Beware the odds of March.
You have no idea why they're asking you to put in for a dollar. You can't tell East Carolina from North Carolina, and the last time you looked, Rider was attached to your insurance policy. And yet they want your picks in the office pool by Thursday noon.
You're no killjoy—you've never said no, not when they passed the hat for the retirement gift for that boss you detested, not even when they invited you into that humiliating game of Twister at the company picnic—so you agree, reluctantly, to enter the pool. You shouldn't be so reluctant. "This is the year," says Maryland coach Gary Williams, "that the secretary who doesn't know anything about basketball wins the office pool."
Office pools, whether for money or not, have evolved into a sort of parallel NCAA tournament. The blazered folks in the CBS studio talk about their draw sheets on the air. High-stakes contests run out of Wall Street brokerage houses have ruined people's careers. The casinos in Vegas book more action in March than at any time except during the football frenzy of January, liven the most casual follower of the NCAAs finds it hard to resist scratching out his picks—picks we are all too sheepish to own up to after the tournament's first weekend.
The futility of the exercise is part of the office pool's charm. On the pages that follow we have nonetheless tried to bring a little science to bear on the proceedings, to identify those places where the chalk is most likely to hold and where it figures to turn to dust. Of course, by sundown Thursday our draw sheet will surely have suffered a fate similar to that of Chris McGuire, the hapless Wright State guard who found himself crumpled up at the bottom of a celebratory pile and had to be treated for a concussion following the Raiders" victory in the Mid-Continent Conference tournament final last week. (During March Madness you suffer certain bruises gladly; they're worth it somehow.) But we do believe a little guidance is better than none at all. As Utah coach Rick Majerus likes to say, "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king." So here are some rules to pick by.
•A 14th seed always beats a No. 3. From East Tennessee State's upset of Arizona last year all the way back to Cleveland State's shock job on Indiana in 1986, three-seeds have lost to 14-seeds at least once in every tournament for the past seven seasons. On our pool sheet the pick for this year's unlucky No. 3 was Florida State, which flamed out in last week's ACC tournament and was trying to rediscover its team chemistry as point guard Charlie Ward returned to the lineup from a shoulder injury. The No. 14 we picked as the perpetrator: Evansville. Which brings us to the next rule....
•Beware a team that's gathering momentum late in the season and plays a motion offense. As players become more accustomed to one another's passes and cuts, the motion offense gets honed lo a sharp edge. Year after year there's no better example of this than Indiana, which last season was beaten soundly by UCLA in the season-opening Tip-Off Classic, only to later whup the Bruins by 27 points in the West Regional final. While the Hoosiers' delicate balance has been upset by a late-season knee injury to forward Alan Henderson, Evansville has recovered from an early injury to 7'1" center Sascha Hupmann, and coach Jim Crews, a former Hoosier player and a onetime assistant to Indiana coach Bob Knight, has the Aces flush again. What's more, Indiana eliminated Florida State from each of the past two NCAA tournaments. Think of Evansville as IU-Lite.
•Don't pick against Tom Davis in a first-round game. It may be the result of the Hawkeyes' frenetic style, or of all those goofy bounce passes Davis's teams have thrown over the years, but for whatever reason, Doctor Tom is 7-0 in NCAA lidlifters going back to his days at Boston College. Thus we chose Iowa to beat a very sound Northeast Louisiana team, which beat Arkansas in December.
•Don't expect too much from the Pac-10 or the SEC. Since UCLA's appearance in the championship game in 1980, 28 of the Pac-10's 35 tournament representatives have lost in the first or second round. And of the 17 SEC teams in the draw over the past four seasons, 14 wound up back on campus by the end of the opening weekend. Ergo, we picked only Arizona and Kentucky from those two leagues to advance as far as the regional semifinals.
•"If you see a team with good, experienced guards win a tournament game, that's not an upset." Those are the words of Kentucky coach Rick Pitino articulating a truism that holds up when you examine the backcourts of many of the teams that have won NCAA titles: N.C. State's Sidney Lowe and Dereck Whittenburg in 1983, Villanova's Gary McLain and Harold Jensen in '85, and Louisville's Milt Wagner and Jeff Hall in '86—all were very experienced backcourtmen. Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins is the first to admit that this season's Bearcats aren't nearly as good as last year's team, which reached the national semifinals. But he counts three senior guards, Allen Jackson, Tarrance Gibson and All-America candidate Nick Van Excl, among his top six players and unhesitatingly calls them "the only reason we've won the games we've won." So we picked Cincinnati to come within a game of reaching the Final Four.
•The three-point shot alone won't win a national title, but it can send a team on a run. Study the list of the surprise teams that have reached the Final Four of late, and you'll find several—LSU in 1986, Providence in '87, Georgia Tech in '90—that liked to eye it and fly it. Louisville coach Denny Crum has taken a lot of guff for his teams' failure to shoot the trey, but he has made some adjustments this season: The Cardinals rank in the top 10 nationally in three-point field goal percentage, and forward Dwayne Morton leads the nation in that category. That's one reason we picked the Cardinals to win three games and reach the regional final.
•If you 're looking to pick an upset, go with a coach who has demonstrated a knack for pulling them off. The black widow of this genre, Richmond coach Dick Tarrant, led his Spiders to four such surprises. Tarrant, who has announced his retirement, isn't in the field this year, but Xavier's Pete Gillen is a worthy successor. He has wins over No. 3 seeds in two of the past three NCAAs. Should Xavier make it into the second round against Indiana, it won't be overwhelmed inside as long as Henderson still has a bum knee, and the Musketeers have the backcourt quickness reminiscent of the 1986 Cleveland State team that beat the Hoosiers. We picked the Muskies to upset Indiana in round 2.
