During this year's NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, Carlos Carr cheered first for Creighton University. A job at Creighton, after all, originally drew the Kansas City native to Omaha.
After Creighton lost to Duke, Carr switched his attention to the University of Kansas (which he thinks of as his hometown team), and to Wichita State (a team he saw play now and then when he lived in Kansas City). This year he also kept an eye on teams in the Big East Conference (he figured he might as well see what Creighton will be up against next year).
Carr spent a Thursday night at DJ's Dugout Downtown, watching games, drinking beer and talking basketball with his friend, Paul Toliver. Toliver, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, had also cheered for Creighton, but he has a soft spot for West Coast teams, too. This year, Florida Gulf Coast University's story captivated him.
“I'm always pulling for the underdog, no doubt,” Toliver said.
Both Carr and Toliver are college basketball fans. They have favorite teams, but for them — like many others — the excitement of the tournament, the stories behind the teams (Toliver, like basically everyone else in the world, didn't even know Florida Gulf Coast existed until this year's playoffs) and the draw of having a few beers in a bar full of other fans have turned the tournament into a modern tradition.
The tournament — which peaks this weekend with the Final Four — sucks in both casual college basketball fans such as Carr and Toliver, as well as superfans, such as Darren Cloud, a college student from Kansas City who was visiting friends in Omaha and ventured to DJ's Dugout to watch the first of the Sweet Sixteen games.
Cloud grew up in Ohio and is a big Ohio State fan. He was wearing an Ohio State sweatshirt at DJ's and had picked the team to win it all.
But he can get into almost any college basketball game, he said.
Few other times during the year is there so much emotion packed into such a short time, he said.
“It means so much to these people,” he said of the players. “It's cool to see kids give it everything.”
He watched the game with Annie Shopmaker, also of Kansas City, and some other friends. Shopmaker doesn't consider herself a basketball fan, but she still rooted for Michigan, the team she picked to win it all when she filled out her bracket.
“I don't care about basketball, to be honest,” she said.
In the Olechoski family, March Madness has become a family tradition.
For years, said Craig Olechoski, his siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and spouses (as well as the occasional girlfriend or boyfriend of a cousin), fill out their brackets for the annual family pool.
Several years ago, he said, they made the switch from paper brackets to Yahoo's online one, and they use an accompanying forum to tease family members who make especially poor choices. Family members have written haikus about the terrible bracket selections of other family members.
“We just talk a lot of junk to each other,” he said, “but obviously in a very loving, fun way.”
March Madness also has become a way for Olechoski and the cousins of his generation to stay in touch. All grew up in Omaha, but over the past decade or so, many have left for college or jobs. Olechoski sees some of his cousins just a couple of times a year.
“We kind of use this as a time to catch up and come together,” he said.
It's also fun to see who picks what, he said. Olechoski described himself as a fairly serious basketball fan, and he chooses diplomatically, using the rankings and the games he's watched over the season as his guides. Some family members, year after year, just guess. And there's a contingent, he said, of “blind Kansas fans,” who optimistically pick the Jayhawks to win, year after year.
This year, pretty much the entire Olechoski clan rooted for Creighton. But they didn't let their hometown pride cloud their vision.
“I think my whole entire family had Creighton winning and then losing,” he said. “No one was making up any ground. They were all just trying to be realistic.”
Olechoski has a chance to get third in the family pool if Syracuse wins this weekend, so that's who he's rooting for. Shopmaker's Michigan Wolverines are still in the tournament, too, along with Wichita State and Louisville. Carr and Toliver didn't fill out brackets this year — Carr didn't have time to do as much research as he wanted, and Toliver lamented that his bracket never does especially well, so this year he didn't bother. But they'll still be paying attention this weekend.
“March Madness is kind of a ritual now,” Carr said.
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