March Madness

Madison’s Ommen moonlights as a college basketball prognosticator

His ‘bracketology’ is published online for NBC Sports

(March 2016) – It is a safe bet that only serious fans of college basketball have even heard of the term bracketology. Even fewer people have the computer-like mind to understand how it works. Bracketology is half art, half science, and it requires memory skills nearly equal to a computer.
Dave Ommen of Madison, Ind., knows bracketology well enough to create NCAA tournament bracket projections for NBC Sports.

Photo by John Sheckler

When he isn’t working on marketing materials and public relations for King’s Daughters’ Hospital in Madison, Ind., Dave Ommen is studying his picks for the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament. He writes a basketball blog online and also offers his “bracketology” picks on the Internet for NBC Sports.

“Only the serious fans know about bracketology,” said Ommen, 45. “Most fans just follow their teams.”
But as the fans follow their teams, they watch the brackets to see who their teams must beat to reach the NCAA’s Final Four during “March Madness.”
“Bracketology is the art and science of putting together what a bracket would look like if the season ends today,” Ommen said. “It is based on how the actual men’s selection committee works to select and seed the teams using NCAA guidelines.”
During daylight hours, Ommen works in community relations for King’s Daughters’ Hospital. It is a job he has held since 1995. The marketing aspects of that job have things in common with bracketology. They both require an analytical mind. A person talking to Ommen about basketball hears a mind boggling string of comparisons between teams and conferences.
Ommen was attending Jacksonville High School in Jacksonville, Ill., when he developed an interest in bracketology.
“I remember the tournament when Villanova beat Georgetown in 1985,” he said. “It got me started wondering how the tourney came together.”
Ommen would come home after school to get his homework done and go watch television as they announced the bracket. It caused him to wonder how the teams were selected.
“In the spring of 1989, the NCAA was in the Hoosier Dome,” he remembers. “When the 6 o’clock announcement of the bracket came on, it was exciting to see who was in or out.”
When Ommen started college at Butler University, he became sports editor for the college newspaper and worked for campus radio.
“I had an opportunity to intern at WISH-TV in Indianapolis,” he said. “I got to know a couple of the sports people, so I landed a media pass and sat on the floor. The guys at WISH asked if I would go with the camera guys to help get sound. We did the post-game interviews in both locker rooms. Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill were all there.”
Bracketology got more complicated over time. It started with 32 teams, then 64, now 68. There was a need to add additional teams as the number of conferences grew. Each of the 32 current conferences has an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
“There are up to 20 teams that will be in the tournament regardless of how they do in the conference tournaments,” he said. “There was a time when the regular season champion got the bid. Now it is the winner of the conference tournament championship. Most years, it is not an issue, but sometimes a team gets hot for three days and takes the tourney away from the conference regular season champion. We call that a bid stealer. Then, the conference tourney winner needs to be invited.”
The bracketology is submitted just before the actual NCAA bracket is made. It is a seed listing of each of the teams from 1-68. It is a group effort for the bracketology experts, and not an NCAA secret club.
“There are a whole set of guidelines detailing why a team plays in a certain place,” Ommen said. “It is a metric of the number of wins, and the strength of the team schedules. It could be an endless conversation.”
Ommen started doing brackets on his blog for fun in 2008.
“In 2009, I got an email from people doing a college basketball blog for the NBC Sports website,” he recalls. “They had seen my blog and asked if I would be interested in doing bracket projections. Now there is a small stipend from NBC, but it is a passion, a labor of love.”
“He is definitely wired for basketball,” said Ommen’s wife, Melissa. “He knows a lot about all the different teams and watches them constantly.”
Ommen was allowed to go through the mock selection process in 2010. Media members from across the country were put through the rapid fire process on NCAA software.
“It was like two days in heaven for me,” Ommen recalls. “There always seemed to be a mystery shroud behind the seeding process. I wanted to unveil the shroud and take off the mask.”
Ommen starts his preseason projections in November and does a couple of brackets in December. It goes to twice a week in February, then three or four times during championship week.
To save time, the selection committee needs to build multiple brackets covering every bracket contingency. A very difficult part is deciding where teams play. A team can play in a home city, but not the home floor. The top four seed lines are assigned locations in order during the selection process. Rankings of the teams are also a consideration. They try to keep a team as close to home as possible, but if two top four seed teams are from the same conference, they can’t play in the same location for the beginning rounds of the tourney. That is why teams may be placed in distant locations.
“My family has adjusted to knowing that dad is kind of busy during March Madness,” he said. “They grew up with it. Fortunately, we have more than one TV.”
“He sure loves his basketball,” said Melissa. “As long as I have known Dave, he has loved college basketball. It is his passion. We are just so happy he can do something he enjoys.”
Their daughter, Olivia, 16, is a cheerleader, and son Luke, 13, plays basketball, football, baseball and golf. When Melissa talks about basketball fever at home, it is almost as if she is talking about a daughter and two sons.
“Olivia is not as in to it as much as the boys,” she said. “But Luke is following in his dad’s footsteps. He loves college basketball.”
Ommen doesn’t travel to many games because he doesn’t have the time. But he did take Luke to the NCAA finals in Indianapolis when Duke played Butler. Some of the Butler team signed Luke’s basketball.
“Some people do wood work. I like bracketology,” he said, “I want this to remain a hobby, and I’ll continue to do it until it becomes work.”

• To see Dave Ommen’s brackets, go to his blog, https://bracketville.wordpress.com/bracketology/ or visit http://collegebasketball.nbcsports.com.

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