Whether it’s picking a champion before a season begins or presaging the outcome of a draft, there’s a good chance a sports writer is setting themselves up to fail when they make predictions.
It’s inherent in sports journalism. The predictable nature of a season naturally lends itself to playing oracle.
You know there will be a Most Valuable Player award and even at the start of the season you can narrow it down to three or four likely candidates. Guessing who it’s going to be is easy copy and it gets the consumers involved in the debate as well. It’s too tempting to pass up.
Of course, more often than not, those predictions are way off and then you have readers sending you crank emails lecturing you on how you’re the wrongest wrong who ever wronged.
Hindsight is 20-20 and those bold statements, predictions of future success (or struggles) and deep explanations embedded in an article can sour quickly, ruining an otherwise fine piece of work.
I touched on this before in my review of SI’s Great Baseball Writing. Throughout that collection there are passages or even entire articles from the late 1990s and early 2000s that try to explain the sudden power surge late in the careers of Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa.
This is at the heart of the Sports Illustrated or EA Sports cover curses – the subject is chosen because of what they’re expected to achieve and, more often than not, they disappoint because they’re being held up to more intense scrutiny or our expectations (raised by the hype of being on the cover) are unrealistic.
Right now I’m reading Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball and I’m making my way through his lengthy Pyramid section where he ranks the top 96 professional basketball players of all time.
It’s an entertaining and informative piece, until you get to the subchapter on Lebron James. Here’s a few paragraphs of the book that, in turn, were pulled from Simmons’ April 15, 2009 posting where he makes the case for James as NBA MVP.
“Not since Magic Johnson has a superstar doubled as such a galvanizing teammate. If there's an enduring image of the '08-09 season, it's the way LeBron stamped his personality on everyone around him. They orchestrate goofy pregame intros (my favorite: the team snapshot), trade countless chest bumps, giggle on the sidelines, hang out on road trips and support each other in every way. What's telling about LeBron's in-traffic dunks -- and he unleashes them more frequently than anyone since Dominique -- is how he seeks out his bench for feedback, and even better, how they give it to him. It makes the forced camaraderie of the Lakers seem glaring. If you want to watch a team that pulls for each other and follows the lead of its best player, watch Cleveland.
And if you're a Cavs fan trying to talk yourself into LeBron staying after 2010, your best chance is this: Through 24 years, LeBron has proven to be an inordinately devoted guy. When you're with him, you're with him. The upcoming documentary (supposedly superb) about his high school years bangs this point home. So does the fact that he jettisoned his agents and surrounded himself with high school buddies. So does everything that happened this season. He's as good of a teammate as a player. The more I watch him, the more I wonder if such an intensely loyal guy would ever say, "Thanks for the memories, everybody," dump his teammates, dump his hometown and start a fresh life elsewhere. Although he isn't surrounded by the most talented players right now, collectively, it's a team in the truest sense, with a devoted set of appreciative fans, and maybe that's all LeBron James will need in the end.
I thought he was a goner four months ago. I think he's staying now. Regardless, he's our Most Valuable Player for 2009. It won't be the last time.”
Although Simmons’ schtick is enthusiastic hyperbole, I do believe that he was very sincere in his belief that James is a loyal, team-oriented player and a true son of Ohio. And, credit where it's due, the Sports Guy was right that James would win NBA MVP in 2009 and that it wouldn't be his last.
But Simmons was wrong about Lebon's character. I think it's fair to say that the Decision, the hour-long ESPN special where Lebron announced that he was “taking his talents to South Beach” proved that as it ripped out the hearts of Cleveland Cavaliers’ fans and tarnished Lebon's image.
It turned out that James is not particularly loyal, that his high school friends/managers totally misread the impact of his television special and that the Lebron camp are so out of touch with his fanbase that they signed off on this ad for Nike, rubbing salt in the wound.
Yikes. Knowing what we know now, reading Simmons' glowing praise of Lebron makes me cringe.
In fairness to Simmons, he did change his mind as the free agency deadline loomed this past summer, backpedalling from his earlier belief that James was going to stay in Ohio as new information came to light.
