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Pool pointers

Bracket tips from a sportswriter and professor

Posted: Tuesday March 15, 2005 6:46PM; Updated: Tuesday March 15, 2005 7:03PM
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Nick Fazekas
Grant Wahl predicts Nevada's Nick Fazekas will power the Wolf Pack to an upset of Texas.
NCAA Tournament

So you want to win your NCAA tournament pool?

Then I have just one question for you, and it's a counterintuitive one at that: How's it being scored?

If your pool uses "standard" scoring (i.e., a fixed number of points for each win), then stay here and follow me through my tournament picks.

But if your pool uses upset incentives (if, say, your points for each win equals the seed of the winner multiplied by the round played), then click here to find the secret to success -- and don't tell any of your pals.

A few words about my bracket

For years, I gnashed my teeth about filling out brackets. My thinking went like this: Why should sportswriters be expected to predict outcomes of the games they're covering? Would anyone ask Adam Nagourney of the New York Times to list his picks for the Congressional and Presidential elections?

I've come to accept a few things. One, filling out brackets is supposed to be fun. Two, I'm usually pretty good at it. And three, I'll get more letters for my picks in this week's Sports Illustrated than I'll receive for the rest of my stories in the magazine this year. Combined.

For years at SI, our magazine bracket was the work of (gag) a committee, and the result was often disastrous. Problem was, each guy had his pet upset picks, which meant -- surprise! -- we predicted too many upsets. The committee's Annus Horibilis came in 2003, when we were so far off readers sent reams of letters pointing out (with no small measure of glee) that their pet cocker spaniel had fared better than SI.

So last year we got smart. I filled out our mag bracket by myself, dialed down the upsets and finished with my dignity intact -- at least we got UConn right with our pre-tournament champion pick.

In any case, here are the rules I try to follow to put together a half-decent bracket:

• Start from the center and work backward. Picking the teams that will make it to St. Louis will keep you from riding some 11-seed all the way to the third weekend. Start with the first-round at your peril: Early mistakes can kill you downstream.

• Pick just two No. 1 seeds to reach the Final Four. I don't have the numbers for you, but it's rare for three No. 1's to survive through the final weekend. My two are Illinois and North Carolina.

• If you're in a relatively small pool, don't go with the obvious favorite to win it all. Because even if you win, you'll probably be sharing the prize.

• Pick a regular-season non-champion from a major conference to reach the Final Four. This happens just about every year. I'm going with Wake Forest and Syracuse to turn the trick in 2005.

• Pick the favorite in all the 1 vs. 16 and 2 vs. 15 games. This should save you some time.

• Pick one or two upsets in 5 vs. 12 games. We almost always get one of these, and this year I'm feeling two: Wisconsin-Milwaukee over Alabama and (less strongly) Old Dominion over Michigan State.

• Don't overdo the upsets. Aside from 8 vs. 9 games (which shouldn't count), I've picked five first-round upsets out of 32 games: Those two 5 vs. 12 games, Creighton over West Virginia, UTEP over Utah and Iowa over Cincinnati. Likewise, I only have one double-digit seed (UW-Milwaukee) making the round of 16.

One last point: Sometimes the tournament isn't rational. One reason you see pundits picking a lot of the same upsets is because we at least have a rationale to explain why we think they'll happen. The glorious part of the tournament, of course, is that some things can't be explained.

Let's go through the regions so I can explain some of my picks:

Chicago Region

First-round upsets:
No. 9 Nevada over No. 8 Texas. Should be close, but I like the full-strength Wolf Pack (and big-time scorer Nick Fazekas) over the depleted Longhorns.

No. 12 UW-Milwaukee over Alabama. UWM is on a roll, having won 17-of-18, and its pressure defense could flummox the Tide.

Second-round upset:
No. 12 UW-Milwaukee over Boston College. This has more to do with BC's 4-4 limp into the tournament than anything else.

General thoughts:
I like Illinois, which is not only the best team in this bracket but has the advantage of playing in Indy and Chicago. Both No. 2 Oklahoma State and No. 3 Arizona got hosed by the committee. Ok-State should have been a No. 1, but if it was going to be a No. 2 it shouldn't have drawn the Illini's bracket. And are we supposed to assume Arizona would have been the No. 1 seed in the Albuquerque Region if it had beaten Washington in the Pac-10 tournament final? If so, then how did the Cats fall to No. 3?

Albuquerque Region

First-round upsets:
No. 9 Pittsburgh over No. 8 Pacific: When the right Panthers show up (see at Syracuse, Boston College and UConn), they can be unstoppable.

No. 10 Creighton over No. 7 West Virginia. Tournament-tested Bluejays show why experience matters.

Second-round upsets:
No. 9 Pittsburgh over No. 1 Washington. I've always thought the entertaining Huskies would be vulnerable to a team that features real inside strength.

No. 5 Georgia Tech over No. 4 Louisville. The reason Louisville slipped this far is the Cards haven't beaten any heavyweights outside their conference. Nor will they here.

General thoughts:
Chris Paul's sucker punch caused Wake to get a No. 2-seed, but the Deacs drew a wide-open region with Washington's surprise ascendance. I like Wake, but I think Georgia Tech could make another run to the Final Four.