Wednesday, July 18 , 2018, 3:32 pm | Mostly Cloudy 72º


Mark Shields: Winning the ‘March Madness’ Office Pool

Forget the science of prognostication; when in doubt, go with the mascot

Do not bother to tell me even if forensic historians incontrovertibly prove by DNA that Thomas Jefferson, when he authored the Declaration of Independence, was under the influence of performance-enhancing pharmaceuticals. Not this week, thank you. This is the opening of “March Madness,” when 65 men’s college basketball teams begin the playoff tournament that will eventually determine one national champion. More important, it is when just about the whole country seems to be consumed with the “office pool” and trying to predict the winner.

Mark Shields
Mark Shields

The “office pool” is more than a celebration of spring. It is close to being a totally shared national experience. In businesses and institutions across the continent, co-workers and colleagues spend countless hours making their picks — or, more accurately, their guesses, investing a few dollars and then rooting for teams from schools the campuses of which they could not find on a map with the help of Google.

In hopes of saving my gentle readers countless hours of researching the teams and players in this year’s tourney, I offer a few simple guidelines for winning the respect of your colleagues, if not the pool, itself.

» When in doubt in choosing between two teams, pick the team that competes all season in the tougher conference. For example, the Big East Conference and the Atlantic Coast Conference are much tougher conferences than are the Big South Conference and the Ivy League. Generally speaking, if a conference has five or more of its teams in the national tournament, it is stronger than the conference that only has one team in the dance.

» Favorites are favorites for a reason: That reason is that favorites win more often than do underdogs. Still, in the first round of the tournament No. 10 seeds often do defeat No. 7 seeds. It’s not a crazy idea to pick a No. 12 seed in that first round.

» Do not get carried away with upsets. In the entire history of these national basketball tournaments, no team seeded eighth or lower has ever won the championship.

» If you’re still stumped, make your picks (guesses) based upon the originality, appeal or humor of the schools’ basketball mascot.

If this were the sole, determining criterion, a number of teams that will not be asked to the tournament would be the overwhelming favorites, beginning with my personal pet mascot, UC Santa Cruz’s banana slug. Nothing racially or ethnically offensive. No gratuitous violence. The banana slug was chosen, let it be noted, in a campus-wide referendum at the university and succeeded the sea lion.

For a real team mascot brimming with energy and enthusiasm, none can really compete with the Hawk of St. Joseph University in Philadelphia. It’s not the outfit, which is fine. It is that the St. Joe’s Hawk never stops flapping its wings, or arms, from the beginning of the game until the end. Literally the Hawk’s wings are flapped thousands of times in a two-hour game.

But here are the outstanding mascots of teams in the 2009 tournament:

» Otto the Orange of Syracuse University. Literally a round orange — with human legs and a little Syracuse cap on top. A more chunky earlier model basically covered the legs with his costume, creating a striking resemblance to the huge fruit. In defiance of mascots and cheerleaders who perform cartwheels or make human pyramids, the laid-back orange often just rolls on the floor.

» The West Virginia Mountaineer. A student, selected on the basis of class performance, among other factors, dressed in coonskin hat, sporting a beard and carrying a long rifle. It works for West Virginia University.

» Chief Osceola of Florida State University. A fierce Seminole brave ready for real conflict whose existence has been officially sanctioned as not being offensive by Florida’s Seminole tribe.

» Western Kentucky University’s Big Red, which is a huge red blob that looks like it might be the issue of an illicit union between PBS’ Clifford and the architects and engineers that produce Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Still, Big Red is likable.

» Wake Forest University’s Demon Deacon, which qualifies on the basis of creative contradictions. This historically Southern Baptist school, long before there was a Jimmy Swaggart or a Jim Bakker or a Father Geoghan, had its own Elmer Gantry mascot. I like him.

There you have the keys to the office pool and your sanity in “March Madness.” Don’t take my picks. Look those mascots over, and then make your own choices. Good luck.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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