•Good free throw shooting counts for something. This season, when foul shooting has been particularly foul, it makes sense to favor practitioners of the lost art. The well-drilled lads at Utah and Brigham Young have been near the top of the national rankings all season, which is why we picked the Utes to beat Pittsburgh and one reason we picked the Cougars to upset Kansas in the second round. (The other reason has to do with field goal, not free throw, shooting: The Jayhawks haven't shot 50% from the floor in a game since January.)
•Cast your lot with teams that win a lot of close games, especially late in the season. In 1983 a University of Texas undergraduate named Ivan Meltzer heard Al McGuire say a team needs three things to win the tournament: several narrow wins down the stretch, seniors and luck. Following those criteria, Meltzer picked N.C. State in a campus pool. "State had three senior starters," says Meltzer, who's now an assistant sports information director at Maryland. "They had close games all the way through the ACC tournament. And I figured anyone could have luck." As we know, during the '83 NCAAs every game N.C. State played seemed to be decided at the buzzer, and luck served the Wolfpack well. All of which is preamble to why we picked Kansas State to reach the regional semis. The Wildcats went 4-0 in overtime games this season and 9-1 in games decided by five or fewer points in regulation. They're not exactly senior-laden, but they do have some experienced players. They also have a guard, Anthony Beane, who has a knack for knocking down important shots late.
•Don't discount a team simply because it didn't win its conference tournament. A loss in the league tournament can often be a better motivational tool than a complacency-inducing victory. Duke lost by 22 points to North Carolina in the ACC tournament final two years ago and went on to win a national championship. After losing to Georgia Tech in the ACC tourney last week, the Blue Devils are in a similar situation. They'll have two relatively easy games in which Grant Hill, who is just back from a foot injury, can get back into the swing of things. By then, coach Mike Krzyzewski will have had a chance to frame this year's challenge. That's why we picked Duke to reach an absurd sixth consecutive Final Four.
•Allow for emotional circumstances that might fuel a late-season surge. In 1989 eventual champion Michigan drew strength from coach Steve Fisher's low-key understudying of Bill Frieder, who was dismissed after taking the Arizona State job two days before the NCAAs began. The following season Loyola Mary-mount made its emotional run to the regional final following the death of Hank Gathers. A Bayou gumbo of adversities powered LSU to the Final Four in 1986. Now there's talk that Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins has "one and a half feel out the door" to South Carolina, as one source put it last week. The Yellow Jackets, particularly sophomore forward James Forrest, seem to be lobbying their mop-topped mentor to stay.
•Pick one sleeper to reach New Orleans, but make sure it's from a fairly loud-snoring league. Every Final Four since 1983 has included at least one team ranked no higher than eighth during the regular season. In scanning that list—in order, from '83: North Carolina State, Virginia, Villanova, LSU, Providence, Kansas, Seton Hall, Georgia Tech, Kansas again and Cincinnati—you'll notice that all but one team came from the ACC, Big East, Big Eight or SEC. (The single exception, Cincinnati, isn't really so exceptional, because the power rating of the Bearcats' two-year-old Great Midwest Conference is so high.) In a season as discombobulated as this one, with six different teams holding the No. 1 ranking at one time or another, there are a number of candidates for the nightshirt. We considered Purdue and its great sophomore forward, Glenn Robinson; California, whose players are suggesting with their play that the coup they staged to oust coach Lou Campanelli was justified; Wake Forest, whose Rodney Rogers and Randolph Childress are as good an inside-outside pair as any in the land; and Oklahoma State, with its breathtakingly improved center, 7-foot Bryant (Big Country) Reeves. We settled on Georgia Tech. The Jackets, who left the radar screen following a 17-point home loss to the College of Charleston on Jan. 16, reappeared in Charlotte last week with victories over Duke, Clemson and North Carolina to win the ACC tournament title.
•Don't pick more than two No. 1 seeds to reach the Final Four. Since the committee began seeding teams in 1979, no more than two top seeds have sailed through in any one year. So as tempting as it was to pick North Carolina, Indiana, Michigan and Kentucky (or any three of them, plus one interloper), history wouldn't let us send more than two of those teams to Bourbon Street. We concluded that Indiana and Michigan will be the unfortunate Ones. Kentucky and Carolina will be luckier—with the Tar Heels beating the 'Cats for the title.
•Don't pick a 16th seed to beat a No. 1 It has never happened. The perfect capstone to a regular season in which No. l's were routinely beaten—and the ideal segue from a week of conference tournaments in which 17 regular-season champions lost—would be a first-round loss by a No. 1 seed. Last weekend's results got us in the mood, and we flirted with the idea of picking Wright State over Indiana. But we just didn't have the guts.
"I don't know how many games were upsets this weekend," said a dazed Tom Butters, the chairman of the NCAA basketball committee, after emerging sleep-deprived to meet the press following the announcement of the pairings on Sunday night. "But I wish someone would tell me it was an inordinate number, so I'd know I'm not going crazy."
Don't worry, Tom. It was an inordinate number. You won't be certifiable until you see the winning draw sheet that your secretary has squirreled away in her top drawer—the one she'll pull out, a winner, some April Tuesday not too far off.
Food for thought: In every tournament since 1986, a No. 14 seed has devoured a mighty No. 3.
You don't have to go undercover to know that there has been a sleeper in the Final Four every year since '83.
If the Heels keep their eyes on the doughnut (and not on the hole), they could win the big one.