This is a very special edition of game commentary in that it contains a little bit of information pertinent to the games actually being played. Hence, for convenience, it is divided into the subsections “Pertinent” and “Nonfalsifiable,” with the latter being more portable to not this particular 2013 March Madness season, but usually only applicable to basketball.

Pertinent

You may be wondering how it came about that I have the wherewithal to develop a list of pertinent commentary. This section has received an “assist” from the Wall Street Journal (Small Talk Sports Metaphor Definition (TM): an “assist” is when somebody else helps you do a thing — so it’s kind of like what the word means in civilian life, with the crazy sporty twist that it’s a noun!). The slight drawback is that the WSJ is a mainstream media organization finally waking up to vague and/or nonfalsifiable sports commentary phenomenon, and may be about to blow our cover, but whatever it’s nice to see my ideas in the WSJ (again). (<–Small Talk Self-Promotion (TM))

As the kids say, go read the whole thing, but highlights include:

  • The word “chalky,” which you can use to describe this tournament, refers to how quickly the odds are changing and originated from old-school gambling with human bookies setting odds on chalkboards.
  • Ken Pomeroy runs a sports statistics site that is apparently authoritative and well-known, so try to name-check kenpom.com. My suggestion is you do this while piggybacking on someone else’s knowledgeable sports comment: If there are numbers in it, agree and be like, “Oh yeah, I think I saw that on kenpom.com.”
  • “Tempo-free defensive rankings” is a concept, but I admit that even after reading this post I have no idea what it means. But you don’t have to know what a phrase means in order to say something like “It’s all about [phrase],” and from context clues I am pretty sure you can use “tempo-free defensive rankings” in that blank spot. If challenged, you can give a little ground and say something like, “Ok, it may not be *all* about tempo-free defensive rankings, but you have to admit it’s at least partially about them.”
  • Louisville’s Russ Smith “might be the best player left in the tournament, and he’s definitely the best character.” WSJ has more on that in the unlikely event you give a shit.
  • Rooting for Duke makes you a douchebag. WSJ doesn’t use the d-word because it is still a mainstream newspaper, but there is clearly douche between the lines. Even I knew that, not because of sports, but because of knowing Duke fans. Ugh. More like Douche fans, amirite? (SMALL TALK SPOILER (TM): Yes. I am right)

Nonfalsifiable

As always, this was developed partly in consultation with actual males.

  • When someone fails to catch a ball: “Ooo, you gotta catch that.”
  • When someone scores a three-pointer (which they do by sinking a basket from outside that big circle on the floor there): You may shout a positive-word portmanteau that includes the word “three.” Examples: “Threemendous!” “Threelicious!” “Threedle-dee!” “I’m going to go look in the threesaurus for another word for good!” Etc.
  • “Did you see that?”
  • “That was quite something.”
  • “Wow.”

Now you are threepared. Heh.

I changed the title of this post from “the bare minimum you need to know,” because the minimum you need to know about the Sweet Sixteen is absolutely nothing. Per the original headline’s promise, though, this post is indeed bare of information. Because who has time to find it. Please enjoy the results of my grudging googling if you’re stuck where a game is on and need something to read.

Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) is the surprise hit of the tournament. I received a mysterious text the other day, that read, in full: “FGCU over Georgetown??? You are a bracket-picking genius.” I know that Georgetown is a school, because that is widely known. I did not know what FGCU stood for or why all the question marks. Turns out FGCU is “Florida Gulf Coast University,” which is a school in Fort Myers, Florida, that was seeded at 15 by the shadowy “selection committee” that makes these designations — the second-lowest rank a team can have in its region (there are four regions, hence four 1st-ranked teams, four 2nd-ranked, etc etc down to the 16th seed, the lowest rank). In my frenzy to fill out a bracket in the minimum amount of time possible, I did not notice that, in the first round, this quite-low-ranked team was pitted against what was the second-highest ranked team in the region, Georgetown — as after research I have learned is typical: The high-ranking teams face the low-ranking teams early in the tournament. Long story short, FGCU won, surprising a lot of people. They won their next game, too, against 7th-seeded San Diego State. Both of these are examples of what’s called a “major upset.”

