- The Washington Times - Monday, March 17, 2014


The NCAA tournament selection show wasn’t 10 minutes old before some of the talking heads had sniffed out their first upset.

A No. 12 seed beating a No. 5 is a tournament staple and the first one revealed set the jaws in motion. It took a second for the reality to set in: They’re talking about the columnist’s alma mater!

VCU, the Atlantic 10 runner-up and still the nation’s darling (at least in these eyes) for its 2011 Final Four run, has been sent to San Diego as the No. 5 seed in the South Region. The Rams’ opponent is No. 12 Stephen F. Austin, which comes in with a 31-2 record and a good bit of a buzz as one of those unknown teams to watch.

Forgetting for a second the fuzzy geography that has a team in the South region playing in San Diego, it is time to consider some reality: The talking heads may be right. This one has some serious upset potential. That’s the task for the next couple of days: find games like that and be prepared to be crowned king or queen of your office pool.

In what is becoming an annual public service, The Times offers plenty of advice for winning those pools. We know they are for entertainment purposes only and no actual money changes hands. That would be illegal. Even without cash, they’re nice to win. It makes it look like you know something, even though you likely just got lucky.

SEE ALSO: Shaka Smart: No need for Atlantic 10 to apologize for strong NCAA showing

The first rule is one I break regularly, as evidenced by the aforementioned VCU-Stephen F. Austin game. One of the cardinal rules of wagering is to bet with your head, not with your heart. Forget that. If you can’t put a little heart into your NCAA pool, why bother? Your alma mater, your spouse’s alma mater, your parents’ alma mater. Everyone has a rooting interest.

Go for it, but don’t get crazy. I have the Rams getting to the Sweet 16, fighting off that first-round upset and then toppling UCLA in the second round. Then comes overall top seed Florida and, well, let’s not get crazy.

Some basics before we get into a look at this year’s draw:

Pick your champion, then your finalist, then your other Final Four teams and work backwards. That keeps you from getting too crazy if a Stephen F. Austin type team is in the path of one of those four squads. The majority of pools are tilted heavily toward later success, so make sure you get the Final Four teams right.

Have some fun, take some chances. Every year there’s a Butler (twice a finalist), a VCU (Final Four 2011, smoothly working that in again), a George Mason (Final Four 2006). But don’t get nuts with your champion. Big boys win the title. Every year. UNLV in 1990 is the last champion that can even be considered as something less than one and even that is a bit of a reach because UNLV under Jerry Tarkanian in those days was very much a major player.

As enjoyable as Butler’s runs to back-to-back championship games were, it lost to Duke and Connecticut. That’s the way it works.

Could this year’s tournament be different? Perhaps, but not likely.

A year ago, Louisville pretty much jumped off the draw sheet as the likely champion. Florida should do the same this year after its run through the SEC and the SEC tournament. It has a coach in Billy Donovan who has won two of these as a coach (2006-07) and played for Providence (and Rick Pitino) on a Final Four team in 1987. The big stage isn’t going to fluster Donovan.

But there’s a nagging thought, sadly unexplainable at the moment, that says Florida is not going to win this year. The champion will not come from among the No. 1 seeds. No team among the No. 2 seeds screams champion, either. Duke, Iowa State, Syracuse and Creighton are the No. 3 seeds. A few weeks ago, I might have bet the ranch on Syracuse. Not now.

By Thursday, this has to be figured out. Now? Louisville and Michigan State are intriguing among the No. 4 seeds, led by coaches who have won this tournament. Those teams are possibilities but neither grabs me the way Louisville did last year.

For now, let’s go with a Final Four of Florida, Michigan State, Louisville and Creighton. In the early rounds, keep an eye on Stephen F. Austin (unless you went to VCU), North Dakota State, Western Michigan and Nebraska. Cincinnati can’t be happy about drawing Harvard — not only are those guys smart, they’re good.

The final rule? Enjoy. Your bracket will be toast by Thursday night. So will everyone else’s bracket. Remember, this is for entertainment purposes only so just have fun.

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