• Matthew Loberg

Virtual March Madness: Rad or Absurd? Why Not Both.

How I'm Social Distancing, Part 1



This is part 1 of a series of posts detailing how I’m keeping myself busy while maintaining social distance during COVID-19

The following is a story about how a dedicated group of reddit users has saved March Madness. Yes, we still have a raging pandemic that is infinitely more important than any basketball game, but the madness lives on—virtually, that is.


* I’d like to set a disclaimer that, while I may express disappointment at not having (non-virtual) March Madness, canceling March Madness was 100% the right decision. As coronavirus spreads in the US, it becomes clearer that canceling sporting events was not a mistake, the true mistake was not canceling sporting events sooner. COVID-19 is not to be taken lightly and social distancing—stay at home, folks—is of utmost importance. Virtual March Madness is one way to stay entertained while distancing at home. *



On March 7th, I attended Vanderbilt’s final regular season basketball game against South Carolina with my good friend and fellow part-time amateur blogger—not to mention star bass player for the best band in all of immuno-oncology, The CheckPoints—Brad Reinfeld (@BReinfeld).

Vanderbilt is not good at basketball. I say that emphatically, and I do not feel bad about saying that, because the data is convincing. Vanderbilt did not win a game in SEC play in 2018-2019. 0-18. 0-19 if you count their 17-point loss to Texas A&M in the SEC tournament. 2019-2020 has been only marginally better. But hey, maybe Jerry Stackhouse can turn it around. Vanderbilt went on beat South Carolina that afternoon, improving Vandy’s 2019-2020 conference record to 3-15 and leaving a semblance of hope that Saben Lee, Vanderbilt’s star guard, could pull off the impossible and guide Vandy to an SEC tournament title against infinitesimal odds. Doing so would mean a return to Madness for the Commodores.


I left that game plotting a blogpost—invigorated by the enchantment of March basketball—to resurrect We Went To College Together (after a long absence of posting). Was this the year of the mid-major? I thought that outside of Payton Pritchard, Oregon looked decidedly average. Duke looked capable but vulnerable. Baylor was crashing at precisely the wrong time. Kansas was the only power conference team that I liked. But really, nobody stood out this year; I was looking forward to what was destined to be a fascinating tournament. Dayton, Gonzaga, and San Diego State all looked capable of upsetting the big-name schools.

Today, precisely three weeks later, all of this seems like a dream. The second and third cases of Coronavirus in Tennessee were confirmed on March 8th, the day after the South Carolina game. Three days later, Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for coronavirus and the NBA suspended its season. Duke and Kansas, two of the top programs in the country, put pressure on the NCAA by “suspending all athletic competitions indefinitely.”

And just like that, on March 12th, March Madness 2020 was canceled.


What?

When I was 10 years old, I filled out my first bracket. I may have filled out a bracket before—I read the sports page of the Statesman Journal daily as a kid—but this was my first bracket with consequences.

My dad submitted my bracket to his office pool for the steep price of $3 a bracket. HIGH stakes for a 10-year-old—probably about 30-50% of the money in my yellow school-bus coin bank that I kept tucked beneath my childhood bed.

In a move that turned out to be far more profitable than all the research I did every subsequent year, I picked UNC to win it all because I liked their baby blue uniforms. I did not even know that Michael Jordan played for UNC. Heck, my knowledge of Michael Jordan was restricted to the fact that he was that old guy on the Washington Wizards that everyone went crazy over and that his shoes made Calvin Cambridge do things on the basketball court that I will forever dream of being able to do.

I had picked Illinois to lose to UNC in the championship game. Fortunately, Illinois had a star cast of guards—Deron Williams, Dee Brown, and Luther Head—that orchestrated one of the great comebacks in March Madness history, over an Arizona team led by Channing Frye and Salim Stoudamire, to make the final four.

But UNC’s Sean May dominated the National Championship, and I found a team to root for—don’t tell my friends from Duke, but I’ve since had a crush on UNC, picking them to win far too many tournament games.


