Pop Culture

BRACKETS FOR PEOPLE WHO DON’T WATCH BASKETBALL: J. RYAN STRADAL PREDICTS SELECT MATCHUPS FOR THE 2014 NCAA MEN’S BASKETBALL PLAYOFFS

SOUTH

Florida (1) vs. Albany (16) or Mt. St. Mary’s (16)

This is like one of those outdoor festivals where David Bowie is on one stage and at the same time, Local H and White Town are playing on other stages. Maybe Local H and White Town have great new material; we’ll never know.

PREDICTION: Florida asks the NCAA to please get this over with, and offers to play both Albany and Mt. St. Mary’s at the same time. Florida still wins 39-20, in the greatest of all basketball outcomes—a low-scoring blowout—only because Albany’s defense controls the tempo of the game with the unrelenting mildness of a public radio pledge drive.

 

Colorado (8) vs. Pittsburgh (9)

As recently as seventy years ago, the idea of teams from these two locations playing each other would’ve been a costly logistical nightmare. Now, it’s merely pointless. “My heart felt need to die,” Stanley Kunitz wrote in 1954, probably foreseeing matchups like this as a consequence of air travel. “Our dusty time had come / I said, ‘endure the lie, / The waste, the tedium.’”

PREDICTION: Florida, who’s set to play the winner of this game anyway, comes over and plays these teams simultaneously as well. The score goes unremarked; the TV plays two hours of “The Best of Stadium Kiss-Cam” instead.

 

VCU (5) vs. Stephen F. Austin (12)

In contests like this, I think of players like freshman Stephen F. Austin forward Ben Brown-White, who’s only appeared in 11 games this year, and has only taken one shot all season (which he missed). Can they please just suit him up for this game and give him one open look at the basket? What if this young man’s second field goal attempt of the year somehow wins it? That’s why people watch sports! Make it happen, Stephen F. Austin.

PREDICTION: Coach Shaka Smart’s disciplined VCU machine crushes their underdog minor conference opponent 78-49, because that is what really happens in sports, pretty much all the time, who were you kidding.

 

UCLA (4) vs. Tulsa (13)

The weather out in Los Angeles has been so incredibly nice since Christmas, they’ll lose this game out of sheer karmic revenge.

PREDICTION: Zach LaVine gets drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves, joining fellow ex-UCLA players Kevin Love and Shabazz Muhammad. Timberwolves team president Flip Saunders will greet Zach at the airport, hand him a plastic ice scraper, and tell him, “Don’t ever say I never gave you anything for free.”

Zach will think about that in twenty years, when it’s twelve below in February, and his nose hairs are cryogenic stalactites, and he’s blinking ice out of his eyes because the moisture on his eyeballs is freezing, and his kid is going to a high school where they make ice scrapers in shop class. Zach’s not above stealing the thing from his kid’s backpack, because Flip Saunders didn’t say nothing about all this.

 

New Mexico (7) vs. Stanford (10)

In December 1965, Frank Zappa told the crowd at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go in Los Angeles, “If your children ever find out how lame you really are, they’ll murder you in your sleep.” I used to think that was funny, but now I’m one John Deere-riding mower away from being part of the problem.

PREDICTION: Last year, New Mexico played Harvard in the first round, and Harvard won in what was deemed a giant upset. If Stanford wins here, can we just go ahead and admit that maybe New Mexico is just overrated? Or do those little numbers (7) and (10) tell you what to think? Go outside, you need some fresh air.

 

EAST

Villanova (2) vs. Milwaukee (15)

Most of Generation X knows, or assumes, that “Milwaukee” is Algonquin for “the good land” because Alice Cooper said so in Wayne’s World. It’s one of those things that the vast majority of us have never bothered to fact-check, and we all could right now, but why break the spell?

PREDICTION: Villanova gets out to a 38-20 lead at the half, and their happiness is so infectious coming back out of the locker room, everyone lays their bodies down on the court and stares up at the ceiling, like a serene version of the pedestrians in Radiohead’s “Just” video. Time expires after each team gets dozens of 24-second violations; nobody minds. They are, to paraphrase Wislawa Szymborska, angels made of earthbound protein, living kites with glands straight from the Song of Songs, free from the chain of failed attempts that was once called a life.

 

Virginia (1) vs. Coastal Carolina (16)

Is the Sizzler Buffet overrated, under-rated, or properly rated? This is what I ask my girlfriend in bed at three in the morning right before she gets up to go check the Internet on her phone, probably to look up the answer. Problem is: if she knows, she ain’t talking.

PREDICTION: Coastal Carolina’s team is called the “Chanticleers,” which is fascinating, but clear singing won’t help them here—not even if you could power a stretch limo full of noise-cancelling headphones with just the beating of their nervous hearts. Virginia scores 50 points in the first half, and will be happy and relaxed, the way kids are when they know, for sure, they’re getting what they want for Christmas.

