A year ago, I unveiled my foolproof, time-tested methods for losing your office or dorm’s NCAA basketball pool. Those eight simple rules – It’s the Players, Not the Coaches; Momentum is Everything; Fall in Love with An Underdog; The Big East is a Beast; Geography Means Nothing; Experience Means Nothing; Pick a Team You Hate; and Do Not Take a No. 1 Seed to Win It All – have performed so badly through the years that I now list the cost of my pool entries as a charitable deduction on my taxes.
In truth, last year wasn’t quite as spectacular a year for The Method as some have been. Virginia Commonwealth, an 11-seed, met 8-seed Butler in the Final Four; either or both were underdogs worth loving. Only one No. 1 seed got as far as the Elite Eight, and none got any farther. Eleven Big East teams made the tournament; one of them, Connecticut, was indeed a Beast, riding momentum and Kemba Walker to a title and a toothless NCAA investigation.
Fear not; I have made the necessary adjustments, and am proud to present six more rules to ensure you’ll be out of your pool by the first weekend, freeing you up to watch preseason baseball for the fantasy-league insights.
1. Big Is Still Big and the East Is Beastier. Did you watch that Big East tournament? Awesome display of the physicality and toughness you need to succeed in the NCAAs, far more important than things like speed and shooting. And I’m thrilled that UConn spent innumerable billable hours fighting off potential NCAA penalties; I would feel tragically deprived if this year’s team, 8-10 in the conference and 2-6 against Top 25 teams (those two wins coming at home, against Florida State and Harvard), wasn’t represented in the Big Dance.
The Big East placed its usual 83 teams in the 68-team bracket. Expect them all to make the Elite Eight, at least. I can’t wait until next year, when the conference will simply absorb the 14 teams in the Atlantic-10, the 10 teams in the Big 12, and for some reason the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
2. Smart Teams Win. I don’t just mean basketball-smart. I mean smart-smart. Unfortunately, this rule is not going to be terribly helpful this year, because the NCAA in its finite wisdom has decided to match up some of the best academic institutions in the field in the very first round. (They can call it “the second round” all they want, but I refuse to think of this as a tournament with 60 first-round byes.) For example, a Thursday game pits the Harvard of the South against the Vanderbilt of Massachusetts. Friday, there’s a 31/43 matchup between Duke and Lehigh – that’s not their RPI, but rather their rankings among America’s top engineering schools according to U.S. News & World Report. Take Duke, and give the foot-pounds.
3. Pay Attention to History. Be aware of the significance of potential pairings. Marquette and Brigham Young may meet in an early matchup of missionary explorers. Michigan and Ohio play in the first round – didn’t Michigan State just beat Ohio State? Seems like a pretty strong indicator for this one. North Carolina could face Lamar – who, let’s face it, hasn’t been the same since he married Khloe.
4. Geography Doesn’t Matter, But Altitude Does. When NC State beat Houston for the NCAA title in 1983, Jim Valvano tried to convince his Wolfpack players that the mile-high altitude in Albuquerque wouldn’t affect them because the games are played indoors. That won’t work on the savvier players of today – okay, Scott Drew might try it on third-seeded Baylor – but it could have an effect on these two games between mountain folk and relative flatlanders: 13-seed Montana (elev. 3200 feet) versus 4-seed Wisconsin (800’), and 11-seed Colorado (5430’) against 6-seed UNLV (2200’).
5. God doesn’t care who wins. If He did, that would be a stronger reason to pick St. Bonaventure, Loyola, Gonzaga, Georgetown, Marquette, Brigham Young, Baylor, or Saint Mary’s (particularly with Ingrid Bergman as head cheerleader). The Notre Dame-Xavier first-round game would seem to underscore God’s neutrality – but then why would God have arranged for so many Xavier players to get extra rest through their suspensions for starting a fight against Cincinnati?
6. Dick Vitale knows what he’s talking about. Say what you will about the guy, he cares more deeply about this tournament than you do. He probably cares more about his picks than you do about your family. His Final Four is Kentucky, Missouri, Florida State, and North Carolina, with Kentucky defeating UNC in the finals. Following his lead – putting two No. 1 seeds in the final game, and three of the five highest-ranked teams in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll into the Final Four – stands a very good chance of losing your pool through its sheer predictability. And if, somehow, you win, just think how proud you’ll feel when you tell people how you made your selections.
That’s the guide for 2012. Remember, upsets come and upsets go, but in the NCAA Tournament there are no shockers except Wichita State.