March Madness lifts the lowly and humbles the mighty, including Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich

by David Ramsey

Air Force basketball coach Dave Pilipovich started his children early in the family tradition of selecting a bracket for the NCAA Tournament.

We're talking really early.

When his son, Kyle, was a few months old, Dave and his wife Kelly placed a bracket in front of their baby boy and asked him to point at winners.

Kyle, months away from his first birthday, selected an entire set of winners and losers, and did reasonably well with his picks. A few years later, Kelly and Dave placed a bracket in front of Kelsey, their baby girl. She pointed her way to a completed bracket.

The tradition continues at the Pilipovich home. Every March, Dave and his family pick a bracket. In theory, Dave should win this contest every spring. He devotes his working life to understanding college basketball.

In reality, Dave wins approximately as often as every other member of his family.

"It can be crazy, right?" Pilipovich said of March Madness. "I think it's the greatest sporting event in our country."

I'm not so sure about the greatest, but the college tournament and its bracket is most welcoming to the masses.

You can be a 4-month-old, toothless baby, or an 84-year-old who has obsessed over college basketball for a lifetime. Doesn't matter if you know nothing, or you know virtually everything. Those brackets humble the mighty and lift the lowly. That's the beauty of college basketball in March.

Want the truth about those tournament upsets? Want to know how 11th-seed Xavier stunned second-seeded Arizona?

Most of those upsets are flukes, which is part of the lure of the tournament. In a one-and-done format, the underdog is blessed with a sizable advantage. The favorites are looking ahead, perhaps all the way to the final. The favorites struggle to focus on the underdog in front of them.

In the NBA Playoffs, upsets are rare because the favorites can regain their balance after the underdog delivers an unexpected blow. Look back to 2005, when the seventh-seeded Nuggets tangled with the second-seeded Spurs.

In Game 1 in San Antonio, the Nuggets stunned the Spurs, 93-87 while Andre Miller torched the young Tony Parker with 31 points. For a night, Andre resembled Michael Jordan. Gregg Popovich, a defensive genius, failed to stop Andre the Giant.

If the NBA playoffs were the NCAA Tournament, the Spurs would have been dead.

But the NBA Playoffs are vastly different than the NCAA Tournament. The Spurs won Game 2 by 28 points and rallied to four straight wins. The Spurs roared to the NBA title.

Virtually every sports fan in America fills out a bracket, and this time of year you can easily discover the winners and the losers. Winners want to talk, on and on, about their bracket. Losers change the subject to the piles of snow expected this weekend.

Early on, I was talking about my bracket to anyone who would listen. I correctly picked 15 of the first 16 games, including slight upsets by Middle Tennessee and Xavier.

Since then, it's been mostly agony. None of my teams arrived in the Final Four.

Air Force's coach remains alive in the struggle for Pilipovich supremacy. He used safe, wise strategy, selecting three No. 1 seeds and landing Gonzaga and North Carolina in his Final Four.

"But I don't think I'm leading the challenge," Pilipovich said.

Don't sweat it too much, coach.

Even a baby can win a bracket challenge.

Jack Benoit