- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Take a look back at last year’s NCAA tournament.

Remember all those picket fences next to the teams in the Final Four? You remember that story line, right? All four No. 1 seeds reaching San Antonio.

OK, now forget that. It isn’t happening again. Nope, not for a while anyway. Not a chance.

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Upsets are endemic to March. Maybe not April, when the NCAA championship is decided. But March is the domain of Coppin State and Davidson, George Mason and Hampton.

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And that’s why some elite team - Connecticut or North Carolina perhaps? - won’t stick around as long as many believe.

It’s also a high-priority tip for anyone filling out a bracket this week.

1. Don’t go for chalk. Sans Davidson, last year’s tournament was relatively boring. Lots of white jerseys advancing, lots of dark jerseys departing. The odds will balance things out this season - promise. Multiple double-digit seeds will advance to the second weekend of the tournament - promise. It will be unpredictable - promise.

2. Don’t go for Rock Chalk Jayhawk. Remember all those great players from Kansas‘ national title team last year? Guys like Brandon Rush, Russell Robinson and Mario Chalmers? Yeah, they’re all gone. Sherron Collins is still around, and Cole Aldrich has transformed from endearingly goofy reserve to someone who’s among the best big men in the Big 12. These aren’t the same Jayhawks, so keep that in mind.

3. Bison Mania. The corollary to the Kansas issue is to keep an eye on an experienced team that has played together for a long time. Enter North Dakota State, a team that is a bit reminiscent of the 2006 Northwestern State team that looked like a good bet to pull a surprise (and it did, upending third-seeded Iowa in the first round). The Bison draw overachieving Kansas, and Bill Self might struggle to make it out of the first round this season.

4. Home cooking. No one has a shorter road to the Final Four than Louisville, and in just about every year since 2002, someone has had a path cleared to the semifinals based on geographic proximity. The Cardinals won’t have to travel more than three hours to either Dayton or Indianapolis in the first two weekends, and the lack of travel hassle should help Rick Pitino return to the Final Four.

5. SEC in recess. For anyone unfortunate enough to have watched the final minute of the SEC title game, there was a lesson in that abomination passed off as basketball. The conference sent just three teams to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1990. The best the league could do that year was Alabama getting torched by Jeff Fryer and Loyola Marymount. If only Tennessee and LSU are so fortunate. Don’t count on it.

6. Saints march on. Siena has reached four NCAA tournaments (1989, 1999, 2002 and 2008). In all but one of those trips, the Saints won a game before departing. It’s a remarkable record for such a small school, and the bulk of the team that upset Vanderbilt last year remains intact. It doesn’t matter whether Siena is playing Ohio State anywhere near Columbus; the Metro Atlantic champion is a good choice to swipe a game.

7. No newcomers. Of the last 20 Final Four teams, only two (2004 Georgia Tech and 2006 George Mason) didn’t reach the tournament the year before. The best teams that fit that profile this year are Missouri, Syracuse and Wake Forest, and here’s guessing none of them come within a game of a trip to Detroit.

8. Look out for late night. It hasn’t worked out this way in a few years, but those end-of-session games have a way of becoming interesting, especially when players’ body clocks are messed up. Like, say, UCLA’s. The Bruins have to come east to play Virginia Commonwealth in Philadelphia, a prime upset possibility. Going from west to east isn’t as hazardous, but it still will be an intriguing game to watch.

9. Herbie rides again. Never, ever, ever bet against Herb Sendek in a first-round game. Between N.C. State and Arizona State, he is 9-4 in conference tournament openers, 4-1 in NCAA openers and 5-0 in NIT openers - a total of 19-5. He also won his NCAA opener in 1995 at Miami (Ohio). So as good a job as Temple’s Fran Dunphy did this year, he has encountered a tough out in round one.

10. West Virginia is a chalk-buster. The Mountaineers have outperformed their seeding in their last four NCAA appearances (1998, 2005, 2006 and 2008), including last year’s not-so-shocking defeat of Duke at Verizon Center. This year, the Mountaineers are a No. 6 seed, so just go ahead and pencil them into the regional semifinals. They will get there thanks to Alex Ruoff and Da’Sean Butler.

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