And hey, it’s not like I haven’t made my own terrible calls. Long-time readers of this blog just need to think back to my March Madness predictions from this past spring, or my Canadian Hockey League playoff predictions from about the same time to see that I’m no seer myself.
I just want to underscore just how tricky this predictions game can be. It’s a wrinkle that makes sports journalism just a bit tougher, a little more unpredictable and definitely a lot more uncomfortable for columnists.
Blog posts, books, magazine covers, whatever, are all created in a particular moment but then stand forever.
Unfortunately, sports journalists are often called upon to make predictions, foresee the future and the incorrect guesses last much longer than the actual outcome ever does. It can turn good copy bad, real fast and it can also make me put down a book for a few minutes to reflect on how fleeting insight can be.
Specifically, my bracket ended when the Duke University Blue Devils dropped the Baylor University Bears 78-71 on Sunday night.
I had picked Baylor to move on to the National Semifinal, and having already lost my other Final Four picks - Kansas, Kentucky and Syracuse – to upsets big and small, I was officially shut out.
Miraculously, I finished in a three-way tie for first place.
That’s right, this year’s edition of March Madness has had so many twists and turns that all six of my fellow poolies have been eliminated with three games still remaining in the tournament. Everyone picked Kansas to win, and most had the Jayhawks beating Kentucky in the Final.
As I’ve said in previous posts, my bracket strategy relies heavily on going with the favourites. I don’t know nearly enough about NCAA basketball to offer any kind of dissenting opinion to the experts or competition committee, so I just go with the flow.
Of course, this leaves me wide open for upsets wrecking my chances of victory. In that department, the 2010 tourney has been exceptional.
In fact, 18 of the 60 games so far have seen the lower seed prevail. By comparison, there were a total of 16 upsets in the entire 2009 tournament, including Michigan State (#2) overcoming Connecticut (#1) in the National Semifinal. The year before that, 2008, saw just 13 upsets.
Most surprising is that the only top seed left in the entire tournament is Duke, the team that all the experts had picked for an early exit.
In any event, this has been an incredible tournament, even if my stake in its outcome has been settled well before the whole thing is over.
Just five days in to the NCAA’s annual Division I men’s basketball tournament and already Kansas - my pick to win the whole thing - is eliminated.
It’s not just me who has been rocked by the Jayhawks early departure – literally every single person in my pool had them as the champions. They were the prohibitive favourite for just about everyone I know.
Northern Iowa has become Death, the destroyer of brackets.
I’ve never seen a basketball game alter the mood in the city of Toronto, let alone an amateur match, but there was definitely a buzz in the air in the hour after Northern Iowa’s 69-67 upset of Kansas. Passing people on my way to work I could overhear talk about ruined brackets and disappointing efforts.
Most poolies are now relying on their Sweet 16 and Elite Eight picks to see them through. It’s a very different reality that’s now in place. After all, most people build their brackets around a particular team who will sweep through to the finals. Without that cornerstone, the whole thing falls apart.
Fortunately for me, I’m in good shape.
I’ve made 29 of 48 picks, and have a possible 102 points still available. That showing puts me in the 55th percentile of all Yahoo! Fantasy Sports users. My bracket is literally not half bad, but it’s not much better.
Thank God there is some time off before the Sweet 16 gets underway. I know that it’s for the teams to try and rest and re-group, but at this point I think that the fans need it just as much.
I know that I am a neophyte NCAA basketball fan, but this is the most exciting March Madness tournament I’ve followed to date.
It started with the major upsets in the first few rounds, followed by the elimination of perennial mid-major powerhouse Villanova and then finally the shocking departure of the Jayhawks, the consensus pick to win the whole damn thing.
In any event, thank God for that break. Now we’ve got a chance to try and figure out what’s going on, and who’s going to win the championship. The Syracuse Orange? Duke? Northern Iowa?
I really don’t know.
What I do know, is that I can’t wait for the Madness to start up again. I’ll be watching every minute of it.
In yesterday’s post I mentioned that my strategy for NCAA pools relies heavily on picking the favourites. After all, at least on paper, they are the better team. You might recall that I even mentioned that the tactic often costs me when there are major upsets, particularly in the first round.
