- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Hey, you. The guy studying the seeds. The girl breaking down the brackets. The poor, misguided fool watching Billy Packer without hitting the mute button. Stop agonizing over that 5-12 game. Put down the RPI printout. Listen up, and listen good.

You’re wasting your time.

This isn’t your year. Again. Every March, it’s the same sad story. You sweat the details, bone up on team tendencies, hunt for 3-point shooting and senior leadership as if they’re buried Spanish doubloons. And for what? So what’s-his-face from accounting — the same clown who thinks Valpo is a brand of dog food — can win the office NCAA tournament pool?

Please. Not all of us can be Rick Neuheisel.

Face it: One’s college basketball knowledge is inversely proportional to one’s success in the office bracket. March Madness is impervious to March Methodology. These are the facts; they are not in dispute. As Hamlet once put it to good buddy Horatio (by all accounts, the Jeff Sagarin of his day), “there is more in heaven and Earth than dreamed of in your philosophy.”

And to think: The Danish prince had never even heard of East Tennessee State.

Our suggestion? Don’t fight it. Go with the flow. Allow sweet idiocy — in lieu of Clark Kellogg — to be your muse.

Herein, we offer some counterintuitive (read: rock dumb) methods for filling out your bracket. Give ‘em a shot. After all, you have nothing to gain but cold, hard cash — at least in theory, since we’re not allowed to endorse gambling. Even though we provide point spreads …

Mascot Fight Club

The first rule of Mascot Fight Club? Don’t talk about Mascot Fight Club. The second rule? Mascots aren’t allowed to speak, so no worries.

Anyone can pick the school with the cuddliest (Jaspers) or coolest-nicknamed (Demon Deacons) mascot. But take it one step further. Let nature be your guide. Ask yourself this: If these two creatures brawled for real — tooth ‘n’ nail, fur ‘n’ feather, Discovery Channel-style — which one would emerge victorious?

Consider the first-round match between No. 5 seed Providence and No. 12 seed Pacific. An easy win for the Big East bully? Not so fast. In the wild, Pacific’s fearsome Tiger would make an afternoon snack of Providence’s fat and jolly Friar, same as Montecore dusted Roy. Likewise, a potential second-round meeting of No. 2 seed Gonzaga and No. 10 seed Nevada favors the underdog — literally — as a single, slobbery Bulldog is no match for a hungry, glinty-eyed Wolf Pack.

Of course, some contests require more detailed analysis: Does the Wisconsin Badger squash the itsy-bitsy Richmond Spider under its muddy paw? Or does the sneaky Spider land a poisonous first bite, perhaps while the Badger is reaching for a jar of peanut butter on the top shelf?

Princeton against Memphis? Tigers toss-up.

In games between schools with human mascots, always side with superior firepower. If Michigan State takes on Valparaiso in Round 2, let it ride on Valpo — Spartans might be tough-minded Greek warriors, but they’re no match for bloodthirsty Crusaders packing longbows, catapults and Black Death-infected blankets. Similarly, expect the Xavier Musketeers and the East Tennessee State Buccaneers to go far — the former because they have guns, and the latter because they’re, well, pirates .

As everyone knows, no one’s tougher than swarthy pirates. Except maybe ninjas. Who, as far as we can tell, are underrepresented in the bracket. Stupid, ACC-biased selection committee.

Use ambiguous school acronyms

If you’re like us, the quality of your handwriting ranges from simply sloppy to doctor’s-signature-on-a-prescription illegible. Meanwhile, the NCAA field offers an alphabet soup of UCs, UFs and UCFs. Why not put these two seemingly unrelated phenomena together and have them work for you?

Creative penmanship combined with ambiguous school acronyms can go a long way toward shoring up a leaky bracket. Again, take the Providence-Pacific contest. Pencil in “UP.” Scribble down “PU.” No matter who actually wins, you can claim a victory!

(Fans of this approach should pull for games between Kentucky and Kansas, Arizona and Alabama, Manhattan and Memphis, Princeton and the Providence-Pacific winner and a three-way cage match featuring Murray State, Michigan State and Mississippi State.)

Worried that games like Washington versus Alabama-Birmingham won’t lend themselves to blatant forgery? Don’t sweat it. Actually, do sweat it. And smear it, too. Take your normally slipshod calligraphy to new lows. Let the ink spill where it may. When the person running your pool asks you to translate, offer to point things out in person.

What do we mean by “point things out?” Only this: With an unsteady hand and, say, a dull No. 2 pencil, “UW” can easily be made to look like “UAB.” Just turn the middle of the “W” into an “A,” then add on to the last leg to create a “B.” Voila! Pollock would be proud. After practicing, you’ll see that even a long and ungainly moniker like “FAMU” can be doctored to read “DUKE,” or perhaps “GONZ.”

Remember: If you could pull it off with you grade school report card, you can pull it off now. Just don’t use an eraser. That might tip people off.

Avoid facial hair

According to the official NCAA tournament record book, only one bearded coach — former Seton Hall skipper P.J. Carlesimo — has ever led his team to the Final Four.

