On Obama picking Vanderbilt over Harvard

President Obama filled out his NCAA Tournament bracket this week. It’s become something of an annual tradition these past three years. Andy Katz shows up in a suit, hauls along one of those oversized, cardboard brackets, and Obama grabs a sharpie, delivering his picks with that trademark cadence.

This really isn’t about Obama filling out a bracket. It is, to me at least, one of the cooler things he does. Less cool that he does it on ESPN. But Obama seems to know ball, and his brother-in-law coaches Division I basketball, and basketball just seems to be a family sort of thing; one of those things he shares with people he loves.

But here’s what really fascinated me: Obama picked No. 5 Vanderbilt over No. 12 Harvard in the first round. Obama, and you probably know, attended law school at Harvard. He was the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. He appoints Harvard grads to his administration like Isiah Thomas collected horrible, shoot-first point guards while he was GM of the Knicks. And while he actually did his undergrad work at Columbia, Harvard just seems to be important to him, one of those things you share with people you love.

So perhaps this post is really about two decidedly different questions: How much homerism is OK when you fill out your bracket? And what kind of president do we really want?

Do we want a president who picks against his alma mater in a winnable 12-5 matchup? Or do we want a president who appears to be an unabashed pragmatist, who looked at the Vandy-Hahvard! matchup, thought it through, and decided earnestly and honestly that his school didn’t have the horses.

 “I will be rooting for Harvard,” Obama said. “But it’s just too much of a stretch.” 

I have no idea what Obama thinks about when he makes his picks. But it’s an election year, and his bracket did include a Final Four represented by four swing states — North Carolina, Kentucky (sort of), Missouri and Ohio State — so I have my suspicions. He picked North Carolina to win the title, a state he won in 2008, a state few thought he could win, a state he might not win again.

Maybe these picks are his own. I’d like to think so. (However, I think it would be pretty cartoonishly hilarious if he met in the Oval Office with a couple chief advisers, Secret Security at the door, earpieces in, and they went through the bracket, game by game, deciding the best strategy for a maximum PR boost.)

Strategist: Mr. President, we really advise that you take Vandy. We’d like to make a strong impression in Tennessee. And while Vanderbilt is a smaller school, it’s pretty strong academically. And there’s a lot of powerful alums out there. 

Obama: OK. But are we sure Kevin Stallings won’t get outschemed by Tommy Amaker? 

Strategist: Projections are iffy. But another thing to consider: There’s a lot of folks in Michigan still upset about what Amaker did in Ann Arbor. This might lock up Michigan. 

As a reporter, I can appreciate the pick. Vandy handled Kentucky in the SEC championship game. They have a solid coach, solid program, decent tourney history, all the makings of a team that could make a run. But Harvard is Harvard, a team that hasn’t made the bracket in more than 65 years, and their most powerful fan in the world picked against them. And as a basketball fan, well… I hurt for the Crimson.

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