The only sure bet is against the pundits

Um, yeah, so about Wisconsin. And UNC. And Texas A&M. Whoops. But out of the ashes rises a new day — and a column!

On Monday, I sat down to watch 24, per the norm, when my friend Jon Bittner decided to begin gloating that he had caught up to me in our a cappella group’s NCAA pool. Indeed, thanks to UNC, I ended up with two of the Final Four, while Jon managed to get three.

Just to remind you, I spent a sizable chunk of winter break watching college basketball. I watched, on average, a game or two a week for the first part of this semester. And I watched hours upon hours of the conference tournaments.

How much college basketball did Jon watch this year before the tournament? None. His method? Picking teams he liked. Or Gonzaga, because it sounded funny.

Naturally, I was miffed. And by miffed, I mean emasculated with a dull, rusty spoon.

And then it hit me: People who know nothing about sports should be betting on sports more often. Why? Because there is no better way to bring a self-proclaimed sports buff down to earth.

As one of those self-proclaimed sports buffs, I can tell you that it takes a lot of work. I watch WAY too much sports, from college football to World Cup skiing. I check ESPN.com every hour. I read about NFL draft intrigue and try to guess how things will play out. The lowest I ever got was junior year of high school, when I actually amassed about 10 hours in front of the TV watching curling during the 2002 Winter Olympics.

And yet, if I’ve learned nothing, it’s that sports knowledge is a fickle, fickle mistress. Twenty-five-year-old baseball players have knee problems. Basketball players run into the stands and hit fans. Idiot football players ride their motorcycles into things. You can’t predict this stuff.

But that’s the problem: I have learned nothing. Sports buffs are very protective of their knowledge base, and I, for one, have yet to learn that I’m not smarter than the hundreds of other prognosticators out there. I see a cornerback-wide receiver match-up that I think most people are ignoring, or a guy returning from injury who’s always had potential, and I leap … more often than not off a cliff.

Sports buffs make predictable mistakes that anyone can exploit. For one, they are notoriously high on sleepers and upsets. This can work sometimes, like when I took Frank Gore in the ninth round of the fantasy football league I won this fall. But it can just as easily be a really, really crummy idea, like when I picked No. 14 Oral Roberts to upset No. 3 Washington State in this year’s tournament. Also, sports buffs tend to be grandiose. Why use the Vegas spread to make bets when you clearly know better, right? I have done this, and I have never actually benefited from it.

And again, the most important thing to remember here is that betting against a sports buff acquaintance whose head may be getting too large is a tried-and-tested way to cut him or her down a notch or two. In order to prove my point, I’ve solicited Jon’s help. Jon is playing fantasy baseball with me this year.

For those of you who don’t know what fantasy baseball is, it’s effectively the nerdiest thing a sports fan can do. You draft baseball players from different real teams to be on your fantasy team, and how well they do over the course of the season on their actual baseball teams determines how well your fantasy team does. The goal is to accumulate certain statistics: home runs, strikeouts and stolen bases, for example.

Since finishing a draft of my senior essay, I’ve checked a baseball Web site once every hour or so, and have read through almost 500 player profiles. I have players to target, players to make other people think I want, sleepers, busts — the works. Below is a conversation I had with Jon yesterday about his preparation:

Dan: So Jon, have you ever played fantasy sports before?

Jon: This is my first time.

Dan: How have you been preparing?

Jon: I tried to read an ESPN article, but I got bored.

Dan: Do you watch a lot of baseball?

Jon: Only if the Yankees are playing the Red Sox. Or maybe the World Series.

Dan: And are you excited for our baseball draft?

Jon: I’m not excited for the draft, but I’d be really happy if I beat you. I think it would be hilarious if I managed to beat people who knew what they were doing.

Also, a choice quote from my friend Zack, who is even crazier about baseball than I am. He said if Jon beat him, he would fall into a deep existential crisis and then move to Tibet (this was after taking several minutes to recover from the shock of the possibility). I feel similarly.

And that’s the beauty of all of this, if you’re Jon. Lose, and whatever; your crazy friends who spend too much time on this crap will have won a few bucks off you. But win, and your almighty-lord-of-sports-knowledge friends will be reduced to crybabies.

So there you have it folks. You too can force your friends to relocate to central Asia and contemplate life, the universe and yaks.

Dan Adler is a former Sports Editor at the News and a senior in Pierson College. His column appears on Thursdays.

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