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Hoop dreams

A national champ looks to repeat (virtually)

photo of Dan Brent '04When Dan Brent '04, a student in the Carroll School of Management, won the Yahoops college basketball contest last March, he had nothing to show for it--despite besting 110,000 fellow players in the nationwide game run by Yahoo.com. "They didn't even send an e-mail saying congratulations. I was kind of hoping for something, but what can you do?" he said.

Contestants in Yahoops have one assignment: to predict the seven biggest winners each week of the NCAA basketball season. The more points a chosen team wins by, the more points the Yahoops contestant earns. Whoever has the most points at the end of the regular season is the Yahoops champ.

That may seem like a simple proposition, but as Brent explained, Yahoops has its nuances. Contestants, for example, have to "buy" their teams, using a weekly allotment of 100 units. The higher a team is ranked in the NCAA, the more it costs, so it's impossible to choose only heavy hitters. (Brent points out that it's not always smart to go with the big names, anyway: The best teams tend to play one another a lot, and the point spreads in such matchups are usually small.)

Most teams play only two games per week, but occasionally a team will play three--and thus become a potential dark horse winner, since all victory points are combined at the end of the week. Brent delves into schedules, team histories, and the files of obscure athletic conferences, looking for any such edge. His analysis also includes intangibles: "Home games are big, so a team playing two home games against lower conference teams is a good bet," he confides.

The air is thin at the top of the Yahoops hierarchy. Brent thinks only 50 or so of the 110,000 participants put in a serious effort. "A lot of people just say, oh, I'm going to pick Duke, North Carolina. If you look at the top 50, everyone's picking these weird teams that you've probably never heard of." Last year, Brent found himself locked in a fight-to-the-finish with just one other competitor; the rest had fallen hopelessly behind on points. He won, eventually, by 80 points, the equivalent of a single blowout NCAA game.

Brent doesn't know the true identity of everyone he squares off against. Last year's runner-up identified himself only as Oldheads, an alias. "I was going to send him an e-mail or something, but I never got around to it," says Brent, who also remained anonymous on-line, going by the mysterious acronym TOOS.

Brent would like to repeat as champion, and so far this winter things are looking good. It's not that he's the top performer every week--he has never been higher than 11th in any given seven-day period--but he's consistent. "That's what really counts, to be in the top 200 every week," he says. "Once you're in there, you've just got to play level all year."

Tim Heffernan

Photo: Brent: "They didn't even send an e-mail."

Gary Wayne Gilbert

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