Fans simulating March Madness to live without it

The television in Chad Sherwood’s home was off Thursday, because the NCAA tournament couldn’t be found. Boredom loomed in that awful silence, with no scream-inducing buzzer-beaters to drown it out.

In mid-April, the New Jersey lawyer doesn’t want anything to do with basketball. But that’s because he gets his fill in March. Like so many, he crossed out Thursday and Friday on his work calendar, set aside for the tournament’s opening round. From noon until midnight, Sherwood would binge every tense back-and-forth, every clutch free throw, every last-second shot. He’s one in a community of March Madness diehards, tied together by their love of a 68-team, single-elimination tournament that rarely obeys expectations.

“I should be watching four games simultaneously and yelling and screaming at my TV,” Sherwood said.

This year, however, the TV is off, because the tournament has been canceled. That awful reality started to set in for basketball fans across the country Thursday, including Sherwood, who moonlights as a writer for HoopsHD.com. A television and its steady stream of COVID-19 news is more like a black hole, sucking joy out of a room.

But on Sherwood’s computer, there is an escape hatch. There, he types in the URL for whatifsports.com. He falls into his rabbit hole by selecting Division I basketball teams for a simulated contest. Then he clicks “play game,” and the final score is there in an instant. Play-by-play, too.

Sherwood has done this for every conference tournament game that wasn’t completed before the shutdown, providing short write-ups on HoopsHD. Indiana beat Penn State in the second round of the Big Ten tourney, by the way, 76-67, before falling to Maryland in quarterfinals.

“When I run simulations, I see a big upset, I’m like I’ve got to play out the rest of this tournament. I need to see if this team … can they get to the semifinal? Can they get an NCAA tournament bid?” Sherwood said. “Then you put the finishing touches on (a write-up) and you’re like ‘Oh, that wasn’t real.’ I have to deal with the real world again.”

It’s only a momentary distraction, but it’s something. Everywhere, basketball fans are just trying to find some approximation of bracketmania.

For Sherwood, it’s simulations of conference tournaments, which will lead to a true 68-team bracket, a guess at what the NCAA selection committee would have released if it had automatic qualifiers. Sherwood will have them, by his own means, and he will simulate March Madness in its entirety. How far will the Hoosiers advance? Stay tuned.

For those seeking more than dry numbers and play-by-play, there is a Reddit community simulating NCAA tournament games via the 2k8 video game. Thursday night, Evansville native Everett Duncan — or, really, his pixellated avatar — hit a 3-pointer just before the buzzer to push Vermont past Louisville, giving life to a faux Cinderella.

For those searching for something grounded in real life, they are diving into the past. Assembly Call, the IU basketball podcast, is live broadcasting classic Hoosier tournament games, encouraging their audience to tweet along with the “#iubb” hashtag. Friday night, they were reminiscing over IU’s victory against Oklahoma in 1998’s opening round, like it was occurring in the present moment.

”Bob Knight looking like he wants to punch a clipboard as Michael Lewis misses a FT. #iubb”

”A couple of good defensive plays and a rebound by Recker look like they will seal this one for IU. #iubb”

Afterward, they hosted a “postgame” show, as always. They were just talking about a 94-87 overtime win that happened years ago, rather than minutes ago.

“Getting on and doing the postgame shows, it’s us breaking down the games but it’s also about all of our community members and friends, participating in the live chat, and having things to talk about,” said Jerod Morris, Assembly Call’s founder and co-host.

“We are all going to be sitting around with no games to watch. So we were thinking, how can we give people that shared experience, with the postgame show afterward, having that meeting space for our community, and hit as many of those checkboxes as possible?”

Morris, like many, considers sports the “through-line” in his life. As the son of former IU secondary coach Bob Morris, he grew up wearing cream and crimson. They had season tickets to basketball games. Even when his father took a job at Purdue, young Jerod didn’t change his stripes.

The same goes for one of Morris’ collaborators in the tournament re-watch series, IU professor Galen Clavio. Clavio, the director of the university’s National Sports Journalism Center, is the son of a man who taped every IU basketball game from 1987 until the day Knight was fired. There is also a supplemental archive of Texas Tech men’s basketball from 2001-07.

The total is about 250 games on VHS, which Clavio has been digitizing and uploading to the internet. That IU-Oklahoma game was one, but others are becoming useful in this time without live sports. Clavio has seen an uptick in views on his YouTube page, a doubling that’s reached about 4,500 a day.

“When I was growing up, I had to rely on my dad telling me how great Scott May was, or Isiah Thomas, or Mike Woodson, because in the mid-80s there wasn’t much in the way of video you could watch,” Clavio said. “It’s great we have an opportunity now for younger fans. For them, IU basketball greatness is almost mythological. It’s been so long since there’s been sustained success.”

That’s what made the shuttering of this year’s Big Dance so much more painful for the Hoosiers and their fans. This should have been the year seniors Devonte Green and De’Ron Davis played in the tournament, unlike their first three years in Bloomington. If the Hoosiers beat the Nittany Lions last Thursday, as Sherwood’s simulation predicted, there is no way the committee could have left them out.

So it’s only natural fans would be drawn to simulations, powered by a computer’s best guess. There’s a Twitter account simply called “2020 NCAA Tournament Simulation” that’s gained 16,000-plus followers in a little over a week. It had the Hoosiers, an 11 seed, beating No. 6-seeded BYU, 81-79, in an overtime thriller. They then went on to upset No. 2 seed Seton Hall to reach the Sweet 16.

Green, who “scored” 23 points in the BYU simulation, halfway to the 46 he needed to reach 1,000 career points, reacted to the result with a series of emojis. The first, crying laughter. The second, confused. The third, pensive.

These simulations are just momentary fun, which wears off particularly fast for an athlete who just had his real-life dreams snatched away.

For fans and their extended community, they probably haven’t fully spiraled into sports-watching withdrawal yet.

“We are only a few days into this isolation period that everybody is having to deal with. But a lot of people are going online, they are interacting on social media,” Clavio said. “That’s taking a bit of the sting away from it. But it will become progressively more difficult as we have to stay in the situations we are going to be in.”

Morris and Clavio can only hope a series of classic games, starting with Friday’s opening round, and onto the Round of 32 on Sunday, and so on — eventually reaching the Hoosiers’ national title contests — will offer some escape.

Sherwood knows his simulation for HoopsHD isn’t quite the tournament. But it’s something.

“I have the TV off and a computer on and nothing going on. It does fill the void,” Sherwood said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do once I’m done with this. If it’s a few more months, it will be down to computer games or spending time with the wife. One of the two.”

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To watch Reddit’s 2k tournament, find Reddit’s College Basketball page on YouTube. IU, a No. 9 seed, will face No. 8-seeded USC at 5 p.m. today.

To read updates on Chad Sherwood’s simulation, visit hoopshd.com.

To watch Assembly Call’s live broadcasts of classic IU NCAA tournament games, a schedule can be found at https://assemblycall.com/live-rewatch-schedule.

2 comments

  1. DNC (does not count). We will never know whether I.U. could have beaten Penn State in the 2nd round of the Big Ten Tournament. This “simulation” must be driven by algorithms that are based on the number of possible viewers (i.e., perhaps some from “Hoosier Nation” might actually watch this, but it is doubtful that anyone from Penn State will…in fact, it would have been quite likely if no one FROM Penn State actually took the time to travel to Indianapolis for this game).

    I am still in withdrawal mode, and still healthy (as I hope all my fellow posters on this site are). Take care.

  2. I only found the Hoosiers in a tournament simulation known as ‘Brickitology’….We were clearly cemented into the field.

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