 

Michigan State (4) vs. Delaware (13)

I hate it when that Farmers’ Market guy just put outs a box of tomatoes and labels them “heirlooms.” What kind of heirlooms, mon frère? It makes all the difference in the world! The San Marzano is best for paste and sauce. The sliceable Caspian Pink is excellent for sandwiches. Moonglow has the highest lycopene content of any heirloom, and the best early grower is Moskvich. For salads, you can’t go wrong with the handsome Golden Dwarf Champion; for stuffing, nothing tops the breathtaking Striped Cavern, and if you just want a versatile little bastard that does all of these things fairly well, go with Brandywine, though they’re a tad juicy for soups.

PREDICTION: I’m intrigued by this matchup! When was the last time a team from Delaware was on a national stage like this? 1999? I love Delaware, it’s like New Jersey, but clean, and without cities. Blue crab cakes! Rehoboth Beach! Lots of things named after Bayards! Catch the Blue Hens now, when you can, because Michigan State is everyone’s trendy pick to win it all, and it would be downright ethereal if they lost this one.

 

North Carolina (6) vs. Providence (11)

Providence’s team is called the “Friars,” which is just lovely. If we had to wipe out college sports and start again from scratch, would today’s sports people come up with names as mystifying and wondrous as “Friars” and “Tar Heels”? Let’s assume not. Both teams are entering the tournament on an upswing, and this game will be at least as entertaining as your first time trying to build a campfire.

PREDICTION: In the opening half, North Carolina accidentally sends out the team that lost to UAB, but makes halftime adjustments in the locker room and replaces them with the team that beat Michigan State. Will it be enough? Is it ever enough?

 

 

WEST

Arizona (1) vs. Weber St. (16)

This game will be wonderful humdrum, as perfunctory as a morning commute, and while it’s merely an amusing way to pass the time for one team of Wildcats, let’s not forget that for the 16th seed in this relationship, this game represents not a simple, platonic exercise, but a hard-fought apex of achievement. Will Weber State, someday, go farther than this? That is perhaps the fate drawn from this contest – is this year’s 16th seed the headwaters of an unknowable and great river, or simply its mouth, emptying all its hope and talent into the present like a wet piñata? Find out this Thursday; check your local listings.

PREDICTION: “Generations do not cease to be born,” writes James Baldwin. “We are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have.”

 

Gonzaga (8) vs. Oklahoma State (9)

I still think Spanish reds represent the best value in wine. The bang for your buck you can get with those fruity, crowd-pleasing Garnachas or Monastrells is almost immoral. You can spend a little more on a Priorat, but quality-wise, I dare you to find a domestic GSM for around the same price. If these wines aren’t subtle enough for you, I think Corvina is still an underrated light-bodied buy, but a lot of California Pinot Noir has sadly gone through the roof. Good job on clearing California of its oversold Merlot, you Pinot snobs, but in the future don’t take wine advice from movies or sports columns; I don’t want my favorite $16 bottle to be $24 next year.

PREDICTION: Most of the people I know who like Gonzaga are older white guys, and they’re just going to have to sit back and watch their beloved Zags get man-trampled by Oklahoma State’s obstreperous, ill-advised, and majestic point guard Marcus Smart. Ten minutes into the second half, they’ll switch over to Fox News to calm themselves down, and everyone will forget, once again, that the asteroid 99942 Apophis is still coming for us all.

 

North Dakota St. (12) vs, Oklahoma (5)

My ninth greatest fear is that the Trans-Siberian Railway will just turn out to be several straight days of looking out the window of the lounge car and seeing North Dakota. I’ve been to North Dakota several times, and I believe that, like Siberia, what natural beauty exists there is not due to a thoughtful sense of conservationism (like, say, in Iceland) but rather because it’s just too vast and isolated for its own people to ruin.

My tenth-biggest and perhaps more well-founded fear is that Siberian and North Dakotan food will be generally equivalent—although North Dakotans have the cultural advantage of using Cream of Mushroom Soup purely as an ingredient and not as a meal in itself.

PREDICTION: I someday go on the Trans-Siberian Railway and actually like it, and look back on these observations in shame. Which is to say: North Dakota State, in a walk.

 

Creighton (3) vs. University of Louisiana-Lafayette (14)

The likely national player of the year, Doug McDermott, plays for Creighton – and he’s also the coach’s kid. Unless you were a coach’s kid yourself, you probably fear and despise this situation.

The Louisiana team calls themselves the “Ragin’ Cajuns,” and yes, there’s an apostrophe in the name, which might give them a chance to stay competitive in this one. Creighton’s team is the Bluejays—one word—so, D for originality, guys, but a B+ for that subtle display of frugality. Having only eight characters instead of nine on your equipment, well, that’s the kind of smart economic choice that adds up over the years. The pizza tonight is on Doug’s dad; you can thank him with your effort on the court.

