Cinderellas and bracket-busters reign as Madness starts

Published 11:58 am Thursday, March 17, 2011

If you’re reading this, your NCAA Tournament bracket is already filled in and submitted. Now comes the hard part, watching.

This year promises to be weird, since it is the first of the tournament’s expanded 68-team format. The field has five 12-loss teams, one more than have made it to the Big Dance in the previous 26 years. It’s better than the 96-team monstrosity that was floated as a trial balloon and shot down like the Iraqi Air Force, but that’s like saying that $3.50 per gallon gasoline is better than the $4 or $5 per gallon variety. Either way, it still stinks.

You’re going to see plenty of NCAA propaganda about how the student-athletes are “going pro in something other than sports,” but the ugly truth of the matter is that if not for office pools, most people would not care about March Madness. Nobody’s tripping over themselves to fill out a National Invitational Tournament or a CBI (the couldn’t-be-invited tournament) bracket.

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The sad thing about the NIT champion is that it won’t be the 65th best team in the country, but now, the 69th. Hoist that banner with pride. A second-straight appearance in the also-ran tournament won’t save Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy’s job if the Rebels don’t make the real tournament next season.

Hopefully your NCAA bracket isn’t already busted by some upstart directional school that tosses sand into the gears, like Northern Iowa’s upset of Kansas last year in the second round. That ruined a lot of brackets, including the president’s. Another was Coppin State’s 1997 first-round upset of second-seed South Carolina. But both are classic statistical outliers. Just because something can happen doesn’t mean it will.

As for winning your pool, it’s picking games in the first and second rounds where bracketeers can earn their stripes and dough. In 2006, no one saw George Mason coming and the 11th-seeded Patriots ran all the way to the Final Four, leaving smashed brackets and broken dreams in their wake. Cinderellas are only cool to ESPN’s Dick Vitale.

Top seeds are an oustanding pick, at least in the first round. They are 104-0 since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. In those 25 years, a number one seed has won the championship 16 times. Two-seeds are safe picks as well, going 100-4.

The 8-9 first-round games are the toughest to pick, but nine seeds have a 56-49 record in those games. Another tough place to pick is the 7-10 game, where seven seeds have a 62-42 record, a winning percentage of just over 60 percent.

As for the title, it’s hard to say if there is a clear-cut favorite. But it’s hard to bet against Duke (15 Final Four appearances, four championships), Kansas (13 Final Four appearances, three titles) or Kentucky (13 Final Four appearances, seven titles). Two-time champion Florida could surprise, considering it came from an SEC with an entire division, the West, with no teams in the dance. Pitt is long and athletic, but can’t hit free throws in the clutch (see Memphis and its loss in the 2008 title game to Kansas). Connecticut is tough, but it will have to get past Duke in the West Regional.

Duke over Kansas in the championship game. Boring for sure. But history has a way of repeating itself.

And it’s anything but mad.