UMBC’s unprecedented upset of Virginia on Friday night sent College Basketball Twitter, Sports Twitter and Western Hemisphere Twitter into complete and uncontrolled chaos. And where there is Twitter and chaos, Lane Kiffin can’t be too far behind.
As the Retrievers finalized the first 16–1 upset in NCAA tournament history, it was pointed out that a handful of Maryland politicians and UMBC sympathizers—governor Larry Hogan chief among them—had now seen their homer brackets picking UMBC over the tourney’s top seed come through in hilariously improbable fashion. This was to be expected: From Ted Cruz to Barack Obama, it’s not uncommon for politicians to err on the side of ... politics ... when making toss-up sports predictions. It was slightly less expected when the head coach of Florida Atlantic’s football team revealed that he, too, had believed in the Retrievers.
In response to the droves of skeptics, Kiffin followed up that tweet with a picture of the entire left side of his bracket—enough to show that he has UMBC going all the way.
There’s a lot to unpack here, and no simple way to do it. But Kiffin has given us no other option but take a fine-toothed comb to his bracket.
1. First, the easy part: Kiffin clearly filled out this bracket the day after the tournament started. This fact—evidenced by the typed-out winners of Thursday’s South and West Region games in Kiffin’s round of 32—accounted for most of the anger in Kiffin’s Twitter mentions. I was not even aware you could print out brackets-in-progress.
2. Aside from UMBC over Virginia, Kiffin’s Friday picks are incredibly bad. Almost too incredibly bad. If he filled this bracket out on Friday morning, after a day in which only three out of 16 games were won by the lower seed, what made him think that all hell would break loose across the nation in the second half of Round 1? On what planet are Lipscomb and Georgia State Elite Eight teams? And on that planet, if Lipscomb (which lost 84–66 to North Carolina) is good enough to beat UNC, Texas A&M and Michigan on the way to the Elite Eight, why is it not good enough to beat Gonzaga? Why are Creighton, Texas A&M and Xavier the only higher seeds on that side of the bracket that he thought would survive Friday’s action?
In the most cynical interpretation, these picks feel like a play for authenticity. See, this bracket isn’t forged—I may have UMBC bragging rights for life, but look what I got wrong! But the most logical strategy for someone working quickly on a genuine bracket before Friday’s games tip off would be to go chalk. Then again, we are, of course, dealing with someone at the highest level of viral content creation.
3.Picking Tennessee and Florida State to make the Sweet Sixteen is a sublime touch of craftsmanship. Kiffin knew we would make a note of his nod to old friends in Knoxville and new recruiting competitors (to the extent that FSU loses any recruiting battles to FAU) in Tallahassee, each of whom will play for a Sweet Sixteen trip this weekend. Of all the pieces of information in these photos, those two picks stand out as the surest sign that Kiffin himself filled this bracket out. There are just too many other red flags.
4. The most important question, and the one without an answer: Why? Why did Kiffin spend so much time on this joke, if it is indeed a joke? I can’t imagine that this was a direct appeal to recruits in the Baltimore metro area, and even as an indirect recruiting tactic designed to generate posts like the one you’re reading now, I find it hard to believe Kiffin would so wildly overestimate the impact of improbable bracket success on his profile in the eyes of a three- or four-star prospect. Did he simply see that other famous people were jumping on the bandwagon and take the bit a few steps further? Is there a private bracket Kiffin actually filled out on time that we could compare with the one in the photo to determine its authenticity? Is he perhaps uniquely equipped as an FBS coach to spot teams and players with the potential to outplay vastly superior teams and pull off historic upsets?
Whatever the truth is, we’re looking at a violation of March Madness bracket decorum and best practices at minimum on Kiffin’s part—probably not enough to prosecute. Of course, when the Retrievers are playing for a national title, we'll need to issue a formal apology and correction.
UPDATE: Kiffin appears to have kept the receipts. (But why did he wait until three-quarters of the way through the first round to send in a bracket?)
And admittedly, he’s dead-on about this part.