I won that bracket pool. I was rich, for a 10-year-old I was effectively a millionaire. My fresh $60 put my yellow school-bus coin bank to shame.

I’ve never since won an office pool.


I upped the stakes after that year, entering my dad’s $15 office pool. Then again, the year after, and every year thereafter, sometimes with two brackets (which I don’t recommend—who do you root for??), until I went to college. I never won.


Don’t get me wrong, I had good years. I loved Kemba walker, but I didn’t have the gall to pick him to carry UConn to the championship. Instead I picked UConn to lose in the championship. Likewise, I finished just outside the money. 4th place.


I picked Kansas to win it all the year that Mario Chalmers hit that shot. I remember running around my house screaming when that shot went in. I thought I’d won. I was giddy. I three-way-tied for 2nd place that year.


I was similarly thrilled in 2016 when Marcus Paige double clutched to tie the game…until Kris Jenkins happened.


I’ve since given up on my dad’s office pool, but I have continued to fill out brackets every year and make up competitions with my friends. My Freshman year of college, I filled out every one of Joe Lunardi’s mock brackets with my buddy, Marcus Carano. (That practice stopped the next year after we realized the absurdity of waffling over tournament games that were destined never to happen.) When the bracket is revealed I still watch live every year, making a “first impressions” bracket and then tweaking it after looking at various websites full of statistical analysis (which never seems to help that much).

Needless to say, I consider March Madness to be a magical time of year.


COVID-19 has disrupted life as we know it. Live sports as a whole have evaporated as a source of entertainment. My usual source of procrastination, espn.com, is resurfacing old sports stories from decades past. They don’t know what else to do.


Yet a group of dedicated college basketball fans on reddit came up with an idea.


I present to you my new obsession: virtual March Madness.



First, you have to come into this recognizing that it’s absurd. Only then can you appreciate how awesome virtual March Madness is. I, Matthew Loberg, recognize that this is absolutely absurd. It is nuts. Bonkers even. But I, Matthew Loberg, am all in on the madness.


That wasn’t always the case. At first, I loaded up the NCAA 2K8 simulation and found it a bit silly; “no way am I going to waste my time watching a video game in which humans aren’t even playing,” I thought.


Enter Evan Mercer.


Evan is a college sports fanatic. I thought I loved college sports. Turns out that I really only like college sports. Evan Mercer is the type of fan who dresses up as Mr. Commodore for Vanderbilt basketball games regardless of the opponent or Vanderbilt's (generally abysmal) prospects. When Vandy beat LSU this year—snapping a 26 game SEC losing streak—Evan texted me, “let that be a lesson that you don’t win 27 straight SEC games against Vandy.”


On spring break at the beach, Evan refused to go to the beach until after he had fully read the college basketball reddit thread filled with fan reactions from the previous day’s games. The man doesn’t need oxygen to survive. He breathes college sports. Which is why I feared for his sanity when March Madness was canceled.


Fear not, Evan was thriving. On virtual zoom hangouts, Evan could be found with one eye on his friends and the other on a monitor with simulated basketball games being played. On one such hangout, I found Evan watching a round of 4 play-in game between NC State and Texas Tech (Tech won on a game winning three from Davide Moretti and later tweeted about it) with growing anticipation of the first round starting the next day with 8 games of college basketball. When Evan mentioned that a bracket challenge had been created, I was revitalized; I felt like a 10-year-old version of myself, born anew with $60 in cash and a school bus full of quarters ready to spend $15 on a bracket challenge.


I went home that night mesmerized by Evan’s enthusiasm. I made my own bracket on a whim just before the first round started. (I now regret not investing more time into it. UCLA over Duke? What was I thinking?)


So, how does this work?


2K sports used to make a yearly college basketball video game. For numerous reasons—largely related to money and NCAA trademarks—2K stopped making a college basketball video game in 2008. Every year since, an extremely dedicated fanbase puts out modified player rosters that can be downloaded and used on NCAA 2K8 so that the game can be played with current players. It makes sense; who wouldn’t have wanted to play as Duke last year if they could have Zion Williamson on their roster?

