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It's that time of year again. You sit hunched over a sheet of paper with a pencil in your sweaty palms. You agonize over each game. All of a sudden, you realize that you really care about Butler and Coppin State.
It's March Madness, baby.
There's something pure about the college game; it's so unpredictable and exciting. Remember Jim Valvano running around the court in 1983 looking for someone to hug after his N.C. State team upset Houston? Remember Princeton shocking the nation by beating the defending champion UCLA last year?
But the unpredictability of the game is what's killing you right now. Because you have, whether the IRS likes it or not, entered a tournament pool. And you plan to take home the winnings this year.
As usual, the selection committee did a questionable job with the brackets. Minnesota (27-3) had a great season, but it is a number one seed in the Midwest with UCLA number two.
How can this happen when Kansas (32-1), the unanimous number one team in the country, has to get by Duke (23-8)? And Kentucky (29-4), the defending champion, is in a bracket with Utah (26-3) and Wake Forest (23-6).
As for teams not invited, Michigan played a tough schedule but was left in the cold Sunday along with last year's runner-up Syracuse. But there's no time for you to get all soft and sentimental. You've got to be a cold-hearted prognosticator, blind to loyalties and Cinderella Syndrome.
But before you go jumping into your pool, here's a little safety advice.
North Carolina (24-6) is red hot with a 12-game winning streak. They have peaked at the perfect time, and Dean-o knows how to win. A second-round victory would give him the all-time career Division I wins record. South Carolina (24-7) is a threat in the regional finals, but the Gamecocks' guard-oriented offense can't stop Antawn Jamison.
Kansas has the bad luck of possibly playing Duke, but the Blue Devils are on a two-game losing streak. The Jay-hawks have it all--they only lost to Missouri during the year and then got their revenge in the Big 12 championship.
Kansas has senior leadership in the backcourt (Jacque Vaughn and Jerod Haase) and a great inside game with the twin ivory towers, Scot Pollard and Raef LaFrentz. I'd go ahead and put Kansas in the space in your bracket where it says "Champion."
Kentucky, last year's champion, will have all sorts of trouble without guard Derek Anderson. However, it--thanks to star sophomore Ron Mercer--will be able to compensate until the championship game, where the Wildcats will fall to Kansas. Wake Forest's backcourt is in disarray, and Utah almost lost twice in the WAC tournament.
But the difference-making regional in your pool, the one which will determine whether you can do your already-rehearsed celebratory "Show me the money" dance, will be the Midwest.
Minnesota has quietly emerged as one of the best teams in the country. But name some of its players. You may know Peter Jacobsen, the "Jewish Jordan."
Alliteration notwithstanding, will the nameless Golden Gophers prevail? You definitely have to count off for such a lame mascot. Almost as importantly, they've had a bunch of close games recently, they're sorry on the road, and they're coming off a 66-65 loss to Wisconsin.
The problem is that any of the top six seeds could come out of this region. And inconsistency plagues the lot. UCLA (21-7) has Toby Bailey, Cameron Dollar, J.R. Henderson, and Jelani McCoy. They also have a whopping 18.4 turnovers a game average and sad 33.2 percent three-point shooting.
Cincinnati (25-7), the preseason number one in the country, can only rely on stud forward Danny Fortson. If the other players step up, such as bomber Darnell Burton and the versatile but erratic Damon Flint, the Bearcats will be dangerous. Otherwise, they'll be the team that has lost to puzzling opponents and have fallen to number 10.
Fourth-seeded Clemson (21-9) seemed to have top-five potential earlier this season but hasn't lived up to it and is sagging now, and Tulsa (23-9) always does better in the tournament than people expect. The Golden Hurricane (now there's an auric mascot!) has been in the Sweet 16 three out of the last four years and guard Shea Seals is a star.
Even Iowa State (20-8), another team with a natural disaster motif (the Cyclones), might be able to ride the back of big Kelvin Cato all the way to Indianapolis.
In the end, expect UCLA to beat Minnesota in the regional championship for the tickets to Indianapolis.
So there it is. Kentucky beats UCLA handily but can't stop Kansas, which wins another championship for Roy Williams after smoking UNC.
The key to winning the pool is getting at least three teams in the Final Four. And, of course, having the championship game right.
There are a lot of early-round games, though, with a lot of points out there for the taking.
Many pools reward correctly picking an upset. So some "likely upsets" in the early action are:
1. Princeton over Cal. Cal's leading scorer, Ed Gray, is out. And Princeton likes beating PAC-10 teams in the first round (just ask UCLA).
2. Texas over Wisconsin. Longhorns coach Tom Penders wins first round games.
3. UMass over Louisville. The two-headed monster of Edgar Padilla and Carmelo Travieso contains DeJuan Wheat.
4. Georgia over Duke. Nobody wants to play Georgia. Least of all Coach Krzyzewski.
5. Miami (OH) over Clemson. I know I just said Clemson could go to the Final Four. But I like Devin Davis. And what hair!
So there you have it. Guaranteed success. But don't blame me if I'm wrong. It could just be a raging case of madness.
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