By Neil Keefe
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My birthday. Christmas. Opening Day. The first Yankees playoff game in October. Week 1 of the NFL season. The first Thursday of March Madness. Not necessarily in that order, but those are the six days of the year that I can't fall asleep the night before. This Thursday is one of those six days.
I'm having a hard time filling out my bracket. A really hard time. I've been obsessed with it since Sunday, and I'm still making changes, which completely goes against the rule about sticking with your first instinct.
I haven't been this unsure about my answers since my Media Law final senior year of college, and I've never felt less confident with my bracket. Sure, I feel the same way about the bracket every year and because you have four days to look it over, think it over, change your picks, change your picks back, crumple up the bracket and throw it out, print a new one and start from scratch ... it's a painful process.
I spend more time studying the strength of schedules and 3-point percentages for schools like Oakland and Richmond and Princeton than I spent studying anything in my entire life. I've watched more Doug Gottlieb over the last two days than I watched Charlie Sheen during his marathon week of interviews (and I didn't miss one of his interviews).
I've seen so much Digger Phelps and Bobby Knight that I'm not sure if either of them has slept since the tournament field was announced, and I'm scared that their lack of sleep is skewing their analysis. By noon on Thursday I will have taken a four-day crash course on the mid-majors, and the sad thing is it could all be worthless by midnight on Thursday.
The key, of course, is to survive the first weekend -- the first four days of the tournament -- so that the following weekend isn't pointless. Usually I'm able to get to the second weekend ... except for last year.
Last year my bracket was like a bad A.J. Burnett start. I couldn't even get out of the second inning. By the end of the first weekend, my bracket had more mistakes than Mike Milbury's tenure with the Islanders and when my national champion pick (Kansas) fell to Northern Iowa, I had to spend the rest of the tournament as a spectator. Knocked out of every single pool with no hope, I vowed it would never happen again.
I could go through every matchup from this year's bracket and tell you what went through my mind when I made each decision on which team to advance. Most of the decisions were logical ones, but there were a fair share of decisions made based on illogical reasoning that would make you say, "You're going to pick a winner because of that? Are you crazy?" But that's exactly what you have to do. There's no rhyme or reason to any of this. Sure, Jay Bilas can probably name all the reserves on Bucknell, but there's a good chance that some 18-year-old girl will end up with a better bracket than Jay Bilas by picking winners based on the best color schemes of some teams and which schools have the cutest mascots.
I thought about asking Colin Campbell if I could borrow the cootie catcher he uses to decide suspensions in the NHL, so I could pick my Final Four, but I decided to stick with the logic I always use. I'm not going to try and get fancy and make a decision based on something I heard on TV or read online. I've decided to think back to every buzzer-beater that's helped me and hurt me, and every dagger that left me wondering why I spend so much time filling out a bracket in the first place, and I've created a list of rules and guidelines through my experiences with March Madness to help build the best possible bracket. (Warning: Some rules cancel out other rules. Some rules make little sense. Some aren't rules at all. This is a work in progress.)
1. The 1s and 2s Are Locks
I feel like DJ Pauly D talking about the 1s and 2s. This rule is obvious. Put the No. 1 seeds and the No. 2 seeds through to the Sweet 16. If they lose before then, just tip your hat to the team they lose to.
Don't try to be a hero and predict the next Bucknell or Vermont upset. Chances are everyone else in your pool had them winning too, so you aren't going to be missing out. Well, unless you had them in the Final Four or as your champion. If that's the case, better luck next year, and hopefully you didn't wager on your bracket.
2. Trust The Big East But Don't Trust Them Too Much
Since I'm from the Northeast, I favor the Big East. Usually I favor them to a fault. Every year I give the Big East way too much credit because there's always a lot of hype around the conference and just about every year they don't come through and let me down, and in the process, destroy my bracket.
This year I have six Big East teams in the Sweet 16, two in the Elite Eight and two in the Final Four. In the past it would have been much, much more, but I have taken off my Big East blinders.
3. Stay Away From ACC Teams Not Named Duke or North Carolina
There are few things more overrated in sports than ACC basketball. I don't trust Clemson or Florida State. I don't trust any ACC team that isn't Duke or North Carolina.
4. Remember Who Gave You The Middle Finger In The Past And Who Gave You A Prayer
"Hokie, Hokie, Hokie, Hi!" I will never forget the commentator screaming that when Virginia Tech rallied from 13 points down with eight minutes to play against the Illinois in the first round of the 2007 tournament. And if Virginia Tech had made it back this year I probably would have given them at least one win for helping me out in the past. (Even if it goes against Rule No. 3.)
You can't forget the teams that screwed you in the past (ex: Marquette, Wisconsin, Vanderbilt) and the ones that kept you alive (ex: Kansas State, Louisville, Purdue).
5. Give Xavier and Butler Respect
I put these two teams together because to me they are the same team. That probably sounds weird to people, but I can't help it.
When I think of Xavier, I think of Butler and vice versa and I think of the black jerseys and I think of two teams that have produced some nasty daggers for me over the years. In the past I would have foolishly picked against them in the first round. Well, not this year. Not anymore. I have them both advancing this year. I have Xavier losing to Syracuse in the second round and Butler falling to Pittsburgh in the second round.
6. Don't Go Overboard On Upsets
Every year I start to fill out the bracket and think, "What if this year there aren't any upsets in the first round? Should I just pick the higher seeds and play it safe?" The answer is there are always upsets. I'm soft when it comes to picking upsets and determining upsets.
My friend Forman is the master at the upsets. His resume when it comes to picking Cinderella stories and making ridiculous predictions is scary. On the other hand, I'm always too worried about picking early upsets and then watching that team get smoked and thinking to myself that I should have just played it safe and gone with the higher seed.
