- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- President Barack Obama has studied Lincoln and FDR to help guide him through the early stages of his presidency.
But he is very much a modern man, never too far from keeping up with the latest college basketball injury updates, the depth issues of Oklahoma, the strong finish by Florida State and the late entry into the NCAA tournament by Arizona.
So on a Tuesday afternoon in the White House Map Room, we wait for the president to fill out his official bracket. The oversized whiteboard, with a presidential seal, sits on an easel a few feet below a framed, formerly top-secret situation map from April 3, 1945. It details the strength of certain German divisions and includes projections for the German army for May 1, 1945.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt died nine days after this map was made. Germany surrendered in Europe a month later on May 7.
History creaks around every corner of this place, from the framed paintings of former presidents and first ladies to the chandeliers hanging above the state dining room to a coffee pot used by President John Adams more than 200 years ago.
But the juxtaposition of a president well-versed in the history of the men who have held the office before him and the brand-new playground that was built for first daughters Sasha and Malia about 50 feet outside the Oval Office makes doing a tourney bracket in the nation's most treasured house seem less surreal.
For many of us in our 40s, the NCAA tournament became a major sporting event beginning with the 1979 championship game featuring Michigan State's Magic Johnson and Indiana State's Larry Bird (Magic and the Spartans prevailed). It was no different for Obama, who was a senior in high school at the time.
"The memory of Magic, and Bird, and [Greg] Kelser, all those guys it was an unbelievable game, and invigorated not only college basketball but ultimately pro basketball as well," Obama said. "So for any kind of basketball fan, Indiana State-Michigan State, that still is one of the greatest games of all time."
The first round of this year's tournament begins Thursday, and plenty of White House workers, as well as countless office personnel around the country, might slip away for a few minutes to watch some of the games.
"I think the chances are high," he said.
The president doesn't want to touch the field of 65, so you won't find him pushing for expansion. He relishes this format and doesn't want any sort of change, unlike his publicized stance on the need for a college football playoff system.
"This is it," Obama said pointing to the bracket. "This is it. You know, you don't want to start letting it be like the NBA. People who are sub-.500 get into the playoffs. There's something wrong with that."
So with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates holding meetings nearby, and a state dinner with Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen to come -- it was St. Patrick's Day, after all, and the president had on a green tie as the fountains showered green-dyed water -- Obama slipped down to the Map Room to break down the bracket. He proved to be as educated and knowledgeable as those who make this a trade.
The president had worked on his bracket earlier in the morning, going over it with press secretary Robert Gibbs, an Auburn, Ala., native who was still disappointed his Tigers didn't advance far enough in the SEC tournament to land a bid.
Obama, though, didn't seem to need much advice when it came time to pick. He dove right into the first round, with only a few upsets here and there, notably No. 11 VCU over No. 6 UCLA in the East Regional in Philadelphia.
"VCU, I think, has been playing strong, and I hate to say this, because my brother-in-law is in the Pac-10 right now, but the Pac-10 has been looking pretty weak this year," Obama said. "I like that as an upset."
He picked No. 11 Temple over No. 6 Arizona State in the South, too.
Craig Robinson, Obama's brother-in-law, is the coach at Oregon State and led the Beavers to seven Pac-10 wins in his first season, after OSU went winless in the league a year ago. Obama picked against five of the six Pac-10 schools in the first round, selecting 4-seed Washington (over 13-seed Mississippi State) as the one league team to advance.
"I want him to have an incentive, knowing that I think the rest of the Pac-10 can be taken next year," Obama said of Robinson's team, which earned a berth in the College Basketball Invitational with a 13-17 record. "I think the Beavers are on their way."
Contrary to many brackets around the country, Obama went against a trendy 12-5 upset pick, selecting Utah over Arizona.
Did it have anything to do with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whom he defeated in last year's presidential election?
"It has nothing to do with McCain," Obama said. "I think Arizona is a great state. I love playing golf there. But they just squeaked in."
Washington was pegged as a second-round loser to Purdue, a team Obama was high on because of its finish.
The president went with Villanova over VCU in the second round but picked Duke over Nova in the Sweet 16. Obama's personal aide, former Duke basketball and football player Reggie Love, was standing a few feet from the easel. Obama and Love are regular hoops players, and the latter watched his alma mater against Maryland last month at the Comcast Center.
"Because of Reggie Love, I've got to pick Duke," Obama said.
The whole way?
"No, no, not the whole way. Come on," Obama said.
How much influence does Love have?
"He doesn't have that much influence," Obama said. He chided his aide by saying a year ago Love picked the Blue Devils to go all the way, and then added, "I think it sort of stopped here," pointing to the second round of the bracket.
Florida State lost in the ACC tournament title game to Duke. Obama clearly knew the Seminoles have been on a roll of late, led by ACC Player of the Year runner-up Toney Douglas.
But he picked Pitt to beat the Seminoles and advance to the Elite Eight against Duke.
"Pitt is looking strong," he said. "I think [DeJuan] Blair is a man."
In the 2008 election, Obama won Pittsburgh, a key city in the swing state of Pennsylvania.
"I've had good luck with Pittsburgh," Obama said. "It turned Pennsylvania. They came through in the Super Bowl. So I figure let's keep riding them a little bit longer."