In the wake of FGCU’s “staging another dunk-fest against a heavily favored opponent,” (ooo, a montage!) the school became the first 15-seed to reach today’s “Sweet Sixteen” set of games, in which only 16 teams remain to be eliminated from the tournament. (According to math, there are eight games played by the Sweet Sixteen teams that have made it this far — see how that works? two teams per game? — and each of the winners will go on to the Elite Eight — see how that works? one winner per game?) “#Dunkcity” is how twitter has been referring to Fort Myers, and the mayor of Fort Myers has actually incorporated the hashtag into the city’s logo, once again proving that grown-ass men, even public servants, often behave as if any of this shit matters.

Tonight, Florida Gulf Coast, confusingly, plays Florida. Which is a whole other school. Original Small Talk Reasonable Sports Opinion (TM): That should be an interesting game.

The rankings are “a mess.” FGCU’s performance against teams that were widely expected to beat them comfortably — celebrity statistician Nate Silver gave them a roughly 3.3 percent chance of making it this far — was a genuine surprise to a lot of people who were paying attention. But many of the other so-called “upsets” weren’t. Deadspin, the sports blog, was indignant: The “selection committee,” whoever those mysterious people are, “really boned this tournament,” they said. (<– Reasonable Sports Opinion!)

In particular, Oregon was way better than the “selection committee” gave it credit for by giving it a 12 seed, so the fact that its victory against 4-seeded St. Louis was technically an “upset” said more about the shoddiness of the ranking process than the relative quality of the teams. Similarly, Gonzaga’s Zags, if you recall, were ranked at No. 1 in their region for the first time and weren’t really very good, so lost in the second round, to the surprise, apparently, of “literally no one.”

I wasn’t surprised but only because I wasn’t paying attention and wouldn’t have known how to interpret it if I had been.

So, you know what I always nonfalsifiably say: You never know till game time. Except in my case it actually is a little false, because I very rarely know until well after game time, if then.

… and it goes till April 8. So the good news is we got a few weeks of pre-madness — really more of gradual slide into insanity which, prior to today, was not yet full-blown but was exhibiting increasingly erratic behavior and non-receptiveness to meds and therapy. The bad news is this nonsense is going to leak over into next month. The way worse news is that March Madness is actually pretty short as far as periods of sports happenings go.

Prior to today, when “brackets” were due in office pools around the country as important games started, there was actually basketball being played by college teams and small talk being spoken by grown-ass men and, to a lesser extent, women (it’s statistically true that there are fewer female sports fans, there are studies. Good for you, ladies 18 to 49, that “Sunday Night Football” was your third most-watched show two years ago, but the fact that “Dancing with the Stars” and “Grey’s Anatomy” took the top two slots leaves the paradigm, and my biases, as a female who hates all three of those shows, intact).

This is because of the so-called “play-in” games, through which not-great teams that did not get an automatic invitation to what we discovered in the last post is known as The Big Dance, were able to compete for a spot in the tournament. So that’s all happened now, and today the actual tournament starts and might be ongoing as I write, I don’t really know because I’m busy doing my job kinda.

As the nation has geared up for this b-ball bacchanalia (Small Talk Fact (TM): b-ball never refers to baseball), sports-related news has been jockeying for position with actual news on the websites. The Economist notes that “March Madness is so popular that one job-placement firm has estimated that the games cost American businesses hundreds of millions of dollars in lost productive hours” and highlights the meta-insanity of the fact that March Madness is important enough for serious people to debate its economic impact. Foreign Policy has tediously explored “America’s March Madness Problem” which is not, as you might expect, the whole hundreds of millions of dollars in lost productivity thing, but rather the fact that “we’re Duke,” meaning, you know, geopolitically dominant and universally hated even though we’re not all so bad as like, individuals. Obviously.

And then there are approximately zillions of angles on this whole “bracket” phenomenon, which to me is actually much more interesting than the underlying activity. If you work in a big enough office, you probably got slapped with an additional deadline this morning when some overzealous HR type (Hi, Justin! So nice to be included!) had you cough up some cash to undertake a time-constrained  task you are ill-qualified to perform, that is, guessing the winner of each of many, many games. Those characteristics of filling out a bracket — upfront investment, deadlines, lack of qualifications — actually also describe the rest of my job too, now that I think of it, given the price of the masters degree it took to get in the door and all I didn’t learn from it. (Hi, bosses! So nice to be hired!) Sports = life.

