Growing up in the New York City area, two of the strongest influences in my sports upbringing were Mike Francesa and Chris "Mad Dog" Russo, the afternoon drive-time hosts on the sports talk radio station WFAN.
Avid listeners of the "Mike and the Mad Dog" program know that there are certain shows that you have to tune in to-Super Bowl Trivia Week, Friday football picks, Monday TV ratings and the day after the inevitable heart-shattering, season-ending New York Mets and Jets losses.
One of my favorite days of the year is the Monday after Selection Sunday, when Mike and Chris always berate the head of the selection committee, even though they have seen a combined zero minutes of college basketball over the course of the season. It's 20 minutes of terrific radio, as the two of them make often-ludicrous cases for teams they can't name a single player on with the man in charge of handing out invitations to the dance. That's like arguing with a five-star chef about the merits of Alpine Bagels.
But I can't really fault Mike and the Mad Dog since I'm pretty much the same way. Beyond Duke and the ACC, I know next to nothing about the larger college basketball landscape and base most of my picks on random facts like "The Drake is good."
The scary thing is that I usually manage to get between 13 and 14 of the Sweet 16 teams right each year, putting me in first place after the opening weekend. That's pretty good for someone who went around saying that Memphis' star freshman was named Derrick Love.
Beyond the round of 16, however, I'm usually cooked. And I think I've finally figured out the reason:
I always have Duke winning it all.
In at least two of the last three years, this has been a completely irrational decision. The 2005 team overachieved, the 2006 team should have won the title and last season never happened.
But I always feel compelled to take Duke because I have a hard time betraying my school pride.
As I see it, there are three ways to approach this conflict of interest between bracket and Blue Devils:
One group of people will write/click Duke through to the "National Champion" line on the bracket because they can't bring themselves to cheer against their school. This is the bracket equivalent of going all-in. If Duke wins, you have more than enough cash to celebrate the national championship by spraying Dom Perignon in celebration. If Duke loses, not only are you depressed, but also out of the pool. But you probably still have enough money to get drunk on Andre.
These people's brackets are tied to this annual ritual, regardless of any plausible reason to suspect Duke's run might be cut short. Nothing will stand in the way, not even if every Duke starter was mortally wounded, and the draw would require Jordan Davidson to lead the team against UCLA, UNC, Kansas and the Monstar team from Space Jam. Your picks are then geared around predicting Duke's path to immortality.
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The second group of people, the fence-sitters, will have Duke losing in the title game. These people think they are outsmarting everyone by allowing themselves to root for Duke to go all the way through to the finals but hedging their bets in case Duke does lose before reaching the promised land. These are the same people who will order a risky entrée and send it back if it doesn't look good.
The final group of people will have Duke off their bracket sometime before the national championship game. This is a slightly more justifiable strategy than the second one. If Duke loses early, you won't ruin your bracket; if Duke wins, you get a national championship and a bonfire, which should be enough to distract you from kicking yourself for not picking your alma mater.
As much as I try to go with group three, I'm stuck with my group one status. Whether this ruins my brackets for kingdom come remains to be seen, but I'll trade 24 busted brackets for a national title.
So without further ado, here's my Sweet 16:
East: UNC, Washington State, Oklahoma, Tennessee.
Midwest: Kansas, Vandy, USC, Davidson.
South: Memphis, Pitt, Marquette, Texas.
West: UCLA, Drake, Xavier, Duke.
And don't worry. I have Duke winning it all.