LIKE VENUS or Jesus or Elvis, NCAA tournament brackets have been rendered in every conceivable medium, artistic and otherwise. They're inked onto newsprint, pixillated in cyberspace, drawn freehand on paper, configured as Excel spreadsheets or conjured as iPad apps. President Obama—his first name a vague echo of bracket—fills his out with a dry-erase marker on a whiteboard, which always rests on an easel, as if college basketball brackets were works of art.
This is an article from the March 6, 2013 issue
And they are, of course, though the original artist is lost to history. Unlike other iconic line drawings (think of the London Underground map, designed in 1931 by an electrical draftsman named Harry Beck, who was paid roughly $10 for his work) tournament brackets have no single inventor, no Thomas Edison.
They have been around from at least Edison's time (Wimbledon has required an organizing structure since 1877, when that tournament began with 22 registrants) but somehow brackets still appear timeless. You can imagine brackets among the prehistoric cave paintings in Lascaux, France—126 intersecting lines, surrounded by the bulls and cats and other cartoon animals that survive today as college mascots.
Like those cave paintings, or that subway map, brackets have been parodied, ripped off, adapted, copied—and especially photocopied. The invention of the Xerox machine rapidly accelerated their rise, which has been incredible, though not inedible.
In 2013 you can find brackets frosted onto cakes, the team names written in icing. One baker's brackets had each school represented by an individual cookie. You get beaten, you get eaten.
Online shoppers can buy a replica of Michael Jordan's North Carolina jersey whose back—just below the number 23—is embroidered with the 1982 NCAA brackets, embroidery being the perfect medium for this national symbol.
If you use brackets as your map of the United States, the cardinal directions on it are East, West, South and Midwest. Brackets have no North, making them difficult to navigate, with or without a compass. But then anyone who has ever entered a bracket pool already knows that it's impossible to find your way out—or nearly so, given that there are nine quintillion possible routes from 64 teams down to one national champion. The actual number is 9,223,372,036,854,775,808. That's why Yahoo! can offer $5 million to anyone who makes it through their pool with unblemished brackets.
All of this explains why Americans will stop working sometime between Selection Sunday and Thursday's tournament tip-off and turn their attention to brackets, in all their myriad media. The brackets that graced Grand Central Station in 2012—50 feet wide and 32 feet tall—were just another, literal reminder that brackets are bigger than they've ever been as the NCAA tournament enters its 75th year.
THERE IS A growing literature about brackets, enough to support a small bookshelf, which is what brackets do if you buy them at the hardware store, though that's not all that brackets support. The word bracket derives from the Spanish bragueta, or codpiece, an ancient kind of athletic supporter. When a guy fills out his bracket, he is in an etymological sense filling out a codpiece, or trying to do so.
That isn't surprising, because we invest more than a few billion dollars and nearly as many collective office hours in our tournament brackets. For many, filling out a bracket is a matter of pride, a barometer of knowledge, a measure of manhood.
For the rest of us it's a fill-in-the-blanks adventure, a Mad Libs version of the Great American Novel, everyone trying to author—or trying to guess—what will happen next.
As with "The Star Spangled Banner," there are endless ways to interpret this national ballad, but a few steadfast rules remain in place for every American Picker:
1) Find Your Medium.
I'm old school and still like to tear my brackets out of a newspaper. Whatever eco guilt I feel—players are dropping threes, I'm dropping trees—is offset by time-release pleasures: That square of newsprint deteriorates as my chances do, so that by the round of 16 it looks like the wadded, tattered Kleenex your grandma kept in her purse.
Come the championship game, it has to be pieced together on a flat surface for one final postmortem before the smallest draft—whoosh—blows it all away like confetti falling from arena rafters. (Falling on somebody else, alas.) The teams on TV are young and fresh-faced, but their paper doppelgangers are smudged and wrinkled: The Brackets of Dorian Gray.
2) Go with Your Gut.
That gut will be much easier to find after three couch-bound weeks of the tournament, but still: Science tells us your first instinct is usually best. Remember: Brackets don't pay by the hour. Your success will be inversely proportional to the amount of time you spend on them. Picasso required just 2½ hours to paint Still Life with Tulips. Last fall it sold at auction for $41.5 million. And speaking of Picasso ...
