A Riverside teenager placed second out of more than 14 million people who submitted entries to ESPN, the cable TV sports network, for its NCAA men’s basketball tournament bracket challenge.
Sam Tomas, a 15-year-old Riverside Brookfield High School sophomore, submitted a bracket that picked more winners than anyone else except for one person, Chris Jacobsen, a dentist from Lehi Utah. Tomas finished just 10 points behind Jacobsen.
The bracket that got Tomas second place was entered as something of a joke. Tomas is a big Michigan State basketball fan — his father Jerome went there — and Michigan State played UCLA in one of the first four NCAA tournament play-in games.
Under the bracket challenge rules, contestants don’t pick the winners of the play in games. Tomas hoped that Michigan State would win and he picked, with a lot of wishful thinking, the Spartans to make it to the Final Four.
UCLA came from behind to defeat Michigan State in overtime and took that spot in the bracket. When UCLA made a remarkable run to the Final Four, Tomas reaped the benefit.
“Of course, my team that I thought would win, Michigan State, didn’t go there but UCLA did,” said Tomas. “It worked out perfectly.”
After beating Michigan State, UCLA won four more games, including an overtime win over second-seeded Alabama and then edged top-seeded Michigan to win the East Regional and advance to the Final Four.
Ironically Tomas submitted three other brackets — contestants can submit up to 40 Tomas said — which he took more seriously, but the bracket that he submitted as a joke was the one that got him second place.
“A lot of it was luck,” Tomas said.
But it wasn’t just luck. Tomas describes himself as hardcore college basketball fan. His knowledge led him to pick some upsets that boosted his bracket. For example, he picked 11th seeded Ohio University to upset fourth-seeded Virginia in the first round of the West Regional. That wasn’t just a guess. He knew that Ohio had an outstanding guard named Jason Preston and that they had only lost to Illinois by just two points in an early season November game.
He also picked USC to make it to the Elite Eight, upsetting third-seeded Kansas along the way. In all, he picked chose of the eight teams that made the Elite Eight. Tomas also correctly picked Baylor to win the tournament. Tomas’s bracket was already doing really well, but he jumped from 47th place to a tie for third when UCLA upset Michigan to advance to the Final Four.
Tomas’s success and the notoriety it has brought has been a surprise to him. He appeared on a minute segment of the Channel 2 news on April 3 during which he was interviewed from the living room of his house.
He’s still shocked that he finished second.
“It literally felt like a movie. It felt unreal because of the odds of this happening, I think it was .00002. This never going to happen to anyone that I know,” Tomas said. “I’ve been just taking in the moment.”
Tomas didn’t win anything for finishing second. The names of those who submitted the top 1 percent of brackets to ESPN will be put into a drawing and the winner of the drawing will get an all-expenses paid trip for two to next winter’s Maui Invitational in Hawaii and $10,000 in Amazon gift cards.
But since Tomas is under 18, he doesn’t think he is eligible even if he gets lucky again and wins the drawing.