Man vs. Machine: A March Madness Journal

The Atlantic

This is a record of encounters with the humans who play college basketball. For most, they've been reduced to numbers, percentages: bracketed. Around here, I want to decompress them, let them be young men who play a game.

Yesterday, I described my discomfort with the statistical fandom, the goal of which is to create the best algorithm for predicting the world based on data. It's seeing a sport like a machine. 

Which, actually, can be pretty fun!

But there are plenty of blogs to give you the statistical breakdown of every game and matchup. This is a different journey through the tournament's first round. I'm committed to just watching the games without the statistical overlays. 

I'm here to watch humans test the species' athletic limits, not brute force my way to a marginally better bracket. 

In most years, I'd enter the tournament with a stockpile of numerical and visual data about teams and players. But this season, my first with a child, I've watched way less games and analyzed far fewer stats. My basketball brain has been trained by 20 years of seriously watching games, but I'm entering March Madness with beginner's mind. 

I only have a few ground rules.

The first: I'm rooting against the best bracket produced by the Huffington Post's Predict-a-Tron, which (now that you've already filed your bracket) you can see here. If this year is like the last four years, the machine is going to get a lot of things right, perhaps even 85 percent of the games.

The second: I'm rooting for UCLA and against all the other top seeds in the South bracket. So, sorry, Florida, Kansas, Syracuse, and VCU. You are, of course, welcome to join us in collegial fandom, but I wish for the destruction of your dreams. 

The last: I'll be hanging around the comments. Let's chat.

12:40 pm: And we're off. I'm beginning the day with Dayton-Ohio State. An interesting social dynamic this intra-state: Jordan Sibert transferred from OSU to Dayton.

1:00 pm: In the early going, I've been thinking about nerves. In the first few minutes, one Dayton player short-armed a bounce pass and another missed a layup. But moments later, Sibert hit a three from the wing on a fast break. And the teams settled into a fast rhythm.

1:20 pm: One of my favorite basketball moves is when a smaller player is on the break, dribbling just a bit ahead of a defender. As they approach the basket, the offensive player jumps up and generally into the defender. It takes away their shotblocking angle, stabilizes them as they go in for the shot, and often draws a foul. And they grimace. Almost every time.

1:40 pm: In middle school, I ran my first betting operation. I created odds for each team winning the championship, and let kids at school put money on them. If a team wasn't very good, but was well-known, like Georgetown that year, I'd make the odds like 100:1. There were a lot of suckers. I made some good money that year. 

But that this was my business meant that we had to figure out a way to know what was happening with the games. It was 1995: we didn't have smartphones. All there was was TV or radio. We snuck in radios and ran their headphone cords up our sleeves. That didn't work as well as you might think.

In the end, we cut a deal with the basketball loving librarian. She let us check in with her between classes, looking up from her tiny desktop television to inform us dryly about the fortunes of our teams.

1:52 pm: I love when a game that could be an upset reaches the under-8 timeout still close. That almost always means it's going to finish close. The team that shouldn't win might.

2:03 pm: I actually experience relief when, in the early frenzied slate of games, some turn out to be blowouts. Because Dayton-Ohio State is so good that I don't want my attention divided. 

2:05 pm: It is worth noting, at this moment, with Dayton leading with 3 minutes left: the Predict-o-Tron's best bracket had Ohio State going to the elite eight! Dayton winning would be a huge victory for mankind.

2:45 pm: An incredible first game! Dayton beats Ohio State, a big victory for the humans. ESPN reports that only 19 percent of brackets remain perfect. GOOD. Let's rewatch the winning shot, by Dayton's OSU transfer, Jordan Siebert. 

Dayton set up with four low, Siebert with the ball against OSU golden boy, Aaron Craft. Forward Devin Oliver came running up the paint, nominally to set a screen on Craft's right side. But Siebert takes off from with a right hand dribble before Oliver actually sets, so he's just a decoy. 

Oliver's defender, meanwhile, didn't follow him past the three-point line, but also didn't commit to helping on Siebert. 

Craft was a half-step slow laterally cutting off Siebert's drive, so the OSU defender guarding the corner three-point shot has to come down to help. But his effort is half-hearted: he stops the dribble, but not the man. Siebert takes a step, elevates over Craft (who doesn't even contest the shot), and banks a relatively easy shot in.

It's a satisfying conclusion to the game, not only because of the victory over the machines, but also because of the announcers' relentless fawning over Craft. One of them actually said at one point, after he scored: "There's a toughness in that jersey that belies the angelic countenance." Do I have to tell you that Craft is white?

