- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Filling out an NCAA tournament bracket is tougher this year, and it has nothing to do with the caliber of competition.

It’s the bracket itself that is more maddening.

Instead of a single “play-in” game that most pool managers ignored, this year’s tournament features the debut of an “opening round” of four midweek matchups. That left bracket meisters around the country to decide whether to ask their buddies to pick all 67 games by tipoff Tuesday evening, or to give them until the usual time on Thursday at the risk of skipping an entire layer of games that could produce the tournament’s first upsets.

The purist might say “Pick ‘em all.”

But the realists seem to be winning this debate.

It looks like the the majority of contests are sticking with the old way of doing things. From ESPN.com and its pool that drew 5.4 million entries last year to Mark Fehrman of Wausau, Wis., and his pool of about 80 entries, the reasoning was the same: People already were pushing the Thursday deadline, so it just didn’t make any sense to ask them to pick four more games in two less days.

“I thought about it all weekend,” said Fehrman, a paper broker who is in his 12th year of running his pool. “I considered offering an incentive, maybe an extra point if they got their bracket in on time and got it right. But knowing the group, everyone is going to drag their feet. If there was a deadline of Tuesday, a lot of people might not enter.”

Jason Waram, vice president of fantasy games and social media for ESPN.com, said his staff began kicking around this dilemma last summer, shortly after the NCAA decided to expand the field from 65 teams to 68. They also polled some contestants to see what they thought. After what he called “definitely a spirited debate,” the status quo won out.

“First and foremost, it was about getting the most people inside and letting them have a chance,” Waram said. “We all know that the more people in this, the more fun it is.”

The same was true at Yahoo, which had another thing to consider _ its $1 million bonus for accurately picking every game.

Considering that no entry has come closer than 56 of 63, there wasn’t much of a push to make the challenge any more difficult, said Edwin Pankau, Yahoo’s senior product manager for fantasy sports.

“I read somewhere that getting perfect with 63 is about as likely as winning the Powerball twice in a row,” he said. “Getting perfect with 67 is probably up to 10 times in a row.”

In addition to their nationwide contests, ESPN.com and Yahoo also host pools for people who put together a contest among family, friends and co-workers. This year, those pools are limited to the usual 63 games. Waram and Pankau said there may be an option for those smaller pools to switch to a 67-game format next year.

In a sampling of more than a dozen pools Monday by The Associated Press, one of the few that bumped up its deadline was in the clubhouse of the Houston Astros.

Third baseman Chris Johnson said he and his teammates were scrambling to get their ballots turned in, but they also had extra motivation about this year’s tournament. The Final Four and the championship game are in Houston.

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