Speaking of education, did you know there’s actually a college class about filling out brackets? It makes a little bit of sense if you step back from the actual basketball of it, since it’s all numbers and statistics and probability and randomness. HuffPo says there are 9.2 quintillion “(a 9, followed by 18 zeroes)” ways to fill one out, only one of them not being wrong, of course. And apparently this season has been wildly unpredictable in any case — “the most unpredictable college basketball season anyone can remember, including one stretch where the No. 1 team in The Associated Press Top 25 changed for five straight weeks,” they say (<– reasonable sports opinion!). So your pool money is almost certainly wasted in any case, don’t sweat it. That’s just the price of forced camaraderie.

And don’t look now, but HuffPo says in addition to laws of probability plus wacky NCAA season, “things get a lot more nuanced the more you read.” Reading! Fuck that noise. Brackets are in already, but here is a post-mortem analysis of the four basic ways to fill out a brackets without really giving a fuck.

At random. This is me, and I like to think I am known in my office pool as “the control group,” in addition to my many other very descriptive nicknames there. (Justin, don’t think I don’t know.) I am not picking teams whose mascot or uniform I like, as doing so would require finding out what their uniforms and mascots are.

Plagiarism. Copy the president. Copy statistical whiz kid Nate Silver (who, note, correctly predicted the outcome of the U.S. presidential race, which was a contest with only two possible outcomes and thus with a random guess having a fifty percent chance of being correct. As we’ve discussed, though, this is totally not the same thing, what with the quintillions of outcomes, and Nate Silver is probably only slightly better than just as helpless as you are). Copy a previous year’s winning bracket.

Loyalty/tribalism. Do you recognize your hometown or home state or a town or state kinda close to your hometown or -state in those names on those lines? Great! Make that state or town win every game up to the championship. Gooo geography yay!!! If your team has a rival that you know of, or there’s a state or city you don’t like for whatever reason, make that team lose: Knock it out of the tournament with earliness proportional to your distaste for that place. It’s your hypothetical world and you control the sports here! Fuck Pittsburgh because you got stranded overnight there once when the second leg of your trip got canceled and those sandwiches where they put the fries on them are great but sooo not worth a night in the Hampton Inn. Fuck UCLA because your ex goes there and you got stuck in LA traffic in your rental car that one time while you were baked out of your gourd and freaked out. Actually, backtrack and slightly unfuck Pittsburgh a little because everyone you’ve ever met from there is cool, so they can win a few games, but they’re definitely losing in, say, the third round, because seriously that mattress was unforgivable.

Rankings. The lower the “seed,” the greater whoever estimates these things estimates to be that team’s chances of winning, and usually this information is right there on the bracket. Nate Silver says these rankings are actually getting more sophisticated which, if there’s one thing the financial industry taught us, it’s that the more complicated the mathematical model used to predict a thing, the basically the same chance that thing will occur! So, seriously, that’s fine, too. You’re still out somewhere between $5-$20. That’s my prediction.

Hello, again. It’s March already, which means if you have to talk to people who like sports, you’re going to be inundated with college basketball talk. To me, March signifies the beginning of spring, the mid-month assassination of Julius Caesar  way back when and, this year, the the beginning of the sequester. In years past and offices of yore, March has also signified the half-assed filling-out, usually via plagiarism, of a “bracket” purporting to predict, game by game, which college basketball team will win… something. A championship. A national one. Yes. The winners have then won, the people who went to that college or are from near there or married into a family from near there behave for a week or two as if the victory was a reflection on them, and then everyone moves on to the next sport, which according to my cheat sheet is baseball. Different ball, same cycle.

March Madness, as this month-long exercise in TV-watching and uninformed betting is called, highlights the dilemma of running a sports blog for non-fans as a fervent non-fan. There are just. so. many. goddamned. sports. I had forgotten until a meeting at work that people care about college sports in addition to pro sports. And also realized with dread the other day that hockey is a thing that’s out there, too. Hockey, forsooth! Whose idea was that?

