BUFFALO, N.Y. -- President Obama is famous for his NCAA bracket. (He is also famous for being president.) Every year since entering office, he has gone through the NCAA bracket with ESPN's Andy Katz -- an impressive annual get if there ever were one; Katz has made sure to return the favor to the White House -- and every year it's a little surprising just how much he seems to know about college basketball.
Among the million reasons no sane person would ever want to be President of the United States, the inability to have time to take pleasure in frivolous, pointless diversion has to be rather high on the list. I can spend hours researching the NIT or watching "Check It Out! With Steve Brule" or simply examining my cuticles, and it doesn't matter, because my job isn't particularly important. In the strange matrix of presidential decision making, when you're in the White House, everything fun must seem so stupid. If I spend five hours binge-watching House of Cards, nobody cares. If the president does that (and it seems like he wanted to), Eastern Europe slides into chaos and war, the stock market collapses and Ted Cruz has the first in a series of several violent conniptions. The world can implode around a president who sits a few plays out.
But the same way President Bush loved baseball -- Dubya felt more comfortable talking about baseball than he did talking about just about anything else -- President Obama loves college basketball. When he had British prime minister David Cameron in the United States for a visit, Obama dragged him to a NCAA tournament play-in game in Dayton. (The POTUS attempted to explain the sport to Cameron, which might have been easier had he not chosen to watch a game between Western Kentucky and Mississippi Valley State. As Cameron put it, "it's hard sometimes to figure out who has done what wrong.") He regularly attends games, particularly when they involve Oregon State, who is coached by his brother-in-law Craig Robinson. (No word on whether or not Obama filled out a CBI ballot.) He openly prefers ESPN college basketball to C-SPAN … even when he has a State of the Union to prepare for. It's his sport.
Obama does pretty well in his brackets, better than you'd expect, though he's only got the champion right once: North Carolina in 2009. He picked Indiana last season, Kansas in 2010 and 2011 and North Carolina again in 2012. That is of course how it always works; knowing a lot about college basketball never helps anyone win his or her pool.
Watching Obama give his picks to Katz this year, in a segment that was shorter, more perfunctory, than some of the last few years -- he looked a little put out, even, to have to answer questions like Katz's one about the NBA entry age -- Obama once again displayed that he knows this game, that he follows it. Put it this way: I bet he knows more individual players than 95 percent of the people who will fill out brackets this week.
His final four picks are Arizona, Louisville, Michigan State and Florida, with Michigan State beating Louisville in the national championship game. His ballot is as conservative as ever, but I like some of his smaller picks, like KenPom favorite Pittsburgh over Colorado, or North Dakota State over Oklahoma. (He picked Harvard too, obviously.) But what's more compelling is the offhand statements in the segment, comments that reveal how much attention he pays this game.
Here are basic facts that Obama knew off the top of his head:
* That the Florida Gators are well-balanced, with a terrific defense.
* That Andrew Wiggins stepped up for Kansas when Joel Embiid was out. He also knew that Embiid would miss the first two games in the tournament, but is expected back for the Sweet 16.
* That Duke's Jabari Parker was from Chicago.
* That Michigan State's Tom Izzo is suffering from a longer-than-usual Final Four drought, and that Keith Appling and Adreian Payne were finally back and healthy.
* That Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon give Arizona one of the best guard-forward combinations in the country.
* That Doug McDermott is the most terrific scorer in the country, and that Wisconsin-Creighton is one of the toughest matchups on the board.
Now, I knew all these things as well, but then again, I write about sports for a living. (And even I had a hard time keeping up with all of Michigan State's injuries.) That a president would have them at hand, even if he had a short briefing before the segment, is sort of remarkable. One of the reasons people give for not following college basketball is that there are too many teams, that the season is too long, that there is just too much to keep track off. Yet there's the president, still on top of it, still able to do it. And I bet his bracket beats mine, and yours.