Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Columns

March 17, 2014

MARK MAYNARD: For better or worse, it’s time to make tournament picks

ASHLAND — There are Bison, Billikens, Mustangs, Chanticleers and, of course, Wildcats.

The three-week party that is March Madness begins this week with most everybody filling out a bracket to try and win their NCAA tournament pool — or even $1 billion! (thanks, Warren Buffet). Sometimes it starts in the office, sometimes it’s between friends.

But it’s become something almost everybody does, whether they follow college basketball religiously or not. As a matter of fact, it seems those who don’t follow it so closely usually end up with a better bracket than the so-called experts.

Sunday was Selection Sunday, when the NCAA unveiled the 68-team field and who they will be playing in the first round. Some of the teams are just happy to be there, and some of them have an agenda that must end on the final weekend of the season in Dallas.

But make no mistake, it’s all big business. Even illegal business.

The FBI estimates more than $2.5 billion is gambled

on the NCAA tournament, with only $80 million bet legally through sports books in Nevada. That means more than $2.4 billion in funds is gambled illegally — some through bookies and some, yes, in office pools.

Most office pool entry fees are $5 to $20, and law enforcement isn’t likely coming after everybody who runs or participates in one. But they could.

College basketball fans in Kentucky have reason to be excited about the three weeks ahead. There is no shortage of entries to cheer for with Kentucky, Louisville and Eastern Kentucky among those playing in the tournament.

Kentucky and Louisville could even meet in the round of 16 in the mighty Midwest Region that makes the Hunger Games look like a shrinking violet.

Both UK and Louisville are boiling mad after being given the No. 8 and No. 4 seeds. They both felt they should have been much higher. Never mind now. It’s time to ball. The Cats play Kansas State and the Cards will try to take Manhattan. Get in an early nap or put on an extra pot of coffee because both games start after 9:40 on Friday night.

Eastern Kentucky is in the South Region, planted as the No. 15 seed and likely fodder for second-seeded Kansas in the opening round.

Area fans also have Ohio State, the No. 6 seed in the South Region, to consider on their brackets. The Buckeyes have one of the most interesting games of the opening round against Dayton, which has been longing for this shot at Ohio State.

The first NCAA basketball tournament was played in 1939 and included exactly eight teams. Back then, the NIT was the big deal. But the NCAA has morphed over the years into big business. It grew to the current format of 64 teams in 1985. Technically speaking, there are 68 teams invited with four play-in games to set the 64-team field.

In office pools, sometimes teams are picked on loyalty, sometimes on nicknames and sometimes by the color of uniforms. That’s the beauty of it. Nobody has to be an expert to play, or win. Everybody keeps their brackets with them — many fill out more than one — and agonizingly overanalyze them almost daily. It’s easier these days because most of them can be filled out and run for us online instead of copied on office equipment.

Here are some guidelines to follow:

‰Seeds for growth. Seeds one through three have won the NCAA Tournament 95 percent of the time, so don’t expect a lower-seeded team to be the last one standing.

‰Go with favorites early. Teams favored by eight or more points win the first-round game 81 percent of the time.

‰Consider the star power. Thirty of the last 31 national champions had at least one All-American on their roster.

‰Teams who are within 100 miles of campus won 77 percent of the time. The farther away from home a team was, the lower the percentage for winning.

‰Experience counts. Teams who have been in the tournament for more than three consecutive seasons seem to do better. Coaches who have “danced” before do better as well.

‰Charity at home. Since 1985, only seven champions have shot less than 70 percent at the free throw line, yet no winner has shot better than 77 percent.

‰One but not done. Only three years has a Final Four not included at least one No. 1 seed. But there was only one year (2008) when all four No.1 seeds made it.

‰Bad Karma for Cats? Only the No. 8 seed has a losing record as the higher seed in the first round since 1985. The No. 5 seeds have beat the No. 12 seeds only 65 percent of the time. So if you’re picking upsets, history says consider selecting No. 9 seeds and No. 12 seeds.

The NCAA tournament has become one of the most widely anticipated sporting events of the year.

In Kentucky, it’s almost a three-week holiday if the Wildcats are advancing. That could be big, this year especially. Kentucky is a rare team that could beat anyone — or lose to anyone. I won’t be surprised if they shock the top-seeded Wichita State Shockers on Sunday. I also won’t be surprised if they are headed home after playing Kansas State on Friday.

If (when?) the Cats lose the state goes into a deep depression.

Here’s hoping they don’t bring new meaning to one-and-done.

MARK MAYNARD can be reached at mmaynard@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2648.

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