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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, March 16, 2010

NCAA hoops: Ten tips for your pool

By Rick Lund
The Seattle Times

Of all the sporting events I’ve witnessed in person, I can’t imagine a more memorable one than the 1995 NCAA championship game in Seattle between UCLA and Arkansas.

I still have visions of Toby Bailey dunking time and time again on the Hogs’ vaunted “40 Minutes of Hell” defense; a backup sophomore guard named Cameron Dollar gamely filling in for injured point guard Tyus Edney; and Final Four MVP Ed O’Bannon kissing the Kingdome floor in the aftermath of an 89-78 Bruins victory
What I remember most, though, was not the Bruins’ return to glory, but my first taste of March Madness glory: I had just emerged from a field of about 70 to win The Seattle Times’ NCAA tournament pool.
Since the prize for first place was $900, this moment was also being celebrated at home by my wife and three daughters, all of whom within the previous two hours had become huge UCLA fans. We were leaving the next day for a week’s vacation in Arizona, and the wheels were already turning as to how to divide the victory spoils.
“We’re upgrading the rental car to a convertible,” proclaimed my giddy wife, practically humming the tune to “The Sons of Westwood,” UCLA’s fight song. More on that later.
That wouldn’t be the last time I won the office March Madness pool. And I am not a gambler; wouldn’t know what to do in a casino. Furthermore, although I watch a lot of college basketball, I’m no expert.
But you don’t need a masters degree in bracketology to do well. When you fill out your bracket, here are 10 things to think about:
1. Don’t miss the point: Solid perimeter play is huge in the NCAA tournament, especially at point guard. Tempo is vital in tournament games, and point guards control tempo. Kentucky super frosh John Wall aside, the most effective point guards are battle-tested juniors and seniors. As talented as North Carolina was last year, it may not have won without Ty Lawson. It’s nice to have a big man, but if your guards can’t start your offense in crunch time, you’re toast.
2. Tournament-tested, senior-laden teams win: North Carolina, Kansas and Florida have combined to win the past five NCAA titles. And in most cases, the nucleus of these teams passed up opportunities to jump to the NBA to return for one more season and win a college championship.
There is no clear favorite among the No. 1 seeds this year. Kentucky is talented, but can two freshmen (Wall and DeMarcus Cousins) lead the Wildcats to the title? Lower-seeded, senior-dominated teams such as Northern Iowa, Cornell and California could win a game or two.
3. There’s no place like (close to) home: UCLA was the not the favorite to win it all in ’95, but the Bruins stayed close to Pac-10 territory in winning their first championship in 20 years. Boise, Idaho, was the site of their first- and second-round games; Oakland, Calif., the West Regional; and largely pro-UCLA crowds watched the Bruins dispatch Oklahoma State and Arkansas in the Kingdome. See who’s playing close to home. A team’s fan base can provide an edge.
4. Don’t roll the dice on monumental upsets: A No. 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1 seed. There’s a reason teams are seeded 16. And a No. 15 seed rarely beats a No. 2. Incorrect wild upset picks will kill your bracket because you will lose valuable points in subsequent rounds. Upsets occur more often between seeds 12 and 5, and seeds 11 and 6. A No. 10 beating a No. 7 or a No. 9 beating a No. 8 are hardly upsets.
5. Be smart picking upsets: Never pick a substantially lower-seeded team from a non-power conference to beat a high-seeded team that plays the same style. Why would you expect a mid-major school with marginally recruited players to have the talent to run up and down the floor with a major power with blue-chip players? This is why some schools run the methodical Princeton offense.
6. Look at the RPI: A team’s Rating Percentage Index is a good indicator of its strength.
7. Peaking at the right time: Consider fast closers West Virginia, Washington, Notre Dame and San Diego State, who may be better than their bodies of work.
8. Titles hang in the balance: Championship teams are not one-dimensional. Undersized teams that rely on outside shooting may win a game or two, but will have matchup problems facing big, physical teams who rebound well.
9. You have to be a little lucky: If Edney doesn’t go the length of the court in 4.8 seconds to beat Missouri with a buzzer-beater layin, the Bruins lose in the second round and my bracket is in flames.
10. Don’t worry, be happy: If your Final Four teams fizzle early, it doesn’t mean you’re an idiot. Enjoy the rest of the tournament.
Oh, and I should add that you might want to pay the entire entry fee, as opposed to splitting it—and the prize money—with a silent partner who knows nothing about college basketball, as I did in ’95. I thought the $20 entry fee was a little steep. And frankly, I never dreamed I’d win the whole thing.
The wisdom of not splitting the fee became evident in the phone conversation with my wife moments after UCLA cut down the nets.
“You what?” was her response.
It gave new meaning to the phrase March Madness.