My bracket has Pitt over Duke, too. Did he get my picks in advance?
"I didn't look at your picks," Obama said with a laugh. "I promise you, to win, Andy, I'm not looking at your picks."
Picking Pitt over Duke was his toughest selection. He looked over at Love and said that despite the "skilled perimeter players, they just don't have the muscle inside. I think Blair is going to eat them up."
Love smiled, but his loyalty at this point in his life has to be to Obama, not Mike Krzyzewski.
"Reggie says [Kyle] Singler is going to be able to guard Blair," Obama said. "I don't think so."
So Pitt advanced out of the East to Obama's Final Four.
North Carolina is his pick in the South. A year ago, when he was still Senator Obama from Illinois, he played a pickup game with the Tar Heels after the Final Four during a campaign stop in Chapel Hill before the North Carolina Democratic primary.
"Here's what I like about Carolina: experience and balance," Obama said.
When asked about the issue of point guard Ty Lawson's toe, Obama responded, "I'm a little concerned about that. But I've got to assume that he's coming to play."
Further down in the bracket, Obama said he hated to do it to his home state of Illinois, but he went with Gonzaga over the Illini. He knew coach Bruce Weber's team missed the NCAAs last year, but "they're making progress," Obama said.
Syracuse got the nod to play Oklahoma in the Sweet 16 at the bottom half of the South bracket.
"The problem with Oklahoma, they have the player of the year [Blake Griffin], but they play, like, seven guys," Obama said. "I think you start getting worn down."
Obama said he watched the ESPN highlights of Syracuse's six-overtime win against Connecticut in the Big East tournament quarterfinals.
Why he didn't last into the night?
"I can't be staying up until 2 in the morning," he said. "I've got work to do."
He picked North Carolina over Syracuse in the South Regional final, setting up a Pitt-UNC national semifinal.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino was an assistant at Hawaii when Obama was living in Honolulu. Obama, who was known as "Barry O'Bomber" when he played for Punahou High, said he used to go to the old Neal Blaisdell Arena on the University of Hawaii campus.
"I saw him at Blaisdell and always thought he was a great coach," Obama said. "So I think he's going to do a good job here."
Louisville sailed through to Obama's Sweet 16.
Obama liked West Virginia, but couldn't go against Kansas for a number of reasons. His late mother, Ann Dunham, was from Kansas. He also just named Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius the new secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Oh, and there's one other reason: "Kansas is a young team, maturing -- Bill Self has done an outstanding job there."
But he still went with Michigan State over the Jayhawks in the Sweet 16.
"[MSU coach Tom] Izzo always has great teams," he said.
Obama had Louisville over Michigan State to reach Detroit.
In the West, Obama advanced Connecticut and Purdue to the Sweet 16, with the Huskies winning. He struggled with Marquette and Missouri in the bottom part of the bracket. He knew Dominic James was out for the Golden Eagles and, after hedging, went with Mizzou to advance to the Sweet 16. Obama went local with Maryland over Cal, but had Memphis beating Maryland and Missouri.
"I think Memphis has got a very athletic team," Obama said. "I think they've got a good shot."
Obama said UConn is a "fine institution" but picked Memphis in the West Regional final, "so that's my Final Four right there."
During at least the start of Final Four weekend, the president will be with first lady Michelle Obama and his key staff members at the NATO summit in France during a March 31-April 5 trip to England, France, Germany and the Czech Republic.
"We're going to be watching it, but it will probably be 2 in the morning where we are," Obama said. "I'm not going to be able to watch any game the whole way through, but we're going to be checking the scores."
What if he's on Air Force One during the games?
"Air Force One does have DirecTV," Obama answered.
With his final selections, the president had Louisville beating old rival Memphis in one semifinal and North Carolina outlasting Pitt in the other. The overall winner?
The most powerful person in the world is like many of you: He predicts the Tar Heels will be cutting down the nets in Detroit.
"I'm going with experience, and I think that Lawson is going to be healthy. I think having an experienced point guard who can control the game and make free throws at the end, that's going to be the difference," Obama said.
The commander in chief then turned to an ESPN camera, offering this pep talk for coach Roy Williams' crew:
"Now, for the Tar Heels who are watching, I picked you all last year -- you let me down. 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."
Regardless of the pep talk to UNC, I didn't budge, sticking with my original pick of Pittsburgh to win it all.
"If Pitt wins, you'll get some commemorative White House M&M's," Obama said. "What do I get?"
Maybe some ESPN swag, Mr. President?
"An ESPN T-shirt?" Obama laughed. "A water bottle?"
And then he was off, with his bracket in hand, folded and ready to reference on Thursday as the first-round results come trickling in.
As we exited, one senior staffer said this might have been the one "fun thing" the president did all day.
The serious work -- and there's plenty of it -- was taken care of before and after our brief meeting.
But during those 20 minutes in the Map Room, one thing became readily apparent: As will be the case in so many houses throughout this vast nation, the upcoming NCAA tournament -- this communal event we call March Madness -- will certainly have its place in the nation's First Home of Hoops.
And if you don't believe me, let's have someone from the Secret Service check the trash bin next to the president's desk in the Oval Office.
Chances are there will be a torn and crumpled-up bracket in there by this time next week.
And hey, who can't relate to that?
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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