Sunday, March 14, 2004

A foolproof guide to doing your bracket

Follow tips, then cross your fingers

Gannett News Service

There are irrefutable tenets to filling out an NCAA Tournament bracket. These are etched in stone and have been walked down from the mount by Dick Vitale and Bill Raftery. Do not stray, or the ghost of Adolph Rupp will smite you.

But after you get by the small handful of guidelines, you're more or less on your own.

Some people - foolishly - live and die by team loyalties. ("Cats all the way, man! They can't be stopped!") Others rely a little too strongly on past tournament performances. ("I think 'Melo's going to re-enroll and cut down the nets for the Orangemen again this year.")

And still others subscribe to the notion of the more vague the school, the further it will go. ("I'll tell you what, Southwest Niagara Tech is deadly from 3-point land. If they get hot ...")

Everyone has a system, and almost every system is rooted in some lame theory that paid off once in 1984 and never did again.

Randy Frantz is a diehard University of Kentucky fan who would love nothing more than to see his beloved Wildcats snip the nets every spring. But he's smart enough to fill out his bracket with his head and not his heart.

"Unless you were a UCLA fan in the '70s, you should be careful about putting in your team to win it all," said Frantz, 26. "Chances are, it's going to take you out of the race and cost you some money."

When Maryland rode Juan Dixon's shoulders to a national championship in 2002, Frantz was right there, winning $300 in a friend's pool.

Each year is obviously different, Frantz said. Maryland is hardly a big pick to win it all. But there are certain rules from which Frantz won't stray:

• A No. 1 has never lost in the first round. It will happen someday, but trying to pick it is a losing proposition. Pick at least one Cinderella team and ride with it to the Sweet 16 - maybe further. One or two always sneak by.

• Watch for injuries. "A team like UConn is so dependent on junior center Emeka Okafor that any injury to him could be disastrous for the whole team."

• Know the details. As ESPN analyst Jay Bilas says, the tournament is all about guards. And who has arguably the best backcourt in basketball? The Hawks of Saint Joseph's University.

• Consider depth. "Kentucky's starting five can get them into the Sweet 16, but without some depth, it may be tougher to advance any further," Frantz said.

Who is hot now? Keep your eye on teams that are playing well in March. Kentucky and Gonzaga are scorching.

Considering these tips will at least keep your bracket in the running, but much of the process is wholly dependent on luck and timing.

"When all else fails and you don't know who to pick, ask someone who knows absolutely nothing about basketball," Frantz said.

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