These Zion highlights look awfully similar to some of the downright absurd oops pulled off thus far in the 2K8 March Madness Simulation Tournament put on by a devoted reddit group


Reddit user JaniSWFC, a dedicated member of the reddit college basketball community (/r/CollegeBasketball), put upon himself the task of using the 2019-2020 rosters, updated at the beginning of the season, to put on a tournament with the projected March Madness bracket from bracketmatrix.com. JaniSWFC has been simulating every game of the bracket CPU vs CPU and recording the simulations. The recorded simulations then get streamed on the reddit college basketball youtube page, while fans chat live about the action.


The first round was 8 games per day for a total of 32 games over 4 days. The second round is scheduled to take place this coming Thursday-Sunday (April 2nd – 5th) with four games per day. All of the games are played at specific neutral sites to best mimic the tournament. Some of the simulations have live announcers from the reddit forum while others simply have the video game’s announcers, Verne Lundquist and Bill Raferty. Thus far, the fan base seems to be enjoying the video game’s built in announcers—due largely to their absurdity—though there are hopes of capturing the attention of a high-profile announcer (please, Bill Walton).

A Verne Lundquist and Bill Raferty 2K8 original: MANAMAN defense. Photo credit to @redditCBB and reddit user ErickBachman.


There are things that you have to get used to with this format. Some of the players that got injured during the season are still on the rosters. (This has become less frequent of a problem; JaniSWFC has done a phenomenal job of combing through rosters and making sure they are up to date and that coaching substitution patterns are represented.) Most of the players actually (kind of) look like their real life selves, but some of them still need some tweaking. The three-point line is really short (it would have been nice to be a shooter in ’08). Players line up on the wrong side of the block for free throws. But otherwise, it’s basketball in March, and it’s glorious.


Okay, some further details:


- Here is a link to the reddit page explaining the tournament.


- The first round reddit hub is here.


- The second round update with schedules and times can be found here.


- All games are streamed live on the reddit college basketball youtube channel, found here. Of note, all the games are recorded and left on the channel if you’d like to go back and watch your team play.


- There is also an official twitter channel, found here, with live tweets of the games.


- There was a bracket challenge set up, which you can find here. 1019 brackets were submitted. At the challenge site you can find an updated bracket including game scores.

- You can view my bracket here, (shamefully) titled “Loberg Gets Buckets.” I’m currently in 153rd place, but I look liable to fall further with several of my sweet 16 picks already knocked out in the first round (Florida State, Penn State, UCLA, Arizona). My final 4: Kansas*, Oregon, Dayton, Florida State. * = Champion.


- You can view Evan’s bracket here, titled “Quaddlebaum” because he “saw it at a doctor’s office once and thought it was such a cool name so [he] used it for a lot of different things.” Evan is in 164th place. We are both 24-9 with 25 points. However, Evan’s rank is currently lower due to having fewer possible points remaining. Evan’s final 4: Kansas*, Michigan State, Maryland, Florida State. * = Champion.


What has the result of all this work been so far? Madness. Here is a summary of the first round:


- 1-seeds went 4-0 though Kansas nearly suffered the second ever 1 vs 16 upset. UMBC even got in on the action when it looked like Kansas might lose.


- (15) Northern Kentucky became the coolest team in the tournament when they live tweeted their game against Villanova. Unfortunately, they lost, really wanted them to pull through. (15) Eastern Washington (EWU) showed us shades of “Dunk City” Florida Gulf Coast from 2013 in their victory over (2) San Diego State (SDSU). Overall, TWO 15-seeds pulled upsets over 2-seeds in the first round. SDSU losing to EWU? Fine. But Florida State losing to North Dakota State? Why’d you have to bust my bracket!


- (3) Duke played a frighteningly close game (78-75 final) against (2) Hofstra in which Tre Jones didn’t look quite himself—maybe he’s already thinking ahead to the NBA draft. Otherwise the 3-seeds cruised to a 4-0 record.