So when there were no less than five shockers yesterday, you could imagine my delight. Further, the three upsets I did pick (UTEP, Florida, San Diego State) managed to lose. All told, I am now ranked sixth (out of six) with only half of my picks correct. Yikes.
My one saving grace is that I still have a possible 180 points available to me, third best in my league. Nonetheless, I need things to go well for me today if I’m going to recover.
At the same time, I thoroughly enjoyed all the games I watched yesterday, especially the upsets. Yeah, it was killing me in my pool, but they were incredibly entertaining.
Villanova’s match with Robert Morris is the perfect example. For my bracket to stay alive I desperately needed ‘Nova to win. But despite myself, I was cheering for the boys from RMU. It’s a cliché, but I just loved their hustle.
Of course, this is what makes March Madness great. That sense of desperation, that swelling of emotion with each shot, each steal, every made basket. Even an impartial observer gets wrapped up in the action.
That emotional investment does a lot to gloss over a lot of the problems with the level of play. There are glaring errors made by all the teams in the tournament, particularly when it comes to defence. I can’t tell you how often I caught myself yelling at the TV yesterday as I saw an ill-advised double team. Discipline is also always an issue with such young players, so tactics quickly fall apart.
But it’s that reckless play that makes March Madness so fun to watch; it’s completely unpredictable and usually has a wild finish. You never know when a team is going to fall apart.
I’m looking forward to seeing how day two plays out. Hopefully it’ll be as exciting as yesterday.... only with things going my way.
Here is my official March Madness bracket, thanks to the good people at Yahoo! Sports and their PDF generator. Click the link to see my rather uneducated guesses. No, I am not sponsored by KFC.
That’s when, like everyone else in the civilized world, Canadians become obsessed with the NCAA’s Division I basketball tournament. However, unlike our neighbours to the south, we can come at it from an oddly objective place.
Let me explain.
Obviously, there are no Canadian schools in the tournament. There are rarely Canadians to root for, either. Like following the National Football League we’re left to our own devices to figure out which teams to pick. We are unfettered by any kind of loyalty or regional bias.
Really, in general, Canadians are blissfully ignorant of college basketball until about early March. There’s little coverage on Sportsnet or TSN. Only hardcore basketball fans who seek out games on the Score or online have any real knowledge of the NCAA game. Everyone else gleans what they can from American shows like Pardon the Interruption or Around the Horn. Our focus is, and always will be, hockey.
Does that stop Canadians from participating in March Madness pools? Not even a little. Practically everyone I know has at least one bracket, and suddenly basketball is on all kinds of TV channels. After all, there is no better way to while away the time once your NHL team is eliminated from the playoffs.
My only NCAA allegiance is to Syracuse University Orange. Not because of Carmelo Anthony, but because of their lacrosse team. After all, that’s where Gary and Paul Gait went. Not to mention the Powell boys. Also, it’s kind of local to Toronto. I guess that's nice.
Aside from that small preference for the Orange, I can enjoy the tournament bias free. Heck, I’m even indifferent to Duke University which, according to ESPN’s Bill Simmons, people hate.
Personally, I enjoy the fact that as a Canadian I can operate from a point of objective ignorance: It means that I rarely over-think things. My judgement is never clouded by preference or conflicting sources of information.
If 75% of users are picking a team online, it sounds good to me. I’ll never be tempted to pick an underdog, since, hey, I don’t know anything beyond the seeding. Historical trends? Don't know, don't care. It’s wonderfully liberating.
My strategy is to pick teams I’ve heard of, relying on the assumption that if they're on my radar up here in Canada, they must be good. Failing that, I go with the higher seed. If two well known teams meet at some point in my bracket, I follow the lead of my fellow online users. When I feel particularly daring I’ll take an underdog (usually a 12 seed over a five) but that’s as wild as I get.
It’s actually a pretty good system. It leaves me open to upsets, but that’s rarely a problem beyond the Sweet 16.
Now I can just sit back and enjoy the show, along with my free health care. The beauty of being Canadian.