The NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championship (more commonly known as "March Madness" or "The Big Dance") has begun. The tournament, which over the course of three weeks whittles a field of sixty-five schools down to just one, is the biggest sporting event of the spring; it ranks among the World Series and the Super Bowl as one of the nation's premier sports events.
But I'm not playing close attention to the "Tourney" this year. Which is unusual. Normally, I'd be going onto the internet every so often to monitor the outcome of today's first-round games. Normally, I'd be sitting in front of the TV watching the games on CBS. But this year, I'm not.
It's not because I don't like college basketball. While I don't follow it nearly as closely as I do college football, I've always looked forward to March Madness due to its sheer size and excitement.
And it's not because my Cougars aren't in the tournament. The University of Houston hasn't been to the Big Dance since 1992 (indeed, the days of Phi Slamma Jamma are ancient history), but that's never affected my enjoyment of the event in the past.
The reason I'm not paying close attention to the Big Dance is simple: I didn't fill out a bracket this year.
Yes, filling out a bracket really does make that much of a difference.
There's something special about filling out a bracket - something that trancends mere prognostication. When you out that bracket, when you enter your company's office pool, when you try to pick those upsets, when you attempt to determine who will win it all, when you compare your predictions with those of your friends and co-workers, you become part of the action.
That's why you continually hit the "refresh" button on your computer's web browser, following that major upset that appears to be in the works. That's why you find yourself taking long lunch breaks to watch first-round games between schools you normally don't care about. And that's why you come home and sit on the edge of your couch all evening, anxiously hoping that the the team you picked to win it all won't get knocked out by the scrappy underdog.
It doesn't matter how big or how small that office pool is. It makes no difference how many or how few bragging rights are at stake. It's much more than that: your bracket makes the tournament and its sixty-three games personal to you. The bracket becomes your very own guidebook, your personalized roadmap, to the Big Dance. Without it, you are lost. Without it, you're just not part of the action. Without it, you just don't care.
And that's where I find myself right now. I'm not part of the action. And therefore, I don't really care.
Why did I not fill out a bracket this time around? Why did I choose not to be part of the spectacle that is March Madness this year?
In the past, I've participated in office pools at work. But my current place of employment doesn't do that. Everybody's working on different projects, everybody has different schedules, and I guess we really just don't see each other and don't know each other well enough to initiate a basketball pick 'em contest of our own (this, by the way, is probably why the annual Christmas gift exchange is actually a rather awkward affair because nobody really knows one another). For the past couple of years, I've circumvented this problem by participating in the office pool at Lori's work. But that option ended when her employment there ended a couple of months ago.
I guess I could have participated in one of the tournament-picking contests on any of the online sports forums I frequent. But I didn't. I could even have filled out a bracket just for myself, if for no other reason to see how good my prediction skills were. But I didn't. This year, I didn't even bother to sit down and take a close look at the teams and the matchups.
It's not like I've been too overwhelmed to fill out a bracket; to be sure, I have been dealing with a few distractions over the past several days (for example, I've been busy this week trying to figure out why my computer constantly crashes and freezes; maybe it's just time for a new computer), but nothing would have kept me from taking the few minutes to print out a bracket and fill it out if I had simply decided to do so.
The fact is, for whatever reason I simply neglected to fill out a bracket this year (and no, I can't go back and fill out a bracket now, after the tournament has begun). As a result, I'm missing out on March Madness.
Hopefully I won't make the same mistake next spring.
UPDATE: I'd just like to announce that, had I actually filled out a bracket, I would have picked Virginia Commonwealth to upset Duke. I'm not lying! The Blue Devils just weren't themselves this past season and probably were not deserving of a six seed, and VCU had won 18 out of their last 21 games coming into the tournament.