Lewis: Swimming in a custom pool

Everyone has bracket patterns, but what happens when we shake up the formula with individual players? Matt Lewis joins the player pool revolution.

A NONDESCRIPT SOFA, Illinois - Drafting student-athletes in an NCAA Tournament Player Pool is a lot like starting a dialogue with the Middle East just for access to its olive supply.

Think about it. We don't really need a reason to seek more vested interest in March Madness than we already have. There are those who love it for its purity (kind of akin to spreading democracy or liberating people), those who love it for the potential of its bracketed riches (oil), and those who love it because it has consumed so many of us that new industries are driving the economy as we speak (Halliburton, Lockheed, Jay Bilas).

So really, there's no reason not to get excited at noon on a Thursday while you're attempting to mentally speed the day up 30 minutes to take a long lunch, tune in CBS, and see whose child is better than the other: Darryl Strawberry's or Dell Curry's.

Everybody is somebody's child in the tournament, and every team is somebody's team. For a day there are 64, which of course makes it even more exciting than other sporting events. And then when you add the brackets and the Cinderellas, everyone finds somebody to love.

But now in the 23rd year of my life I discovered the existence of something else entirely: the olives of the NCAA Tournament – its individual scorers.

As far as I can tell, the NCAA Player Pool concept is either hibernating in relative obscurity or simply enjoying its infancy. Nobody I talked to all week had ever heard of such a thing, as I explained the task lain out before me.

The rules as my league's "veterans" have decided them involve ten teams comprised of eight players each – any position, any team. The draft runs in the same format as fantasy football. Only, you can select players of any position, size, age, conference, seed, celebrity athlete father, or approval rating. (This last one applies mostly to Joakim Noah or anyone else who dances like a raving lunatic. Although, I suppose the prior category applies to him as well.)

I was asked to participate by my roommate after someone – probably someone with a demanding job, a girlfriend, a dog, a conscience, or generally any conceivable reason to wake up before noon – decided to back out.

I spent Tuesday night concocting magic formulas with a confused fervor somewhere between Robert Oppenheimer and French Stewart. Then Wednesday night the prearranged conference call brought us all together for my very first NCAA Player Pool.

I may be speaking prematurely, and this may be the moment Don Henley warned us about, but I'm hopeful my added excitement for this year's dance will not indeed end its shred of remaining innocence.

In a loosely structured and poorly planned out list that may be the first of many such long ramblings in what could end up as a month on the road, here are my reasons:

--Algorithm catechism: What are the principles behind drafting the right team of players?

Do you want stars? Do you want staying power? Is a two-game player with a high scoring average better than the role player on the Final Four team? Do you take match-ups into account or certain players' propensity to score more in games that matter? Essentially, where do you begin?

The untapped reservoir of philosophies and equations to drafting a player who could give you one game or six is open to all sorts of interpretations. And since ESPN isn't around to tell you ten ways to do it while they invent five more, charge you access and make a pop-up video about it you don't want to hear, you are invariably the Doug Gottlieb of your own domain. Only, you aren't conniving and arrogant. Or maybe you are. That's up to you.

It all is.

--Sam Walker: I generally read about 50 books per year and yet I think only two of them in the last 12 months have been sports related (unless you count soccer, which many of you don't). Anyway, one of these two books was written by a Wall Street Journal reporter named Sam Walker who went on all the sports talk shows promoting his statistical adventure, "Fantasyland."

This is a book about rotisserie baseball and Walker's quest to win a heralded league of experts he managed to get invited into. I probably picked this up solely because I worked at Rotowire.com and the website was of course included in the book. But the excerpt that really stuck with me was the anecdote he often repeated in interviews, about when Walker asked the real David Ortiz in the locker room whether he should trade Ortiz in his league for Alfonso Soriano, only to do it and watch Ortiz go on a tear soon thereafter, prompting Walker to bring it up again with Papi later on.

Having a face-to-face conversation with an athlete whose ups and downs are deciding the merit and success of not only your emotional ties to the team but also your wallet, free time and personal pride seemed a humorous concept to me. And it got me thinking about my press pass.

Last year in Philadelphia the Badgers lost early, but I decided to stick around anyway and shadow Connecticut's players, getting them alone for one-on-one's in the locker room so I could put together some features for the Rotowire website and my own blog.

Keeping that in mind, with my first round pick in the player pool (number ninth overall), I took Brandon Rush of Kansas. I had Rush at number eight on my big board, and nearly everything had gone as planned before my selection (except for Tyler Hansborough going first, which people jeered).

After the draft I realized that I would see Rush live in person for two games this weekend. I thought about how I could easily pull my own Sam Walker, tell Rush in a quiet corner of a hallway to hog the ball and maybe even offer him half the pot for a self-centered game plan through the first weekend.

Of course this is probably not anything I have the nerve to actually go through with. But the fact that the option remains open is nice.

--Street cred: Seeing as how I am someone who is about 90 minutes away from his seventh consecutive night on a couch and could end up spending ten more nights in the next three weeks with my 6'3" frame curled up in a similar position, I should probably not be taken as seriously as Seth Davis.

Okay, that might have been the wrong thing to say. Seth Davis is apparently a part-time stand-up comic with less street cred than Carrot Top (and now smaller triceps). But in terms of college basketball knowledge and overall life experience, I'm just a recent UW graduate a train car away from full-fledged vagabond status. I need all the homework I can get.

The player pool provides this. Not only do I know who my players are, but I knew them before I drafted them. I know the players my competitors drafted. I'll get to know them even better. When the Wolfpack thump Memphis in the second round and everybody in America is talking about that Nevada guy who rolled through the weekend, I'll be reciting Marcelus Kemp's stat line, hobbies, shoe size, political preference and three people from history he'd love to have dinner with.

And of course, I'll be building a knowledge base for the future as well. Unless everyone goes pro, then I guess I'm back at square one.

--Cliché: For those of you too old to have a semi-abusive and self-destructive relationship with the Facebook, look around you and enjoy your being. It must be splendid. The Facebook is an evil you can't walk away from. And now its ubiquity has extended to March Madness as well, with everyone from your best college buddy to the kid from your new town (who creepily added you as a friend and sent a personal message) all out to create and participate in as many brackets as humanly possible.

Girls (and guys, just usually girls) who you know couldn't name the positions on a basketball court (um, tall?) or the North Carolina nickname (baby blue Ram!) are joining leagues at the office called "Because work is soooo boring." Fans who spurned the Ivy League for one shot at a Final Four are starting pools called "Joey Benchwarmer is my hero" or "Duke's band is a high school band!!!" or "I want to lick Digiorno's pizza and Hooters wings off of Dick Vitale's shiny bald head, baby!!!!" (I made that last one up. It's really late.)

It's all preposterous. It's absolutely preposterous. Brackets are still amazingly fun and something to look forward to, but is anyone else starting to feel a creeping sensation that bracketology is moving in the same direction as Lost, Charlie Weis, Kanye West, rear projection widescreens, Prague, illegal wiretapping, organic food and John McCain? Does bracketology have nowhere left to up and come?

Maybe not. But just in case, I introduce the player pool. Now, if we could just get Erin Andrews to interview players in it with a bathing suit.

Now that would be Madness.

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