The problem with me is that I usually play it too safe in the first round and second round, and then I turn into Joe Girardi trying to manage a bullpen late in the game in the Sweet 16 and later. I start getting fancy and changing and rearranging my picks and before I know it, my Final Four is full of No. 3 and No. 4 seeds, and that's just not going to happen. Like Girardi I need to trust who got me to that point and just believe in the top talent.
7. Location, Location, Location
I never really gave this much attention in the past and that's as stupid as a poker player not paying attention to where the button is. Venues are a huge part of this tournament. Playing on the road, switching time zones and playing against hostile crowds at what is supposed to be a neutral setting is a big deal for college athletes.
It's why San Diego State seeing Anaheim as an eventual destination makes me believe in the Aztecs over Duke in the Elite Eight after thinking back to what happened to Duke at MSG against St. John's. And you know what city isn't far from Notre Dame? Chicago. Guess where the Fighting Irish are set up for the first weekend. That's right.
8. Pick That "One Game" Correctly
It's hard to do, but if you can pick the one low seed that is going to go to the Sweet 16, you're golden. Easier said than done.
Every week during the NFL season there's one game (well, at least one game) that just destroys the spread, and if you pick it correctly, you can turn off the TV after the first quarter with a smile on your face knowing you covered the spread. The problem is it's usually the game you don't want to touch because it's too scary to even think about. The same goes with the first round of the tournament.
I sat and looked at St. John's-Gonzaga for much longer than I should be looking at any college basketball matchup. I thought about the rejuvenated St. John's program and the loss of D.J. Kennedy and what it will mean to New York City for the Johnnies to make a run here. I thought about how much I hate Gonzaga, how I hated them when they played UConn in the Elite Eight in 1999, how I hated them when people thought Adam Morrison was better than J.J. Redick and how I still hate them for ruining my bracket the last 12 years.
I went with St. John's though I'm fully prepared for Gonzaga to devastate me the way they always have and make a decent run in this thing. It was the hardest decision I had to make out of the entire 32 matchups in the first round.
9. When In Doubt, Find A Reason Or Make One Up
It's weird. I'm usually a No. 8 seed guy (meaning I take the 8s over 9s usually), but I'm also a No. 10 guy (I take the 10s over the 7s) too. It really makes sense, but that's just the way it is. A lot of time I have no idea who to pick in these matchups. So, when in doubt, I dig deep for a reason to pick one team over the other.
For example: No. 7 Temple vs. No. 10 Penn State. I have no clue. I won't be confident with either pick. But over the weekend I went to a wedding in Washington D.C. Between the ceremony and the reception, I went to a bar with some other people from the wedding and at the bar a bunch of Penn State fans were watching the Penn State game. They were doing the "WE ARE ... PENN STATE!" chants every 90 seconds and just going nuts every time Penn State scored. It was weird. Now it could have been a Penn State bar. It probably was. But when I see Penn State in this bracket I think of these kids getting excited about a team that enters the tournament with a 19-14 record and I can't help but pick Temple. Great basketball analysis.
10. Go With The Coach On Coin Flips
I like Rutgers coach Mike Rice (I know they're not the in the tournament). He did a good job in his first season and seems like the right candidate to build Rutgers into a tournament team. But what I don't like about Rice was how insane and demonstrative he acted in the Big East tournament.
Then I look at coaches like Coach K or Bob Huggins or Roy Williams -- guys who have won silly amounts of games -- and the only time you ever see them going nuts is when they are going nuts on one of their own players. I think the only thing scarier than having to witness a Red Sox-Mets World Series would be being a 19-year-old kid and having Bob Huggins or Bobby Knight back in the day just ripping into you. They have probably made more kids cry than some coaches in the tournament have total wins in their careers. And that's why it's hard for me to pick against the big names. I believe their kids will come through because they're too scared to not come through.
11. Don't Trust Teams Without Last Names On Their Jerseys
It's always puzzling to me when Division 1 basketball programs don't have the last names on their jerseys. You're not the Yankees. No one knows your names. Put your names on your jerseys, please.
Most of the time it's the low-seeded teams that don't have their names on their jerseys and it feels like the Hawks playing the Ducks (in the first District 5 uniforms, of course). There's nothing worse than turning on CBS and needing a 12-seed to win and finding out that they have to wash their own jerseys because they don't have a team manager. Chances are you made the wrong decision.
12. There's UConn and Duke
UConn and Duke are two teams that always play essential roles for better or worse in my bracket. Let me explain.
I grew up in Connecticut where people love their Huskies and no one really cares how much money Jim Calhoun makes or what NCAA rules he breaks as long as the team wins. I have never once picked UConn to win it all. Rarely do I even pick them to make it past the Sweet 16, and I'm probably the only Connecticut native that doesn't. I think the only time I ever picked them go to the Final Four was the year they lost to George Mason and I learned my lesson.
As for Duke, I have this weird love/hate relationship with Duke. I like what they represent: winning, tradition, prestige and the intimidation factor. I have always like that they are the Yankees of NCAA basketball. But at the same time part of me really hates them. It's weird. Like I want them to lose, but nearly every year I pick them to win it all no matter their regular season or tournament, except for last year, obviously, and they won.
The first thing I do after putting the 1s and 2s through to the Sweet 16 is look at the paths for UConn and Duke and figure out how far I want them to go, or if I want them to go far at all. This year I have UConn losing to San Diego State in the Sweet 16, and Duke losing to San Diego State in the Elite Eight. I'm putting a lot into my rule about venues (Anaheim) and the fact that I saw the Fab Five documentary on ESPN the other night and have become a Steve Fisher fan.
Final Four: Syracuse, San Diego State, Kansas, Pittsburgh
Championship: Syracuse vs. Kansas
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