Now, it's time to meet Buttons the guinea pig, last year's winner of Yahoo!'s free NCAA bracket game, Tourney Pick'Em.
No, you read that right.
Last year, as most of us stressed over team matchups, trends, guard play and home-court advantage, Buttons' owner Jake Johnson, used the guinea pig's purring to signal winners and came away $10,000 richer.
"My sister pays zero attention to any sports and every year she beats me," Johnson said. "So last year, in one of our heated discussions, I proposed the idea that knowing anything about college basketball is a hindrance during March Madness because you expect logical things to happen and they never do. So, I was like, you know what, the less you know about sports the better you'll do and I will prove that using my guinea pig to make the picks."
Buttons picked a perfect West side of the bracket with Butler going all the way to the Final Four. She called Duke and Butler in the national championship game. She correctly picked three of the Final Four and six of the Elite Eight. She correctly picked Murray State's upset of Vanderbilt and Wake Forest over Texas.
"So it started off as, 'Oh, ha ha, the guinea pig is beating all of us to holy crap, she's doing really good,'" said Johnson, who finished grad school at Tennessee and now lives in Atlanta. "I was just kind of being a jerk to my sister and I really proved that point well."
For the most part, Buttons picked winners on her own. The only help Johnson provided -- other than actually filling out the bracket -- was advancing all of the No. 1 seeds out of the first round and making sure Ohio University lost its first game. Johnson said he has a vendetta against Ohio because he wasn't accepted there.
Then he read off the names of each team in a particular matchup. When Buttons purred, Johnson advanced that team to the next round.
"Originally when I did it, I laughed because she had three five seeds in the Final Four and she had Butler going all the way to the national championship," Johnson said. "When it turned out that way it was like, holy crap this is unreal."
Last year's bracket featured some of the most improbable upsets, which knocked a lot of brackets out early, but Buttons was keyed in to most of them. And not only was she beating Johnson and his family -- Johnson did submit a bracket of his own where his sister beat him again -- Buttons was beating most of the country. Johnson watched Buttons ascend to the top 200 then the top 100. As he started looking at the brackets of some of the other competitors, many had lost their national champions while others had no way of making up ground. And as the final buzzers sounded in every game from the Elite Eight until the final, Johnson marveled at the uninformed genius of Buttons' picks.
Johnson even received a phone call from the Wall Street Journal asking if he'd serve in their expert panel for this year's tournament.
"I asked, 'Do you want me to fill it out or my guinea pig to fill it out?'" Johnson said. "I could hear the guy talking to his editor or whatever asking the question and he was like, 'Um, why don't you fill it out.'"
As the deadline for the 2011 bracket is quickly approaching, Buttons is already gearing up for another run. Buttons and cage mate, The Brain, which finished in the 99th percentile in Tourney Pick'em and had Duke as the winner, have a Facebook page where Buttons "writes" that she's ready to defend her title.
And why not? The $10,000 earned Buttons and The Brain a living area that could fit 10 guinea pigs and all the carrots they can eat. Johnson and his girlfriend used the rest of the money to pay rent, buy a new TV, a PlayStation 3, and fly a couple friends out for a visit.
"When I tell the story, people usually look at me like it's the craziest thing they've ever heard or that I'm one of the best liars they've ever seen," Johnson said. "Then I show them the picture of the $10,000 check and Buttons next to the screen and they're like, 'Oh wow, that's the strangest thing I've ever heard.' But it gives me the ultimate icebreaker story."