Your NCAA tournament office-pool draw sheet stares hieroglyphically back at you. Members of the tournament committee spent 35 hours in earnest caucus, poring over countless computer-generated "nitty-gritty sheets," as they call them, to place 64 teams into four brackets, just so. But you have neither the luxury of time nor the muscle of a mainframe to do justice to picks that were due an hour ago. You style yourself an expert in these things, but a season in which as many lofty seeds hail from the tobacco country of western New England as from the tobacco country of North Carolina leaves you befuddled. You feel like a maven of March in the same way Mount St. Mary's coach Jim Phelan is an expert on bow ties: Phelan has worn them for 41 years but couldn't knot one himself if his life depended on it.
What, then, to do? If you go with your heart, then the drill is easy: You pick the Mountaineers, because Phelan is the second-winningest coach still active and, two years after the school president tried to get rid of him, he's finally getting a chance in the Division I dance. You pick Colgate, too, because every favorite (in this case Kansas, a dubious top seed in the Midwest) deserves a Foyle (in this case Adonal, the Grenadine Islander who turned down scholarship offers from Duke and Syracuse, opting instead for a campus where "you can still see the sky at night"). Gonzaga gets your vote because the Bulldogs earned a bid despite both a six-game losing streak in their conference and the cancer, now in remission, of coach Dan Fitzgerald. Florida International gets sentimental support, too, with its lame-duck coach (Bob Weltlich) and lamer record (11-18). And you choose Iowa State because the Cyclones have a sweet-shooting sub named Hurl Beechum, whose life was complicated a few years ago when Wayne's World popularized a nauseating definition of his first name. "People would ask me, is that what your name really means?' " he says, still perturbed at the recollection. "Look in the dictionary, and it says, 'to throw with great force,' not 'to throw up with great force.' "
But you can't go with your heart and have any chance to actually win the pool. And to go with the chalk is too easy, too dull, too faithless. So you go with your head—yet how can you trust a noggin still spinning from a regular season and a conference tournament week fraught with vexing twists and maddening turns? So you call up Rob Caskey, a data processor from Alexandria, Va., who subscribes to the Battling Mascot Theory. "Determine which school's mascot would win in a head-to-head fight and choose accordingly," he says. "Is my theory Hawed? Definitely. Crazy? Perhaps. But I've picked two of the last four champs using it."
Caskey abides by a few guiding principles: Larger animal mascots beat smaller ones. Human mascots beat smaller animal mascots and beat larger animal mascots when armed (e.g., UMass Minutemen, Xavier Musketeers). "Golden" mascots (e.g., Minnesota Golden Gophers, Tulsa Golden Hurricane, Florida International Golden Panthers) have an edge against those with no traces of that element. Human mascots with religious affiliations ( Penn Quakers) can rely on divine intervention against most other mascots, and natural phenomena mascots ( Iowa State Cyclones, Alabama Crimson Tide) can beat any mascot except those with supreme or supernatural powers ( Arizona State Sun Devils).
With the Duke Blue Devils absent from the draw. Caskey picks the Sun Devils to be NCAA champions, but you're not buying that, so you turn to Aaron Schildkrout, a sophomore at Newton (Mass.) North High. He examined the first round of last year's tournament, taking careful note of which teams crossed time zones to reach their tournament sites. He assumed that losing time—that is, traveling west to east—handicapped a team, and that when two time-losers played each other, the team losing more time would be at a disadvantage. In every case where there was a disparity in the number of time zones two opponents crossed, he went with the team that had lost less time. Sure enough, of the 12 games in which two such opponents met, Aaron picked 11 correctly, including five upsets in which higher seeds lost to less road-weary lower seeds.
Assuming that winning teams return to their campuses before advancing to the next round, and choosing the higher seed in games to which his time-zone theory doesn't apply, Aaron picks Kentucky to win this year's title. Which you won't do, notwithstanding the Wildcats' No. 1 seed in the Southeast. After all, during this discombobulated season Kentucky lost to Louisville, which lost to Towson State, which lost to...Winthrop. So you fall back on the top-ranked team in the Associated Press poll—a team that has a ferocious animal mascot and is from the same time zone as Seattle, site of the Final Four.
Seven times the Bruins of UCLA have been No. 1 entering the tournament; seven times they've come away a titlist. With your picks due, that's criteria enough.