Sure, Obama's got game — but can he pick an NCAA winner?

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 18, 2009 

WASHINGTON — To the many items on President Barack Obama's plate, add this year's NCAA men's basketball tournament.

With the American International Group scandal raging, Obama, who played basketball in high school and is clearly the nation's No. 1 fan, took time out to explain which team he favored to win the monthlong tournament, known as March madness.

He picked the Tar Heels of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the same team he picked last year, when it lost.

In an interview in the White House Map Room, which was recorded Tuesday and aired Wednesday on ESPN, the president seemed unconcerned about last year's letdown as he explained why he thought that UNC would beat Louisville in the final game.

"Here's what I like about Carolina: experience and balance," he said.

Overall, Obama filled out his bracket, which begins with the initial pairings and picks winners for each round, cautiously.

In making his selections, the president nearly always picked the highest-ranked team to win. He picked three of the four top-seeded teams to make it to the Final Four: Carolina, Pittsburgh and Louisville. His fourth pick, Memphis, was essentially a runner-up for the top seed.

"That tells me that he's a guy that doesn't take a lot of chances," said Billy Packer, a longtime basketball analyst for CBS Sports who retired last year. "He's a guy that understands why there're No. 1 seeds."

Still, Packer took exception to Obama's statement that he thought that Carolina point guard Ty Lawson would recover from a jammed right big toe suffered earlier this month.

On Wednesday, Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said that he didn't know whether Lawson, the ACC player of the year, would be able to play.

"When the president speaks, I want him to speak about things he knows or is well informed on," said Packer, who lives in Charlotte, N.C. "On that one, he doesn't. With that type of injury, Lawson won't know himself if he can play until he warms up the day of the game."

The president's picks also ignored some family ties.

Although his brother-in-law, Craig Robinson, is the head men's basketball coach at Oregon State University, Obama picked only one Pac-10 team — the University of Washington — to win in the first round.

In a handwritten version of the bracket made available by the White House, Obama appears to have struggled with his final choice, crossing out Louisville to write UNC and putting a large question mark next to the match-up.

The president has some sentimental ties to Carolina.

During last year's March Madness, he picked the Tar Heels to go all the way, though the team ended up losing to Kansas in the semifinals. In the days before his win in North Carolina's climactic Democratic primary in May, Obama played a pickup game with the team.

During the interview, he addressed the players directly.

"Now, for the Tar Heels that are watching, I picked you all last year — you let me down," the president said. "This year, don't embarrass me in front of the nation, all right? I'm counting on you. I still got those sneakers you guys gave me."

(Beckwith reports for The (Raleigh) News & Observer.)

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