Commentary about sports normally is carried in that named section of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, and appropriately so. Sports editor Jay Greeson and his staff are far more knowledgeable about the topic than the rest of us. A couple of times a year, though, coverage of a sports event moves to the front pages. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament — or March Madness — is one. The games are important, of course, but what prompts broader interest in the tournament is likely a new national ritual — filling out those ubiquitous brackets in hope of a financial reward.
No one is quite sure how many people fill out the brackets and invest a few bucks in the outcome. That might be considered gambling, but if that is the case, participation is so widespread that even the most vigilant of bosses and law enforcement agencies look the other way. Truth be told, many bosses and those who wear badges probably have brackets of their own.
Interest in the tournament is particularly high this year. That’s because conventional wisdom about which teams should and should not have advanced to the Final Four has been turned on its head. Sure, it’s hardly a stretch to pick Kentucky and Connecticut, traditional powerhouses with long and honored Final Four histories, to reach the semifinals. But Butler and Virginia Commonwealth University?
Butler, maybe. The Indiana school made it to the final last year, losing to Duke. Most knowledgeable observers thought Butler had a fine team again this year but hardly good enough to reach the semifinals. VCU was so lightly regarded it had to play its way into the tournament field of 64. Nevertheless, the pairings are set: Butler plays VCU and Kentucky takes on Connecticut on Saturday in the semifinals. The winners play on Monday for the national title. What were the chances of that happening? Pretty slim.
There’s no way to know how many people filled out brackets this year, but there is one source that suggests that not many of them correctly picked the Final Four. This year’s ESPN.com’s online bracket tournament — which awards $10,000 to the winner — drew almost 6 million entries. Only two correctly named the teams in the Final Four. One of those who correctly named them is, by his own admission, just lucky.
Joe Pearlman, from New Jersey, says he doesn’t know much about college basketball and filled out his bracket in 10 minutes. Now, he’s the leader in the ESPN.com contest. The other individual who correctly identified the Final Four is out of the running with a bracket that had so many misfires that it is in 6,343rd place.
What’s next in an event that again has moved sports news from inside the newspaper to the front page? Pearlman picked VCU to beat Kentucky for the national title. Given his other choices, it would be hard to bet against him.