The upshot for this year’s tourney? Frankly, we have no idea. But we do know this: Clean-shaven Gary Williams coached Maryland from the NCAA bubble to a No.4 seed, while Georgetown’s Craig Esherick, a Dabney Coleman lookalike, will be looking for a new job while tending to his silky-black ‘stache at home.

Online prayer

You could try church. Or maybe some basketball-themed rosary beads (U.S. patent No. D474, 872 — we checked).

Then again, this is the Internet Age. Take advantage. Try an online prayer site, like Prayer Warriors of the World (prayer-warriors.org), and have hundreds of true believers lobby for your picks.

Our advice? Don’t ask God to endorse your entire bracket. The Head Coach frowns on avarice. Instead, focus on a single game, one key upset that will secure office bragging rights for years to come. Here’s an example:

Dear God,

I have always admired your Old Testament handiwork, especially the episode involving David and Goliath. Good stuff. Anyway, can you see to it that Duke loses to Alabama State? A No. 16 seed never has beaten a No. 1 seed, so I think the Hornets could use your help. Besides, Duke is nicknamed after your longtime rival. That has to displease you, like Notre Dame’s shamrock-green football jerseys.

See? Nothing to it. Besides, if Jesus can make Mel Gibson a cool $250 million, He’s certainly good for your $5 pool entry fee.

Lean on famous alumni

A university is only as good as the distinguished alumni it produces. Basketball is no different. For instance, Arizona is playing in its 20th consecutive NCAA tourney, the longest active streak in the nation. Curiously, Craig T. Nelson and Geraldo are both former Wildcats.

Coincidence? We think not. Using famous alums as a benchmark, it’s easy to predict bracket success. Follow our logic:

• Texas: Dan Rather, Walter Cronkite. Round of 32.

• Princeton: Bill Bradley, Dean Cain. Sweet 16.

• Syracuse: Jim Brown, Marv Albert. Final Four.

• Maryland: Larry David. We have a winner!

Also keep in mind that while smokin’ celebs such as Kentucky grad Ashley Judd are a good omen, less-lustrous stars presage first-round disaster. Specifically, avoid Kansas (Don Johnson) and N.C. State (John Tesh).

Pick against fives

You can look it up: Only the No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 6 and No. 8 seeds have won national titles.

The deeper meaning? In all honesty, we’d have a better chance of solving Fermat’s Last Theorem. Still, we’re picking against Illinois and Providence. Just in case.

Side with height

John Thompson guided Georgetown to three straight Final Fours. Phil Jackson won three consecutive NBA titles. Twice. What do these coaches have in common? You’re looking (up) at it.

According to scientific studies, tall men earn more, have more children and are considered “significantly more attractive” by the opposite sex. The 1982 book “Too Tall, Too Small” reports that in the 21 presidential elections from 1904 to 1984, the taller candidate won 80 percent of the time.

As such, you can’t go wrong taking No. 13 seed Virginia Commonwealth against No. 4 seed Wake Forest. Not when VCU coach Jeff Capel III, a former Duke guard, stands a robust 6-foot-5.

Along the same lines, it’s safe to speculate that a full head of hair trumps male-pattern baldness. Think Roy Williams. Rick Pitino. Lute Olson. Well-coiffed winners all. And on the patchy side of Rogaine Boulevard? Former coach Dick Vitale.

Of course, Syracuse’s thin-topped Jim Boeheim won last year’s title, while Mizzou’s hirsute Quin Snyder failed to make this season’s tourney. Don’t be alarmed. These coaches are simply the exceptions that prove the rule — what statisticians term “outliers,” and the rest of us call “Steve Lavins.”

Consider school academic rank

Just kidding.

Use the NFL quarterback rating formula

Don’t let the BCS computers have all the number-crunching fun. With a little tweaking, the NFL’s quarterback rating formula can be used to produce equally incomprehensible NCAA team ratings.

To wit: QB ratings are determined by manipulating four statistical passing categories: completion percentage, average yards per attempt, touchdowns per attempt and interceptions per attempt. For college hoops, we’ll substitute winning percentage, points per game, scoring margin and school enrollment, since university admissions increase with basketball success. At least according to those alumni fund-raising letters we’re always getting in the mail.

Plug the above numbers for St. Joe’s into the NFL formula, and you get a rating of … -15,164. Was Packer’s nationally televised anti-Hawks harangue justified? Not necessarily. Kentucky, the tournament’s top seed, has a rating of -138,335 — much, much worse, unless smaller numbers are better. And by smaller, we mean bigger. Just more negative. Got it? Good.

Don’t buy a vowel

USA Today reports that there has never been a Final Four where all the teams began with a vowel. Problem is, the paper didn’t specify if they’re referring to school names or team nicknames. So we’re not sure what to tell you.

That said, it’s probably a good sign for the Vermont Catamounts. What’s a Catamount? We’re clueless there, too. But we’ve got a hunch it could wipe the floor with a Southern Illinois Saluki. Which, as we’ve noted, is something else to consider.

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