3) Assemble Your Brushes.
I always fill out my brackets longhand, in blue ink, hunched over the newsprint like a medieval monk illuminating a manuscript. As the tournament progresses, I embellish the margins of my brackets with doodles, gargoyles, the wet rings of a sweating beer glass. Doing brackets longhand always feels like the last analog act in a digital world, and it may well be.
My penmanship is tiny, the smaller the better, so that I can fit all those abbreviations that make me feel like a World War II cryptologist: FairDick, TennChatt, MoreSt, GeoMas, RobMor, Woff, Winth, WeVa. Is this a bracket or a memo from the Department of Defense?
4) Take 'Em One Game at a Time.
Or to put it in a way that isn't a sports cliché: Never try to reverse-engineer a bracket by crowning your national champion and then working backward. This is a tournament, not Memento. Start at the beginning and pick the winner of each individual game. Don't look ahead to the next matchup. Remember that novelist E.L. Doctorow said you can write great fiction without knowing what will happen on the next page: "You never see further than the end of your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." Let this be your mantra.
5) Name Your Brackets.
Washington Capitals' ace winger Alex Ovechkin signed last year's bracket "OVI8," which is more vanity plate than bracket name. If you're entering an office pool, choose a solid nickname. It may be the only chance you get to impress anyone. The pool I enter every year gives a prize for best team name. Last year mine won with: "You Say Tomato, Snoop Says Tom Izzo."
6) Soak It All In.
Take time to appreciate the flawless mathematical architecture of your brackets. My third-grade daughter revealed to me how multiplying nine by another number always yields a sum whose constituent parts add up to nine. That is to say: 9 √ó 4 = 36, whose two numbers—3 + 6—add up to nine again. This is the simple definition of mathematical beauty. Galileo said, or is said to have said, "Mathematics is the language with which God wrote the universe." Brackets are one small lesson in that celestial language.
One example of this mathematical perfection is the way first-round seeds in the NCAA tournament always add up to 17: 1 vs. 16, 2 vs. 15, 3 vs. 14, even those evil 9 vs. 8 matchups. Which raises another vexing question: How do you pick those 9 vs. 8 games?
7) Flip a Coin.
That's probably what the selection committee does when separating the 8 seeds from the 9 seeds in the first place. Or choose any other arbitrary tiebreaking device. Many people go with the fiercer of the two mascots, which works when they're both from the same food chain: Clearly a Wolverine eats a Gopher.
But what happens when a Golden Hurricane meets a Red Storm? Does a Scarlet Knight repel a Crimson Tide? Why exactly does paper beat rock? Unless you're an existential meteorologist, with a degree in medieval studies, you'll only end up more confused.
So I usually go with the longer of the two town names involved, which is why I took Southern Mississippi over Kansas State in last year's tournament, by a score of Hattiesburg to Manhattan. (Kansas State won anyway. This is basketball, not Scrabble.)
8) Don't Go Chalk.
I have a longstanding proscription against picking four No. 1 seeds for the Final Four, and not just because it has only happened one time, in 2008, though that is surely reason enough. Rather, it's also a terribly timid, totally wussball thing to do, going chalk throughout your brackets. It's not just ineffective. It's uncool.
9) Be Untrue to Your School.
As much as it pains me to tell Marquette this, I never pick the Golden Eagles to advance beyond the Sweet 16. You should apply the same cold logic to your school, no matter what it is. Not only does love cloud your judgment, but also betting against the old alma mater gives you two entities to root for: your team and your bracket. One of them is bound to win.
And that's really all there is to it, on paper. To which the standard reply is: "But the games aren't played on paper."
Oh, but some are. It's fair to say that the NCAA tournament, for many millions of Americans, is played on paper, in addition to hardwood. Or shall we say, in conjunction with hardwood. March Madness can be as much fun on a sheet of paper—or a spreadsheet, or a cookie sheet—as it is in real life.
Do it right and you won't know the difference between real life and March Madness, between biology and bracketology.