Forget what you’ve read elsewhere. And since it’s been a while, remember this one simple rule while filling out an NCAA Tournament bracket: Don’t get carried away.
No matter what color dominated your dreams recently, how much you dislike Rick Pitino or adore Sister Jean, or even how certain you are that Georgetown vs. Colorado is a lock for the annual No. 12 seed over a No. 5 upset … that is NOT what those government stimulus checks are for.
At least not the entire amount.
March is mad for college basketball again, and that’s a good thing, even if some of the biggest moments will take place at COVID-19 testing sites and both the celebrations and the games themselves will be muted affairs. We still need distractions.
The pandemic that wiped out the tournament a year ago lingers, so be like the NCAA — in this one instance, anyway — and partake while observing all the necessary precautions: Drink lots of fluids, wash your hands often, mask up where appropriate and close your browser the second you suspect the DraftKings logo starts whispering sweet nothings. (Then seek help.) We don’t want the tender shoots of recovery to wind up as crumpled betting slips littering the landscape.
That said, some 50 million of us are expected to stick at least a toe back into betting pools, legal or otherwise. That’s according to — who else? — the American Gambling Association, the industry’s national trade association, and its estimate tracks the last time the tournament was held in 2019.
There will be fewer office pools, obviously, because there are fewer people back working in offices. But the industry expects online wagering through legal sports books to easily pick up any slack. Indeed, the industry is not only counting on pent-up demand; it’s practically framing betting as your patriotic duty.
“In many ways it’s a signal that America is coming back,” said Joe Asher, CEO of William Hill US. “Beyond the sports betting aspect, it flows into the whole COVID recovery story.”
And whether you’ve got something riding on the outcome, even in these strange times, there’s no shortage of story threads waiting to be tugged. There will be buzzer-beaters, new heroes and old villains and just enough familiar faces so that like comfort food, you’ll be instantly reminded what made the tournament seem so pleasing in the first place. There’s something for everyone.
If it’s resilience you want, look no further than the return of now-101-year-old (and fully vaccinated) Sister Jean Schmidt, the unofficial mascot for a Loyola Chicago squad back after a Cinderella run to the Final Four three seasons ago. If, for some reason, you want more chaos, then track the progress of historic giant-killers Norfolk State and Cleveland State. And then there’s the just plain weird to savor — teams like Oregon State and Georgetown, that seemingly had no shot to make the tourney a week ago, and look dangerous playing with house money.
Sure, it won’t be the same in Indianapolis without Duke or Kentucky, or the Hoosiers for that matter. You might not have Kansas or defending champion Virginia to kick around, either, depending on how their quarantine results come back Tuesday, the last day they’ll be allowed inside the NCAA bubble.
But there’s enough schadenfreude to go around. Just ask Louisville, for the moment, the last team left out. The school fired Pitino in 2017 after being ensnared in a federal corruption investigation that could still result in sanctions. Pitino, meanwhile, was soon enough tired of sailing on his yacht and got back in the game at Iona, playing just 13 regular-season games before winning its conference tourney and an automatic bid. He wasn’t exactly thrilled, however, with a 15th seed.
“A little role reversal,” is what Pitino called it, which could well be the unofficial motto for the three weeks about to unfold.