- QUACK. (4) Oregon, led by 26 from Payton Pritchard, won by 10 over (13) New Mexico State. 4-seeds went 3-1 with (4) Louisville losing by 3 to (13) Vermont on a buzzer-beating deep ball and the other 4-seeds, Maryland and Wisconsin scraping out close wins over Yale and North Texas, respectively.


- The 5 vs 12 matchup again proved to be thrilling, with a 4.5-point average margin of victory. (12) BYU had the only upset, knocking off (5) THE Ohio State. In a game in which we’re particularly thankful was virtual, (5) Butler beat (12) Liberty 73-69.


- The tradition of a first four play-in team advancing to the second round was upheld by (11) Texas Tech when they beat (6) Penn State (RIP my bracket). 3-1 for the 6 seeds.


- In arguably the most entertaining game of the first round, (7) Providence came from 25 points behind in the second half to beat (10) Rutgers. The Rutgers coach put in the reserves with about 16 minutes to play, a retrospectively unfortunate move. Overall, the 7 seeds went 3-1 with the only upset being (10) Marquette with 37 points from Markus Howard over (7) Arizona. Notably, Trent Frazier retweeted a video of his own (virtual) back-to-back threes that advanced (7) Illinois to the second round after (10) Utah State had tied the game with 90 seconds left.


- The 8 vs 9 matchup is always a tossup. This year it went 2-2 with wins for (8) Saint Mary’s, (8) LSU, (9) Indiana, and (9) Oklahoma. The most exciting game was Saint Mary’s 99-96 win over (9) Houston in which Tanner Krebs scored 38 for Saint Mary’s and Houston’s Brison Gresham was swatted at the rim down 2 with 5 seconds left.


- Overall, the tournament results thus far are actually pretty realistic to how they are every March. The better seeded teams went 24-8, and we got some absolutely insane Zion-like highlights. We also got some in-game virtual social distancing.


What will happen in the second round?


The second round completed one game with (5) BYU advancing to the sweet 16 before it was halted due to technical difficulties (scratched disk). The rest of the second round starts Thursday LIVE on the youtube channel. Here is the schedule:


Thursday, April 2nd:

(2) Creighton vs (7) Illinois 6:30 EST

(3) Kentucky vs (6) Iowa 8:00 EST

(1) Kansas vs (8) Saint Mary’s 9:30 EST


Friday, April 3rd:

(10) Marquette vs (15) Eastern Washington 5:00 EST

(3) Michigan State vs (6) Virginia 6:30 EST

(4) Oregon vs (12) Akron 8:00 EST

Side note: really looking forward to this game. Fellow We Went To College Together blogger Marcus Carano is a big fan of the Zips. Should be fun to watch them take on the Ducks. QUACK.

(1) Gonzaga vs (9) Oklahoma 9:30 EST


Saturday, April 4th:

(4) Maryland vs (5) Butler 5:00 EST

(2) Villanova vs (7) Michigan 6:30 EST

(3) Duke vs (6) West Virginia 8:00 EST

(1) Dayton vs (8) LSU 9:30 EST


Sunday, April 5th:

(3) Seton Hall vs (11) Texas Tech 5:00 EST

(4) Wisconsin vs (5) Auburn 6:30 EST

(1) Baylor vs (9) Indiana 8:00 EST

(7) Providence vs (15) North Dakota State 9:30 EST



The only thing that could possibly make this social distancing virtual march madness solution any better is if somehow my favorite announcer, Bill Walton, got on board and announced some (or all) of the tournament games live. He already knows all of the PAC-12 (excuse me, conference of champions) players, so why not? Something this absurd and awesome deserves an announcer as outrageous as Bill Walton.


Need more?


As we prepare for the second round of Madness, I’ll leave you with this quote from Bill Walton:


"The honey hole is a long-time basketball phrase, where it is right at the free throw line area. That’s where the honey is, right? We were talking about Winnie the Pooh, it all rolls into one, right? You’re looking for the honey. You like honey, right? So you get to the honey hole and good things happen, and when you’re playing against the zone defense or playing any kind of basketball you want to get to the free throw line, the honey hole, so that’s what’s going to set up your offensive attack."


Best,

Matthew

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