2:56 pm: Harvard's up 9 on Cincinnati, 13 minutes into the game. I find myself in the odd position of rooting for Cincinnati here because of the Predict-O-Tron model actually has Harvard winning.

3:02 pm: The commercials on CBS reek of desperation. This the text of a DirecTV commercial I've already seen too many times:

When your cable is on the fritz, you get tense. When you get tense, you can't sleep.

When you can't sleep, you need to sleep.
When you need to sleep, you get stranded.
When you get stranded, you have to survive.
When you have to survive, you eat wild berries.
When you eat wild berries, you chase imaginary butterflies into something highly illegal.
Ditch cable, get DirecTV, don't chase imaginary butterflies into something highly illegal.

Is this not just tacitly admitting that there is no actual reason to choose one television provider over another? 

Meanwhile, Harvard's up 7 at the half, and the Syracuse game just started.

3:34pm: You never see a well-executed dirty play. By definition, to successfully execute a play that is outside the boundaries of the game's rules, you must not get caught. That means all we see are the clumsy attempts at cheating and violence. 

Take BYU forward Nate Austin's takedown of Oregon's Ben Carter in the first half of today's game. They got tangled up going for a rebound and both men (each over 6'8" and relatively gangly) ended up on the floor. With Oregon on the fast break, Carter tries to get up and run as the trailer down the middle of the court. But as he stands up, Austin slyly wraps up both his ankles and Carter falls over as if someone had tied his shoes together while he was taking a quiz in algebra. Dirty work done, Austin immediately dropped his palm to the ground and started getting up as if he'd done nothing. But the refs had seen the leg sweep, of course, because it had caused a huge man to fall to the ground in the center of the court. 

3:55 pm: Cincinnati has begun full-court pressing Harvard, trying to speed the game up and take advantage of their superior team athleticism. It got me thinking about the full-court press, and other specialized college basketball tactics. Unlike in college football, where the spread offense has completely changed the game, in basketball, no tactical innovation has become dominant. Though many teams through the years have been successful with the full-court press, it's never become a dominant way of playing the game. The same goes for the Syracuse 2-3 zone or the Princeton offense. I'm not sure why, but it's one of the things that makes college basketball so interesting. There is true variability in the styles teams play.

4:00 pm: Before Harvard's recent resurgence, which began in 2011-2012, their last tournament game was played in 1946 against the NYU Violets. As it turns out, NYU basketball was a powerhouse for a while in the mid-century. In 1945, they went to the NCAA championship game. And in 1960, they went to the Final Four.

4:45 pm: Wow, Harvard wins. The key play of the game was when Harvard was up 54-53 with the ball. Neither team was having an easy time scoring and it seemed like if Cincinnati could just get over the hump and take the lead, they wouldn't relinquish it. Harvard, leading for most of the game, couldn't pull away. And it felt like they needed some breathing room. 

So, it was that the ball came up the floor with about 2.5 minutes left. Harvard killed some clock, setting some screens down low, and popping guys up outside the three point line. After several feints, guard Brandyn Curry came slashing into the middle of the court, and three Cincinatti defenders collapsed on him. Meanwhile, Siyani Chambers was standing beyond the three point line on the left side of the court. Curry tossed him the ball and Cincinatti defender Kevin Johnson, scrambling to close out what he thought was a three-point attempt, overcommitted. Chambers drove hard right, Johnson took an angle that was too low, and Chambers squared up and drained the jumper from just beyond the free throw line. 

There were other plays that mattered down the stretch, but it was this shot that put the pressure back on Cincinnati, when it felt, for all the world, like Cincinnati's athleticism  was simply going to overwhelm Harvard down the stretch.

5:28 pm: Oregon is now up 21 points on BYU, and yet BYU has to keep bringing the ball up the floor, running the offense, looking for good shots, missing, and then running back to play defense. A blowout—especially one that begins early—in the tournament can seem cruel. The childhood shining-moment dream turned into a nightmare that just keeps going through every screen and inbound pass and defensive crouch. It's bad to be blown out in football because it physically hurts. But the sustained futility of a team losing badly might be more emotionally painful.

Even worse, for the fans, are the stories we tell ourselves about how we might come back. "Just hit three 3s, stop them, then a couple easy buckets off the press, and we'd be back within 5!" 

The strangest thing, then, is when such a fantasy actually comes true, as when UCLA beat Gonzaga in 2006, scoring the last 11 points of the game to win by 3. It was insane. 

I stood in the stands of the arena roaring into the empty volume, the UCLA fans in absolute ecstasy. The Gonzaga fans looked as if they'd been spiritually hollowed out, Adam Morrison crying on the floor. 

But usually that doesn't happen. If you get down 17, you lose by 25, like BYU today.





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