PREDICTION: My favorite Division I school is IUPUI, which I hope is pronounced as an acronym and not merely an abbreviation. Come to think of it, I’ve never heard anyone actually say “IUPUI”—even people I’ve (briefly) met from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis just referred to it as “work” or “school.” I hate to scuttle all the shining moments to come, but if this miracle of collegiate amalgamation can somehow further merge with Louisiana-Lafayette and Coastal Carolina and become the IUPUI Ragin’ Chanticleers, drop the mic, college basketball is over.

 

Oregon (7) vs. Brigham Young University (10)

The game Oregon Trail, developed by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium, does not take the user through Utah; the closest it gets is Fort Bridger, Wyoming. While players will learn nothing about Utah in this game, they will learn the jarring amusement of losing friends to dysentery, and experience the heady musings that come with having four people in your wagon but only one set of clothing.

PREDICTION: Oregon will control this game from the tip-off, giving BYU at least thirty-nine minutes and thirty-six seconds to consider whether death is, as Don DeLillo put it, “a swan dive, graceful, white winged and smooth, leaving the surface undisturbed,” or, in the words of D. H. Lawrence, “souls oozing through the exit of the cruel bruise?” I’ll bet my hummus plate on Lawrence.

 

MIDWEST

Wichita State (1) vs. Cal Poly (16)

The Wichita State Shockers are undefeated. That has to end sooner or later— these are college kids, after all, beautiful and erratic; their emotions and bold impulses lead them like ants carrying a moist Dorito across a sidewalk—and it’s all too fascinating to last.

Cal Poly is 14-19, making it into the playoffs because they somehow won their Big West Conference title, and then beat Texas Southern on Wednesday to earn one of the final seeds. They are the first team in 59 years to make it into March Madness with 19 losses. They need to win every game here on out—which means winning the national championship—to finish the season with a winning record.

PREDICTION: Wichita State wins by two points, and everyone gets so worked up about this almost being the greatest upset in March Madness history, even Wichita State kind of feels bad for winning.

 

North Carolina State (12) vs. Saint Louis (5)

The North Carolina State Wolfpack are a popular upset pick over the higher-raked Saint Louis Billikens. The Billiken was a fad toy from the early 20th century; it’s the 1908 equivalent of naming a basketball team The Beanie Babies. I don’t know whether I love this or if it makes me never want to take college basketball seriously again.

PREDICTION: My brother had weird taste in music when he was four; he liked songs by Greg Kihn, Laura Branigan, and The Climax Blues Band. Some relatives tried to set him straight by giving him music by the Oak Ridge Boys, ELO, and the Blues Brothers; if anything, it veered him further off course. By age five, he owned, and frequently played, a cassette tape titled Sixteen Greatest Truck Driver Hits.

Fifteen years later, he became the lead singer in a death metal band, which he still does to this day. Just in case you were wondering whether there were second acts in American lives.

 

Louisville (4) vs. Manhattan (13)

The Manhattan Jaspers haven’t appeared in March Madness in ten years, and they get to face the defending champions. Hooray! I wonder what the protocol is for getting your picture taken with Louisville coach Rick Pitino if you’re a member of the opposing team? After the game, maybe?

PREDICTION: Louisville plays its home games at something called the KFC Yum! Center (emphasis theirs). I know Yum! Brands owns KFC, but seeing the cheery assertion “Yum!” in such close proximity to the abbreviation “KFC” makes me feel like I haven’t showered in a week.

 

Michigan (2) vs, Wofford (15)

Wofford is a small (1,500 students) liberal arts college in downtown Spartanburg, South Carolina. Their mascot is the Terriers, which is kind of cute. They get to play the legendary college basketball giant Michigan Wolverines (student population: 43,700), which is about as ridiculous and cruel as a real-world death battle between a terrier and wolverine.

PREDICTION: So many of the Baby Boomers I knew growing up had stories of how their parents threw out their baseball card collections, which, given the relative scarcity of the cards even then, was evidently a foolish thing to do. Was domestic storage space at a premium in the 1960s?

In retaliation, these Boomers, when they became parents of Gen X kids, encouraged the young card collectors in their families to store their mass-produced Topps, Fleer, Donruss, Score, and Upper Deck cards in protective plastic sheets and sometimes even hard cases. The resulting irony is that today, suburban basements and attics are filled with boxes of immaculately protected cards that are astoundingly worthless, until millions of parents downsize to retirement facilities and, finally pressed for space, call their son on a Friday evening when he’s trying to put a crying toddler to bed, and ask him, “so what do you want me to do with these things?”

If we can get millions of our peers to surrender during those moments where they’re at their least sentimental, there’s a chance that our Greg Maddux rookie cards can buy us a sandwich when we’re 80.

And: Michigan, 70-49.

J. Ryan Stradal's writing has also appeared in Hobart, The Rattling Wall, The Rumpus, Midwestern Gothic, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and The Nervous Breakdown, among other places. He also volunteers with students at 826LA, helps create products and materials for the Echo Park and Mar Vista Time Travel Marts, works in TV, and co-produces the literary/culinary series Hot Dish. His name has appeared one time in the credits of a feature film.