Man vs. Machine: A March Madness Journal

I'm here to watch humans test the species' athletic limits, not brute force my way to a marginally better bracket.
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Mark Von Holden/AP

This is a record of encounters with the humans who play college basketball. For most, they've been reduced to numbers, percentages: bracketed. Around here, I want to decompress them, let them be young men who play a game.

Yesterday, I described my discomfort with the statistical fandom, the goal of which is to create the best algorithm for predicting the world based on data. It's seeing a sport like a machine. 

Which, actually, can be pretty fun!

But there are plenty of blogs to give you the statistical breakdown of every game and matchup. This is a different journey through the tournament's first round. I'm committed to just watching the games without the statistical overlays. 

I'm here to watch humans test the species' athletic limits, not brute force my way to a marginally better bracket. 

In most years, I'd enter the tournament with a stockpile of numerical and visual data about teams and players. But this season, my first with a child, I've watched way less games and analyzed far fewer stats. My basketball brain has been trained by 20 years of seriously watching games, but I'm entering March Madness with beginner's mind. 

I only have a few ground rules.

The first: I'm rooting against the best bracket produced by the Huffington Post's Predict-a-Tron, which (now that you've already filed your bracket) you can see here. If this year is like the last four years, the machine is going to get a lot of things right, perhaps even 85 percent of the games.

The second: I'm rooting for UCLA and against all the other top seeds in the South bracket. So, sorry, Florida, Kansas, Syracuse, and VCU. You are, of course, welcome to join us in collegial fandom, but I wish for the destruction of your dreams. 

12:40 pm: And we're off. I'm beginning the day with Dayton-Ohio State. An interesting social dynamic this intra-state: Jordan Sibert transferred from OSU to Dayton.

Lean In

1:20 pm: One of my favorite basketball moves is when a smaller player is on the break, dribbling just a bit ahead of a defender. As they approach the basket, the offensive player jumps up and generally into the defender. It takes away their shotblocking angle, stabilizes them as they go in for the shot, and often draws a foul. And they grimace. Almost every time.

First-Weekend Shenanigans 

1:40 pm: In middle school, I ran my first betting operation. I created odds for each team winning the championship, and let kids at school put money on them. If a team wasn't very good, but was well-known, like Georgetown that year, I'd make the odds like 100:1. There were a lot of suckers. I made some good money that year. 

But that this was my business meant that we had to figure out a way to know what was happening with the games. It was 1995: we didn't have smartphones. All there was was TV or radio. We snuck in radios and ran their headphone cords up our sleeves. That didn't work as well as you might think.

In the end, we cut a deal with the basketball loving librarian. She let us check in with her between classes, looking up from her tiny desktop television to inform us dryly about the fortunes of our teams.

A Huge Victory for Humankind

2:45 pm: An incredible first game! Dayton beats Ohio State, a big victory for the humans. The Predict-o-Tron's best bracket had Ohio State going to the elite eight! ESPN reports that only 19 percent of brackets remain perfect. GOOD. Let's rewatch the winning shot, by Dayton's OSU transfer, Jordan Siebert. 

Dayton set up with four low, Siebert with the ball against OSU golden boy, Aaron Craft. Forward Devin Oliver came running up the paint, nominally to set a screen on Craft's right side. But Siebert takes off from with a right hand dribble before Oliver actually sets, so he's just a decoy. 

Oliver's defender, meanwhile, didn't follow him past the three-point line, but also didn't commit to helping on Siebert. 

Craft was a half-step slow laterally cutting off Siebert's drive, so the OSU defender guarding the corner three-point shot has to come down to help. But his effort is half-hearted: he stops the dribble, but not the man. Siebert takes a step, elevates over Craft (who doesn't even contest the shot), and banks a relatively easy shot in.

It's a satisfying conclusion to the game, not only because of the victory over the machines, but also because of the announcers' relentless fawning over Craft. One of them actually said at one point, after he scored: "There's a toughness in that jersey that belies the angelic countenance." Do I have to tell you that Craft is white?

Late Capitalism

3:02 pm: The commercials on CBS reek of desperation. This the text of a DirecTV commercial I've already seen too many times:

When your cable is on the fritz, you get tense.
When you get tense, you can't sleep.
When you can't sleep, you need to sleep.
When you need to sleep, you get stranded.
When you get stranded, you have to survive.
When you have to survive, you eat wild berries.
When you eat wild berries, you chase imaginary butterflies into something highly illegal.
Ditch cable, get DirecTV, don't chase imaginary butterflies into something highly illegal.

Is this not just tacitly admitting that there is no actual reason to choose one television provider over another? 

Meanwhile, Harvard's up 7 at the half, and the Syracuse game just started.

Dirty Play

3:34pm: You never see a well-executed dirty play. By definition, to successfully execute a play that is outside the boundaries of the game's rules, you must not get caught. That means all we see are the clumsy attempts at cheating and violence. 

Take BYU forward Nate Austin's takedown of Oregon's Ben Carter in the first half of today's game. They got tangled up going for a rebound and both men (each over 6'8" and relatively gangly) ended up on the floor. With Oregon on the fast break, Carter tries to get up and run as the trailer down the middle of the court. But as he stands up, Austin slyly wraps up both his ankles and Carter falls over as if someone had tied his shoes together while he was taking a quiz in algebra. Dirty work done, Austin immediately dropped his palm to the ground and started getting up as if he'd done nothing. But the refs had seen the leg sweep, of course, because it had caused a huge man to fall to the ground in the center of the court. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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