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It feels good to get out of the pool

For the final few minutes Saturday I was up off the couch, willing Northern Iowa the strength to finish off the mighty dragon. And when Ali Farokhmanesh stuck the decisive three I erupted, achieving greater hang time, I can assure you, than Phil Mickelson at the 2004 Masters.

Nothing against Kansas. I retain the belief that the Jayhawks are the most talented college basketball team in the country. But to me the NCAA Tournament is as much about savoring the upsets as determining a national champion. And the only way of ensuring that I would relish each unforeseen conquest with unfettered joy was to cut ties to that great American tradition and turn my back on the bracket pool.

Don't get the wrong idea. I'm not some kind of righteous snob. I've entered more pools than Michael Phelps. I celebrated a hunch for the ages when I included little-known Costantino Rocca in my pool prediction for the top five finishers at the 1995 British Open (he lost in a playoff to John Daly, which was good enough for me. Cha-ching.). I might even be treading financial water in pools over the years. Close enough, anyway.

Years ago I launched what may have been Western New York's first fantasy baseball league. I brought the concept back from my stint at the Lake-County News Herald in Willoughby, Ohio, where Bob Roberts, a horse racing writer, schooled me on its workings. It was in the spring of 1983 that colleague Mark Gaughan and I each drafted a team and played out the season for 10 bucks. He won the league, I got even when we went double or nothing on the World Series. The next year our league expanded to six or eight teams and now it's up to 12, although I've long since departed, having lost the desire to work as hard at it as my manic colleagues.

That's one of the downsides of fantasy baseball. No one watches a whole game anymore. Vicarious owners jump from channel to channel, hoping to get a look at the at-bat of this hitter or that, attentive to what transpires only as it pertains to them. And the same goes with football. Channels have been created for the sole purpose of satisfying the fantasy owner's rabid need to track every game at once. It's not only sports that have become big business. So has fandom.

That's why this year I resisted the urge to fill out the bracket. It wasn't easy, I'll confess. There's always that voice within that says that this is your year. But I'd tired of rooting for The Big School to beat The Little School just to give me another "W" when in fact I really wanted The Little School to win in the worst way.

Distancing one's self from the bracket can be a liberating experience. Having seen what Ohio guard Armon Bassett did to Kent State in the Mid-American Conference quarterfinals, I told all who would listen that the junior transfer from Indiana was the real deal, that no one in the MAC was surprised when the Bobcats captured the conference tournament and the accompanying NCAA berth. Would I have picked them to beat Georgetown? I seriously doubt it. And that's just the point. Instead of lamenting my lack of conviction, instead of bemoaning the upset for the damage it inflicted upon my bracket, I sat back in awe as an Ohio team beaten by the University at Buffalo three weeks earlier dismantled the Hoyas from the, ahem, mighty Big East.

I like where I stand going into the Sweet 16. When I'm asked how I'm doing on my bracket I tell the truth. It couldn't be going any better. I'm rooting hard for Cornell, riding the high of St. Mary's, living large through Northern Iowa. The only bracket I'm tied to is the one that's in my heart.


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