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I didn’t do an NCAA bracket and I enjoyed the upsets so much more

Regular-season college basketball isn’t what it used to be, so wait for the tournament fireworks

When the NCAA bracket announcement show comes on the Sunday before the men’s tournament commences, we huddle around the television and watch. That’s how we start March Madness. We see who is in, who is out and who plays in the first round. We want the bracket. We need the bracket. We inject that bracket into our veins. As soon as it hits the internet, we form pools with our friends and co-workers. Before, we used to print it out and pencil in the victors, but now we complete it online. And we obsess over it — that darn addictive bracket.

This year, I opted out of the ritual. I broke the habit. While the rest of the sports world sat glued to the Selection Sunday show, I read a book. I did not fill out a bracket in an attempt to win some money. In fact, I haven’t even seen this year’s bracket. I wanted to test a theory: Would I enjoy March Madness more if I just watched the games and rooted for the teams I wanted to win rather than cheering for my bracket to be right?

With the first weekend done and the best four consecutive days in American sports over, I have my answer — I will never fill out another bracket.

I was just able to enjoy the games in a way I haven’t in a long time. The NBA, as a basketball product, easily surpasses the collegiate offering. But the tournament oozes that magical something, and its single-elimination format makes for riveting television. The reality that for most of the players this will represent the pinnacle of their athletic achievements adds an extra layer of dynamism to the event. And when I watched the games untethered to a bracket, it unlocked an extra dimension of fun for me that I had missed in recent years.

The University of Maryland Baltimore County’s victory over Virginia clinched it for me. I would never fill out a bracket again. Had I done so, I certainly would have chosen Virginia, the overall No. 1 seed for the tournament, to win the game. And I wouldn’t have been able to marinate in awe witnessing a school I have never thought about pull off one of the most amazing victories in sports history. I’ll always remember seeing the unbridled joy on those kids’ faces.

I don’t watch college ball during the regular season. Not anymore. Many have stopped watching. The regular season has never been less popular with television viewers because, let’s be honest, the quality of the game has plummeted in the past couple of decades. Bad officiating. Coaches focused more on teaching defense than offense. The lack of player continuity, with one-and-dones and rampant transferring. The game I remember as a kid during the 1990s is no more. I miss those days.

The ratings for the tournament, however, remain high. Many of us don’t know these teams like we used to, but we still fill out the bracket. In this era where most of us ignore the regular season, the smarter move is to just watch the tournament and root for the teams we want to win — usually upsets — rather than rooting for our brackets to be right.

The desire to be right is an overriding feeling. We rejoice in the feeling of being right. If we picked Duke to win it all, no matter how much we abhor Duke, we root for Duke to win. We want to be right. Being right can provide an ego boost. Being right makes us feel smart. Being right can win you the pot in a tournament pool. But I think the desire to be right, now that we watch far less of the regular season, overwhelms the fun for many.

Since we ignore the regular season, the games prove much harder for us to correctly select and, therefore, only the luckiest will complete brackets free from an overwhelming number of red strikeout lines when the field is winnowed to the Sweet 16. This means that after the first weekend, most everyone will have a ruined bracket. And, I think, for a lot of us, this causes us to lose interest. We may still watch, but the feeling, the love, isn’t there. When you experience the tournament through the bracket, when the bracket is in shambles, I think the interest in the tournament attenuates if you don’t also love the sport, and many of us don’t anymore.

But I can still love the tournament as long as I avoid that bracket.

Brando Simeo Starkey is an associate editor at The Undefeated and the author of In Defense of Uncle Tom: Why Blacks Must Police Racial Loyalty. He crawled through a river of books and came out brilliant on the other side.