If you’re like me the only kind of March Madness you get is the despairing, exhausted kind. But I’m here to help. And that’s lucky for you because, as if to underscore the point that sports matter way too much to way too many people, basketball has been very much in the news this past week for another reason: Remember that time ex-NBA-star Dennis Rodman was the first American to meet relatively freshly-minted North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un? Who, Rodman reported on his return and multiple news outlets have noted, “really loves basketball.” Rodman even suggested that, given that “Obama loves basketball” and “Both of these guys love basketball so much,” the leaders of two antagonistic nuclear-armed countries who otherwise have little enough common ground that actual conflict is a real fear… both love basketball. Rodman suggests we “start there.”

Well, no, that makes no sense. Let’s get right to sense-making, though. Because you’re going to hear a lot of terms like “NCAA” and “Division I” and “seed” and “men’s” and “basketball” bandied about for the next what’s going to seem like forever. So here are a few things you need to know.

Key Terms

NCAA. National College Athletic Association. Per wikipedia, it is

a nonprofit association of 1,281 institutions, conferences, organizations and individuals that organizes the athletic programs of many colleges and universities in the United States and Canada. It is headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Division I. The schools that are good at sports and devote a lot of money to facilities and athletic scholarships and the like. The quality of the programs gets worse and/or the size of the school gets smaller as the number gets bigger, I guess, stopping at Division III. Shorthand for Division I could be D-I, so don’t freak out.

March Madness. Also known as the Big Dance, the NCAA Division I basketball tournament, in which 68 teams compete, successively eliminating each other from the next round until only one remains, and that one is the champion. Last year this was the Kentucky Wildcats.

Seed. A team’s rank within its region. This here is a good explanation of how the rankings are determined, but anyway if you hear “first-seeded such-and-such school” that means that school is ranked first within its region (of which there are four, hence there are four first-seeded schools, if I read this wikipedia article correctly). This is useful if you’re looking to fill out your bracket with minimum effort — the lower the seed, the more likely the team is considered to win.

Sweet Sixteen, Final Four, etc. You may as well get ready for these now. The tournament starts with 68 teams. Pretty straightforwardly, the “Sweet Sixteen” refers to the sixteen remaining teams after the rest have been eliminated, “Final Four” the same, but with four, obviously.

Trivia:

The Zags. This is a slang term you can use to refer to the team of Gonzaga University, the Bulldogs. The official March Madness twitter feed tells me, not only that you can call them “the Zags,” but that they have appeared at the top of an Associated Press poll ranking the top 25 college basketball teams for the first time in school history. Good job, guys! ESPN qualifies its congratulations for the Zags thus:

Next: Avoiding the potholes that have stopped every other No. 1 this season, then finding a way to the Final Four.

This looks to my untrained eye like a Reasonable Sports Opinion. Yes, it is true that the ranking is nice and historic for the school, and that the school has to continue to win games, and doing so will involve overcoming obstacles, such as other teams.

See how easy that was?

smalltalk

A good game-time sports comment can be either of two types. The first is well-informed, accurately describes the situation at hand, and in the best-case scenario places an instant in a game within its broader context at the individual, team, league, or sport level. I hear these occasionally and have no idea what they mean and so can’t reproduce one here. At the Super Bowl party I attended somebody referred to a rookie quarterback saying something stupid at a press conference. Comments like that.

The second kind of comment is the kind you and I are likely to make. It should function sort of like the score in a movie — if it’s really good, you won’t even notice it’s there. It should also, to switch up metaphors for a second, be designed roughly like a horoscope entry, to wit: vague enough to apply to virtually any situation, but seemingly specific enough to establish you as paying attention. It is vitally important to achieve the proper balance and, when in doubt, err on the vague side: I can’t help you if you get challenged to clarify. Caveat bullshitter.

A good way to generate generic nonfalsifiable commentary on the spot is to listen to the announcers and/or the men in the room. Like television chefs, they have to fill silence with patter even when there’s nothing going on which, for a game like football or a recipe like risotto, is like 80 percent of the time. This patter is actually where you need to tune in, though. This is where they say things like, “Ultimately, this is a team game played by individuals,” or “If he’s not covered, he’s open.” Now clearly, you can’t repeat such a remark verbatim during the game in which it is said, but if you have a pen or smart phone handy you can remember it for the next game, in which it will be equally meaningless/applicable.

But otherwise, here is a preliminary list of phrases you can use, which was developed in consultation with actual men. The site will be updated frequently with generic nonfalsifiable sports commentary (GNSC).

