Yes, there are tons of guys who are paid for a living to pick brackets. Some write for touts, some write for major publications, and they all try their best to pick who will be in the Final Four. They'll cite past statistics, they'll talk about the chalk, they'll talk about all sorts of combinations (such as Duke has never lost on a Thursday to a corpulent coach at a neutral site east of the Mississippi when having the ACC Player of the Year on their team) and such other helpful gems as that. It's a great time of the year, because right now every entrant has hope, the type of hope that you wish you could bottle and sell and make the world a better place.
For what it's worth, here are some of my pointers as to picking a bracket:
1. Do not pick a team that won its conference tournament after a so-so conference year (or worse) to win a game in the NCAA Tournament. Reason: they've shot the moon already, so to speak, and they have no gas left in the tank. Bet the rent money on Alabama A&M to beat Oakland on Tuesday night.
2. Beware of putative gift horses for underdog teams and then bet the favorite. Sorry, Penn fans, but to actually think that you can beat a BC team that admittedly didn't do the best of its overall outstanding body of work in the past several weeks is a stretch. The Quakers are thin at guard, have very little in the way of an inside game, and if they get defended well when shooting the three, the party is over. Penn fans are giddy with excitement, as they should be, but they'll be one and done in Cleveland. And, believe it or not, I hope that they win.
3. Always bet the gritty team that finished in the middle of a tough conference against the team that cracked the top 20 this year, is from a weaker conference, and, yes, lost its conference tournament. Sorry, orange-and-black clad University of Pacific fans, but the Pitt Panthers will wax your guys in the opening round. Yes, you may argue that we don't know a ton about you because you're from Stockton, California and don't get much publicity in the eastern press, but there's a reason. You're just not good enough.
4. Beware of destiny's darlings, the Cinderella story, the team on a mission, the team from a non-hoops state that has made noise all season long. The Vermont Catamounts are tough hoops team, they have some good players, they were at the Big Dance before, and they could well give the Syracuse Orangemen fits. While I normally am skeptical of the first-round chances of the winner of conference tournaments (notable exceptions being the regular-season champs or Top 25 teams who win those titles), the Orangemen, who won the Big East Tournament, could get a little complacent against Tom Brennan's squad. I'm not calling for the upset, mind you, but this is one that could happen. Now Penn fans might ask how I could say this given that Penn has an "easier" opponent than Vermont, and the reason is this -- I think Vermont is better than Penn. I have a lot of regard for the Penn program, but this team is Penn's worst Ivy title winner in years.
Now my take on who will be in the Final Four and why:
Chicago: Oklahoma State. Reason: solid veteran players. Reason why Illinois won't make it there: I just think at some point their strength of schedule will catch up to them. OK State went to the Final Four last year, and if they get to the Regional Final, I think they're going again.
Albuquerque: I happen to like the matchups in this regional the best, and I think that a lot can happen here. I pick Wake Forest because I think that they have a great blend of players and great guard play, so I'll go with them. Reason why Washington won't make it there: they are a good team, but the Pac-10 just wasn't that strong a conference this year. I know, you play who you play, but still, I don't think the Huskies will get there, and I have them losing to a ticked-off Pitt team in the second round.
Syracuse: Carolina. I liked UConn, but without Antonio Kellogg to provide back-up at PG, the Huskies are awfully thin at guard and just won't have enough depth. The Tar Heels should be pasting people, but sometimes they play Apollo Creed to an opponent's Rocky and get taken out of their game. I think it could happen again here, but it's hard to question the talent. Kansas has talent, but they'll have a steel-cage match in the second round and be fortunate to escape Wisconsin. While some might tout Florida, it's a streaky team, and I think that they won't escape Villanova in the second round.
Austin: Syracuse. I know, I just wrote that they might not escape Vermont in the first round, but I think they will. They're a feel-good story, with the gritty PG whose hometown fans follow him everywhere to the elite senior forward with major hops who opted to return instead of going into the NBA draft. Their patience and teamwork will get rewarded -- with a trip to the Big Dance. Reason why Duke won't make it there: depth and the fact that the Blue Devils' luck will run out. They've played well, but I'm not sure that when they get into a street fight with a Syracuse or even a Kentucky that they'd prevail. They rely too much on the three, and you can't win four tough games in a row on the trey alone.
So those are my picks, and, yes, I think that the Big East is a very strong league, but the same can be said for the ACC and Big 12 this year. A while back, I thought the national champion would be Carolina, but they just don't seem to have that little extra that they'd need to take them there.
I love the low majors and the mid-majors, and the great stories (among them Vermont, Niagara and Bucknell), but the bad part about this tournament is that those schools usually bow out quickly. Here's to hoping that's not the case and that the school in the Cascades can finally make it to a Final Four. Here's to hoping that the games on Thursday and Friday are everything you hope them to be.
Oh, so you're waiting for me to predict a national champion? Fair enough. I like Wake over Carolina in the all-ACC final.
Which would be somewhat ironic, given that neither team played in the finals of its conference's tournament. And that just goes to show you how valuable those tournaments are.