The psychology of bracketology

Set aside the particular star you were born under. Forget about the way you dress. Never mind your taste in music or film. Who cares if your bedroom is a tidy bastion of quiet comfort or a place that resembles a countryside laid waste by a tornado? The real measure of your personality is the way you fill out your NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament bracket.

Whether it is an office pool, a long-running competition with friends and family, or an online dash for cash, the teams we pick along the two-week journey that is March Madness help define who we are and, more importantly, draw the line between basketball soothsayer and hardwood noob. This is amateur psychology by way of bracketology.

They say there are 16 personality types. While that number is a sweet one in March, let’s go the extra basketball mile and break it all down to a temperamental Final Four.

And the question come tournament time is: Which type are you?

1. The Chalk-Taker

Seeding is important in the tournament. For the actual teams involved, it means where they play and who they battle. For the fan with bracket in hand, those little numbers next to a school’s name are a helpful guide as to who will beat whom come March. A person that takes the chalk and plays favorites keeps all of their pencils sharp, brings an umbrella to work at the sight of the first gray cloud, and never misses a payment. They pick the higher seeds right down the line and rarely, if ever, give a lower-seeded team a chance to notch a victory.

This can be a smart tack to take – hell, they rank these teams for a reason – but bear in mind: All four No. 1 seeds have made the Final Four only once in the tournament’s history and the one-and-done rule has left college basketball on an all-too-level field of play. This year alone, there have been four different teams to sit atop the AP Top 25 and the gulf between a No. 1 and a No. 16 seed, not to mention a No. 3 and a No. 12, has narrowed to a staggering degree. You may like to play it safe, but you must remember that fortune favors the bold, which brings us to our next personality type.

2. Underdog is Here

Like the cartoon hero who bears its name, the underdog is a thrill to root for. The smaller schools and non-power-conference teams are a joy to watch during the tournament and are a tempting group to roll with just the same. If you’re a champion of the little guy, you probably throw a bet on the long shot come Kentucky Derby time, put off that scheduled maintenance on your vehicle, and see how long you can go on a frayed set of shoelaces. You find yourself drawn to the teams that the talking heads from the four-letter network don’t give a snowball’s chance in hell of making it out of the first round. You pencil in double-digit seeds all the way to the Elite Eight and maybe even all the way to the title game.

You’re the guy or gal who was telling everybody, “I told you so,” when Butler University came up a half-court heave away from beating Duke University in 2011; laughed all the way to the bank when George Mason University reached the Final Four in 2006; and still gets giddy when they show Jim Valvano running around searching for someone, anyone to hug after “The Cardiac Pack” of North Carolina State University got their miracle win over the University of Houston in 1983. You put faith in the underdog because everybody else doesn’t. And you figure the real way to a bracket challenge victory is to pick the teams that nobody else will touch. Like our competitor who looks to the favorite, you’re playing an extreme, but what you and the fella with the chalk in his hand have in common is that what you’re really in need of is some balance.

3. I Walk the Line

Some folks are just proverbially on the fence. They get labeled wishy-washy, flip-floppers, or indecisive. But it’s possible that these traits aren’t quite as bad as they are historically perceived to be. Balance can be the key to a successful relationship and a successful tournament bracket. The pragmatic, level-headed approach to filling out a sheet can lead to a perfect blend of riding the best teams in spots, but picking a solid underdog in others. The folks who walk the line between reckless belief in a No. 13 seed and latching on to a better-than-advertised No. 8 increase their chance of bringing home the bacon at the end of the day.

If you’re a line-walker, you’re the sort who likes to tie one on, but you also know the benefits of CityScoot. You have a high interest credit card, but pay it off quickly and use it for the frequent flyer points. You keep driving when the gas light comes on, but know exactly how many miles are left on the tank when that little yellow light appears. By blending a knowledge of the game with the awareness that the NCAA Tournament is a place where anything can and will happen, bracket builders who maintain balance are usually at the top of the leaderboard and in position to cash in the top prize if their smarts and lady luck can find some common ground. The tournament action isn’t left entirely up to chance after all, although there remain some who rely on just that tendency.

4. Monkey with a Typewriter

Murphy’s Law doesn’t actually happen to be on the books, but if you’ve watched the NCAA Tournament for long enough, you know that it certainly feels like it got amended on to the college hoops bylaws at some point in history. That’s where the master of pure chance comes in – the one who is simply stoked on stochasticity. This is a bracket filler-outer who doesn’t look at seeding and hasn’t seen more than a couple of games all year. This individual might like the way a school’s name sounds, is enamored of their jersey colors, or has Gonzaga University in the Final Four because they had a pet bulldog as a child.

This person is much like a monkey with a typewriter. Most of the time his output is going to be pure drivel, but, every so often, if he keeps smashing those keys long enough, he ends up cranking out Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” line for freaking line. It shouldn’t happen, but if you’re like one of those furry, accidental bards at the keyboard, you rely on the sheer randomness of the universe to steer your course. And, naturally, you make everyone else in the bracket pool look like a bunch of overanalytical pencil pushers by comparison. You’re the type (Hah! Get it?) who does all of your shopping on Christmas Eve, smell-checks a wrinkled T-shirt and throws it on, and pulls out a wad of crumpled dollar bills when it comes time to pay the meal check. Others would say you don’t seem to know what the hell is going on, but you know what time it is. It’s the rest of us who are stuck going through the motions, right? You answer any and all doubts with a knowing smile and a shout of, “Pay up suckers!”

And there you have it. If you roll with the favorites, bet on the underdogs, strike a healthy balance between the two, or take an arbitrary path through your bracket sheet, you probably fall into one of the four March Madness personality types. And unlike any pre-hiring questionnaire or postgraduate research project, how you pick the winners and losers in the Big Dance is what really reveals the color of your character.

Good luck, have fun, and do what feels right when it comes to your selections this year because, here in the Bluegrass especially, your particular basketball bent shows everyone else what you’re really made of.

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