  • (Pre-game) “You never know till game time.”
  • “It is what it is.”
  • “It isn’t what it’s not.”
  • “We’ll have to see what happens to know what is going to happen.”
  • “At any point in the game, it’s all mental.”
  • (Pre-game) “It all depends on which team shows up.” (Note ambiguity of referent; could indicate the inconsistency of one team or a comparison between the two teams.)
  • (Football) “It’ll be interesting to see how those [defenses/offenses] match up.”
  • “Looks like we got a game on our hands.”
  • If you get the sense someone did something right, say: “That’s the play you gotta make.” If you get the sense someone screwed something up, say the same thing with a slightly different intonation: “That’s the play you gotta MAKE,” thereby emphasizing that the needed play was not, in fact, made.
  • Alternatively, and even less falsifiably, you could say: “That was a play.” Pretty much always true, unless said mid-play. Pay attention to whether people are actually playing before you speak.

The fact that sports don’t matter makes it all the more baffling how widely and passionately they are treated as if they do. Pro sports players often make millions a year. Congress often spends millions investigating them for steroid use. Individual games spark insane, sometimes violent, displays of emotion from otherwise strong, silent types — and not just in Philadelphia.

I love men very, very much, and I like to think I get them for the most part. Indeed, I am often mistaken for a sports fan; I think this is because I am vulgar and aggressive and fond of beer. These qualities of mine make me all the sadder that I somehow, despite years of trying, can’t seem to care about sports. Other people talk about sports and I see gorgeous, endless vistas of easy shit-talking opening up before my eyes — and yet it is as if I am wearing an electric dog collar of apathy that shocks me with the knowledge that sports do not matter every time I try to leave my own sensible yard and venture into the irrational world of sports fandom.

Still, I’ve had tantalizing glimpses of what life might be like if I could bring myself to care. All the small talk I could make just by finding out where someone is from. “Oh, Chicago? The bench is strong this year, huh? What do you think of that one draft pick? His stats are quite something, but you never know till game time, do ya.” All the consequence-free, non-personal abuse I could heap on my friends just because of their arbitrary allegiances and my equally arbitrary scorn for the same. All the conversations happening around me that I could understand.

Welp, it wasn’t meant to be. But here’s the thing. It’s come to my attention that one doesn’t have to speak very much in order to participate in sports conversations. And participating in sports conversations, in turn, sort of neutralizes the apathy-dog collar. I say “sort of” because it doesn’t actually take away the apathy, but it does make it sting enough less to get one admittance to those lush small talk meadows, in which to then frolick, or something. This is important because you know who likes sports? Powerful men like sports. You know how you get good jobs? You make small talk with powerful men. You know how you make small talk with powerful men? Say a couple of key sports phrases, then agree with all the commentary they generate. I can virtually guarantee they will not ask you for your opinion, and they will give you enough cues that if you say what they said to you in slightly different words back to them, they will think you are a genius.

I learned both of those things by talking to powerful men. The breakthrough came when it somehow occurred to me to refer to Derek Jeter (Yankees, baseball, yawn) as “Jeets” in the presence of a man because I’d heard some other man do it. The man on the receiving end of my baseball knowledge (which I had thereby exhausted) remarked “You know your baseball!” and proceeded to say a lot of things about baseball, to all of which I assented knowingly, without knowing anything.

So the aim of this blog is to provide those kind of shortcuts. Because sports are boring, but they are everywhere. And just because you have to pretend to care about them sometimes doesn’t mean you have to find out about them. I aim to provide three main services, in no particular order and at no particular frequency: Flag in the briefest way possible the big sports-related news of any given week (the Super Bowl was last Sunday, fyi. The Ravens won. They are from Baltimore. Fella named Ray Lewis is famous among them, implicated in shady things, old.) in no more words than are absolutely necessary to decode the conversations you are likely to encounter about it; to supply general, nonfalsifiable remarks to make (e.g. “You know, they made some plays, and they messed some up”) should you find yourself actually having to watch a game; and to highlight interesting/absurd stories that are tangentially related to sports (like, what’s the deal with soccer hooliganism in Egypt? How come people die over sports games?).

Meanwhile, an accompanying twitter feed will supply one reasonable sports opinion per day, per the plea of Randall Munroe, author of this handy cheat sheet:

(Source: xkcd.com.)

And that should be enough to get you small talkin.