Finally. The college basketball season is here. Not that five-month slog known as the regular season. That's just a long exhibition, a set-up for the real thing: the NCAA tournament.
It is the best event in sports, three long weekends of fun and games, upsets and surprises. The chatter in between sessions is non-stop.
Next to the actual games, the best thing about the tournament is the office pool. Heck, the pools may be better than the games. Office pools are fun and if you work at a place without one, do the only sensible thing.
Because there are 68 teams involved (and 67 games), a lot of odd things happen during the tournament. There's a good bit of luck involved with office pools. Going in, you need to accept the fact that the guy next to you who knows nothing about basketball, who picks his teams based on which coaches wear glasses or which school is closer to his Mom's house, has a solid chance of finishing higher than you.
But there's also some skill involved and as a guy (tooting my own horn loudly) who has won a couple of these things, I'm going to be gracious and share a few tips. Actual choices are up to you, this is only a guideline. You are welcome to share your winnings, though I refuse to chip in for the losses. These things are a crapshoot. Remember, that's what makes it fun. Though winning makes it more fun.
Work backwards: Pick a champion, then a finalist, then the other two Final Four teams. The reason? These are the teams that will get you the most points and you need to commit. If you're in love with a team you think can make some noise but it is grouped with your champion, you need to find a new darkhorse. For me, that team is Saint Louis. I love Saint Louis. I think it can do well. But it will have to get past Louisville in the Sweet 16. Decisions, decisions.
Speaking of champions, think tradition: The upsets, the newfound heroes, all that stuff makes the tournament an absolute blast. Keep this in mind, though: Tradition and big-name coaches win championships. The last four championship coaches? John Calipari, Jim Calhoun, Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams. You have to go back a good bit to find a championship coach who isn't considered one of the game's best -- Tubby Smith in 1998. And he won at Kentucky, a program with eight titles. Many coaches lose a final before they win one.
But, you say, still-young Brad Stevens almost won it at Butler. Twice! Almost won it means he didn't win it. He lost the final to guys named Krzyzewski and Calhoun. He's probably ready to win one now, except his team isn't as good as his finalist teams.
With the big-time-coach criteria in mind, seven schools this year fit the mold: Louisville (very likely), Kansas (likely), Florida (intriguing), Syracuse (intriguing), Michigan State (less intriguing), Duke (Coach K is as good as it gets, his team is not this year) and North Carolina (not likely this year). A Louisville-Kansas final seems a safe bet. Ah, but nothing is ever safe in this tournament.
Find a couple of upsets: Let's be clear on the definition of an upset. It does not involve teams seeded 5-12. Many times that is a function of leagues and power ratings. No. 12 Wyoming beat No. 5 Virginia many years ago and the cries of UPSET were loud. Nope. Wyoming was a better team that played in a lesser league.
So an "upset" has to involve a 13 or lower seed beating a 4 or higher seed.
A 16 has never beaten a 1 and won't this year. A 15 has beaten a 2, though it is a somewhat rare occurrence. If you must this year, take a flier on Florida Gulf Coast but be prepared to lose that one.
A 14 will beat a 3 and a 13 will beat a 4. That is bank. Harvard and Davidson are 14s worth considering. South Dakota State and the winner of the play-in between Boise State and La Salle are 13s worth considering.
Your alma mater probably isn't going to win: Unless you went to Louisville or Kansas. Have some fun, take some chances. You don't lose that many points with misses in the early rounds as long as your top dogs stay around. Bet with your head, not with your heart is always sound advice. Just don't ignore your heart. My heart is with the alma mater, VCU, the "it" team during that 2011 run. The Rams appear to have a favorable draw but they will also have to handle being favorites this year. It's a different feel. Picking another Final Four run is a reach. Picking the Sweet 16 is not.
The West is wild: Ohio State is probably the safe pick out of that region. There's no obvious pick and about eight teams that could sneak into the Final Four. Is Belmont this year's VCU/George Mason? Is Gonzaga a legit No. 1 seed? The West is where you can have the most fun and, maybe, pick up the most points that others won't get.
Don't overthink it: Which is exactly what I'm doing now. How much do I love Saint Louis? Am I committed to Louisville? Make up your mind and go and if you're stuck, figure out which school is closest to your mother's house. Your odds are just as good that way.
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