guys who can tear your heart out on any given night, and that’s rare. They don’t have a dominant post player, but they don’t lack much else. And I figure that they’re either going to earn me several points or I’m going to jinx them and cause them to be the first number one seed in history to flame out in round one. So, really I can’t lose.

2. Washington State (three seed, East)

I don’t have any particularly strong feelings for the Cougars, but I didn’t expect a three seed to be available with the penultimate pick of the second round, so this was nearly a mandatory choice. And with the job that Tony Bennett has done this year, I suspect that he may be some sort of voodoo priest. I don’t have a lot of rules when it comes to this sort of thing, but one is that it’s always good to have a voodoo priest on your side.

3. Duke (six seed, West)

Once you get past the “ick” factor, you acknowledge that Ken Pomeroy rates the Blue Devils as the tenth best team in the country, easily making them the best available value here at the eighteenth overall pick. Who am I to argue with Ken Pomeroy?

4. Old Dominion (twelve seed, Midwest)

Here, at the next-to-last spot in the fourth round, things get hard. There are plenty of eights, nines and tens to be had, but as mentioned above, eights, nines and tens are dead ends. So I start fishing here. What teams in the lower half of the bracket have traditionally fared well? Twelve seeds. And which five seed looks ripe for the picking? Butler. Old Dominion is the choice here by default.

5. Illinois (twelve seed, West)

Another pick, another twelve seed available. Bruce Weber is a peculiar little elf, but he seems to conjure up magic from time to time, and round one opponent Virginia Tech is one of the more schizoid teams in the bracket’s top half. As a bonus, Pomeroy ranks the Illini (number 24) two spots higher than the Hokies.

6. Arkansas (twelve seed, East)

Pennies from heaven! Another twelve seed remains and I snatch the Hogs up without a thought. The fact that Pomeroy ranks them thirteen spots higher than Southern Cal makes me feel particularly contented with the pick.

7. Wright State (fourteen seed, West)

By this point, we’re just rolling the dice. But these guys beat Butler twice in the season’s last four weeks, and first round opponent Pittsburgh can be pretty anemic on offense at times.

8. Eastern Kentucky (sixteen seed, East)

At this point, I only have two choices: Eastern Kentucky and Central Connecticut State. I do my best to stay away from schools with a direction in the name, but my hand has been forced. And “central” has to be the lamest of all directions. My choice is cemented by the fact that “Central Connecticut State” has seven syllables. A quick run through the pages of my mind indicates that no school of seven or more syllables has ever won a game in the NCAAs.

I walk away from the draft feeling pretty satisfied, with the belief that I have the best roster of eight teams in the group. But I always think I have the best draft, and I always finish second. And if I end up owing a few *handshakes, so be it. In NCAA Tournaments and Big Boards, the journey is always better than the destination.

* (in jurisdictions where gambling is lawful, one dollar may substitute for each handshake)