March 17, 2010 -- In perhaps the most critical week of his presidency, with health care reform legislation on the line, President Obama, like millions of Americans, took a little time out for March Madness.
Despite his well-known love and deep knowledge of college basketball, Obama did not completely leave politics at the door as he explained his tournament picks.
The hoopster-in-chief picked the top-ranked Kansas Jayhawks to win the men's tournament -- a somewhat safe pick from a president who ran on a campaign promising change.
But is his selection of a national champion motivated more by politics than basketball insight?
Obama admitted that he might be influenced by Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, who served as governor of Kansas.
"She is a fanatical Jayhawks fan. She's a maniac when it comes to the Jayhawks -- talks trash all the time," Obama said of Sebelius.
"I want her to be happy when she's working on these important issues here," Obama said, pointing out the key role Sebelius plays in the current health care debate.
Personal connections also figured in to Obama's picks, but only through the first three rounds. Obama's personal aide, Reggie Love, was a member of Duke's 2001 national championship team.
Admitting that he was to some extent "brainwashed" by Love, Obama picked Duke to win three games and reach the tournament's Elite Eight before losing to second-seed Villanova.
"Finally break away from Reggie Love," the president said about putting Villanova in his Final Four. "Nova's guards are too quick."
Apparently unconcerned about the possibility of a bracket-busting Cinderella, Obama's Final Four -- Kansas, Kentucky, Kansas State and Villanova -- is composed of two No. 1 seeds and two No. 2 seeds.
His national runner-up pick is Kentucky, pitting two No. 1 seeds in a championship game that will certainly be replicated on thousands of brackets across the country.
"I love Kentucky's freshman," the president said about the Wildcats' John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, both considered among the most effective players in the game this year.
Passion for the Game
Obama's love of basketball is well documented, and he frequently plays pick-up games with friends and staff on weekends. He has said he's a devoted "SportsCenter" viewer and avidly follows the college game.
In January Obama sat courtside for a matchup in Washington between the Georgetown Hoyas and Duke Blue Devils, and tried his hand at a few minutes of sideline color commentary with CBS Sports announcers Verne Lundquist and Clark Kellogg.
"After retirement, I'm coming after your job, Clark," Obama said. "I'm just letting you know. So you either have three more years or seven more years."
Going through his picks with businesslike efficiency, Obama showed an insider's knowledge of the key players, critical matchups and dynamics at play.
"Kansas keeps on going, balanced team, [Sherron] Collins in the back court," Obama said of the Jayhawks' senior. "I always like teams in the tournament who have experience."
Asked if he had ever seen the "menacing stare" of Kansas State head coach Frank Martin, who is known for his on-court temper and tirades, Obama said, "He's a scary dude. ... I should send him up to Congress to get them to vote for health care."
Safe Picks in Women's Tourney
This is the second year Obama has filled out his men's tournament bracket with ESPN, but the first time he filled out a bracket for the women's tournament.
He picked Connecticut, Stanford, Tennessee and Notre Dame to reach the women's Final Four, and ESPN will reveal his pick for the women's champion later this week.
Picking the UConn women's team for his Final Four is a safe bet. The Huskies have dominated college women's basketball this season, boast a 72-game winning streak and are the defending national champions. UConn came to the White House last year to be honored for its title and shot hoops with the president on the basketball court there.
No Games Involved in Presidential Picks
In picking Ohio State to make the Sweet 16 of the men's tourney, Obama made sure to point out it's not 2008 anymore and that politics were not at play in his decision.
"There's no bias," he said. "I'm not trying to win electoral votes in Ohio."
But when he picked the Buckeyes to lose its next game to Georgetown, the president had a quick explanation for why.
"Well, here's the thing. They don't have any seniors on their team. They're a young team," he said about the Hoyas. "But I think they're getting better. I think [Georgetown coach] John Thompson does a great job. So I'm feeling pretty good about Georgetown making a good little run."
Overall, Obama played it safe in his picks -- he has only two upsets in early rounds, picking 12th-seeded Cornell to beat No. 5 seeded Temple, and 13th-seeded Murray State to upset four-seeded Vanderbilt.
"I like Murray State. They're a well balanced team and they're athletic," the president said.
Win One for the Secretary
While the president's bracket may not be daring or all that original, he has succeeded in the past by going with the sure bet.
Last year the president correctly picked the top-ranked North Carolina as the men's national champion. In the spring of 2008, he took a break from the campaign trail to play some hoops with the Tar Heels, so he had inside knowledge of its game. North Carolina, like Kansas this year, came in as the top-ranked team, making it a safe bet for the Final Four and title.
But Obama had some early setbacks to his bracket that left him open for criticism, putting all his hope on the Tar Heels.
When North Carolina came to the White House to be honored for its title, Obama thanked the squad for "vindicating" him in front of the entire nation.
Last year Obama implored North Carolina to go out and win the tournament and not let him down.
This year, he had his own version of "Win one for the Gipper" message for the Jayhawks.
"You know -- don't let Secretary Sebelius down, she's really counting on it," Obama said in a final message to the Kansas Jayhawks. "And a lot of people are going to give her a hard time if they don't pull it out."
No pressure there. And with that, Obama inked his signature on his oversize bracket with a flourish. He may not sign a health care bill this week, but he did get to use his presidential pen.