It’s that time of year again, time for March Madness, when the most important person in your office or dorm is the one who coordinates the NCAA pool. It’s a celebration of all the things that make America great: gambling, ball-handling, and misplaced educational priorities. In China, they’re studying engineering and math; here, we’re studying bracketology and Dick Vitale. I’m just sayin’.
Few pundits have as much experience as I do at losing NCAA pools. Since the tournament went to 64 teams – I don’t really have a point here, but the most frequently used phrase for the next three weeks will be “since the tournament went to 64 teams” – I think I’ve won one pool, riding hard on the back of “Never Nervous” Pervis Ellison in 1986.
Mario Chalmers screwed me out of one victory. Jim Valvano screwed me out of another, when I picked NC State to make the Final Four and they lost in the first round to Murray State instead.
It’s going to be a difficult year, since not only is there more parity across the field, but the tournament now begins on Tuesday, with the UAB-Clemson and UNCA-UALR matchups. The former pits two mediocre at-large teams that have no business being in the tournament at all; the latter isn’t actually a game but rather an anagram of “Narc luau.” This gives everyone two fewer days to parse the wisdom of Joe Lunardi, Andy Katz and Seth Davis. (Seriously, there are people in the world who watched Mel Kiper, Jr., and thought, How can I get to be just like him?)
Because of these hardships, I have decided to share my secrets. Follow my advice, and you too can be out of your pool by Saturday, freeing you up to prepare for filing your tax return and drafting your fantasy baseball team.
1. It’s the players, not the coaches. Talent wins games; coaches exist to help the players choose the school where they’ll spend a year before turning pro. Once the games begin, there’s not much for them to do. The reason Rick Barnes hasn’t been to as many Final Fours as Mike Krzyzewski is simple: he can’t get good players to come to Texas. Don’t worry about the coaches when you fill out your brackets.
2. Momentum is everything. If a team hasn’t won its conference tournament, fuggedaboudit. There’s nothing more important in judging how a team will do in a tournament than how it has just done in a tournament. Unfortunately, this may not help you very much this year, with potential Sweet Sixteen matchups between Ohio State and Kentucky (both won) and San Diego State and UConn (both won), or Elite Eight possibility Pitt versus Florida (both lost).
3. Fall in love with an underdog. The NCAA tournament is all about Cinderella; if it weren’t, why would they call it the Big Dance? Find the one you like and ride it hard. There’s a lot of talk about Belmont, who had the biggest point differential in the country this year, and played three games against Tennessee and Vanderbilt — losing all three, but still, they played ‘em, and that’s at least as important as their five-point victory over 5-25 South Carolina-Upstate. Don’t just pick ‘em to win one game; put the Bruins in your Final Four. It probably won’t happen, but if it does, think how smart you’ll look.
4. The Big East is a beast. There are eleven Big East teams in the tournament field; of course, the Big East is spreading like the blitzkrieg across Europe in those maps on The History Channel. With eleven teams in, you know they’re all good. Just like last year, when they had eight teams in and only two reached the regionals.
5. Geography means nothing. Some namby-pamby prognosticators worry about the effect of teams from the west coast who have to play games in the east, when their body clocks say they should still be sleeping off last night’s party. Don’t worry about it; these are college kids, and they’re indestructible. UCLA and Washington are going to be bright and fresh for their games in Tampa and Charlotte respectively. Similarly, St. John’s won’t have any problem adjusting to the altitude in Denver against Gonzaga because, as Jim Valvano reminded his Wolfpack before they played in Albuquerque, the games are played indoors.
6. Experience means nothing. These are all seasoned players by now. Even those who’ll be one -and-done are almost completely finished with the “one” part, so don’t concern yourself with what team relies on freshmen as opposed to seniors down the stretch. They’ve faced plenty of pressure before. Besides, they haven’t wasted any time going to classes for weeks now, since nobody gets declared academically ineligible in March.
7. Pick a team you hate. Think John Calipari is the devil incarnate? Take Kentucky to go all the way. If they do, you’ll have your winnings to assuage your anger, and if they lose to West Virginia in the second round instead, you’ll have a lost bracket but a warmed heart. Don’t know what to tell you if you feel the same way about Bob Huggins.
8. Do not take a #1 seed to win it all. Most pools give increased points as the rounds get smaller. A bunch of people in your pool are sure to take each of the four #1 seeds, especially top-ranked Ohio State (and Duke, because people just do that). To beat them, you have to guess the right #1 seed and do better on all the rest of your picks. But if you’re the only person who takes a 2-seed like San Diego State to win it all, that’s the only thing you need to get right to win your pool.
Come to think of it, that last part isn’t bad advice. Don’t worry that they’re coached by Steve Fisher.