NCAA BK

Pearls of bracket-building wisdom

You don't have to be as Smart as Shaka to pick a bold NCAA bracket.
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Peter Schrager

Peter Schrager is the Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com and the national sports correspondent for FOX News Channel's "FOX Report Weekend." He's the co-author of Victor Cruz's New York Times' best-selling memoir "Out of the Blue" and lives in New York. Feel free to e-mail him at peterschrager@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.

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Ah, that moment of dread.

You know it. The second Monday morning of March, you get to your desk, everyone’s talking about the bagels being a little stale in the commissary, and Chuck in Sales swings by and drops off a blank NCAA tournament bracket on your desk. “Ten bucks, buddy. Good luck.”

For an hour, you blow off your morning meetings and fail to return any incoming emails as you nervously search all the sports web sites, trying to learn something, anything about New Mexico’s frontcourt and Murray State’s out-of-conference schedule.

You take your pen out, only to quickly switch over to a pencil. There will be changes. Many. And nothing is final until Thursday.

Everyone’s talking about their brackets at the water cooler and you’re just trying your damndest to keep it all straight. Wait, Florida State beat North Carolina by 30 points this season? Saint Mary’s beat Gonzaga in their conference tournament? There’s just too much to compute and comprehend at once.

A lot of the so-called experts on TV will be making “bold” predictions in their Final Four brackets over the coming days. It’ll be tempting to blindly trust their counsel, to follow those Hi-Liter pens like magic wands and assume that the guys in suits who talk sports know more than you do when it comes to filling these brackets out.

But guess what? They don’t.

They may own championship rings, wear $400 ties and have Sports Emmy awards on their bookshelves at home, but they’re paid to break down the pick-and-roll, not predict the future.

Let’s take last year as an example. Of the 12 “experts” to pick a Final Four on ESPN.com, 10 of them did not have a single correct team in the Final Four. Of the two experts who did, each had just one of the Final Four squads in their brackets. That’s 2 for 48, or a whopping 4 percent.

Not knowing that South Dakota State, a 14 seed in the South region, tends to go with a smaller, more agile three-guard lineup in the second half of close games, or that Norfolk State, a 15 seed in the West, has a smooth shooting guard from Philly named Pendarvis Williams, won’t be the reason you don’t win your office bracket pool.

Your lack of courage, your lack of gumption, your lack of “chutzpah” is what will doom you. So just go with your gut.

Who’s the expert I turned to for bracket advice this year? Joe Pearlman, of course.

Who?

Joe Pearlman. Not familiar? Let me explain.

Joe Pearlman is a 51-year-old IT guy from East Brunswick, N.J. He’s got a 16-year-old son named Josh. They both like the New York Jets. When I called Joe on Sunday to get his NCAA tournament wisdom, he was out doing errands.

“Are there any games still on? Have the brackets been announced yet?” he asked when he returned my call at 4 p.m. ET. “Let me ask you, what do you think about Peyton Manning? Where’s he going? Do the Jets still have a shot at landing him?”

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Joe Pearlman’s not paid big bucks to tell you about Colorado State’s RPI ranking. I don’t think he owns many Armani suits, if any at all. He doesn’t scream patented catch phrases in commercials for Applebee’s or Hooters.

But Joe Pearlman is a very important man this month. In last year’s ESPN.com "Tournament Challenge," more than 5.9 million brackets were entered. Of those 5.9 million, only Pearlman and one other person — still unidentified 12 months later — had both VCU and Butler going to the Final Four.

“I didn’t even realize you could fill out multiple brackets,” Pearlman said on Sunday. “This year, I’m going to probably fill out a couple of them.”

Last year at this time, Pearlman was in a similar situation to the one that millions of Americans are in today. He was staring at a blank bracket without too much “inside” knowledge on the intricacies of Syracuse’s 2-3 zone or Kentucky guard Brandon Knight’s ability to hit free throws in crunch time.

“I wanted to participate in the pool my son and his friends were running, so I signed up. VCU was playing USC in one of those First Four play-in games. I figured I was getting two teams for the price of one and picked the winner of that matchup to go to the Final Four. Hey, I was right.”

So, he wasn’t aware of Shaka Smart’s charisma or point guard Joey Rodriguez’s swift ability to get in and out of the paint before the tournament started?

“No. If USC had won that play-in game, I would have been just fine rooting them on, too.”

Okay, so VCU’s one thing. But why Butler?

“They went to the finals against Duke the year before. Why not Butler?”

I didn’t bother mentioning Gordon Hayward’s name and the fact that coach Brad Stevens’ team was being forced to replace an NBA lottery pick from the year before. There was no reason to. Joe Pearlman was right. Why not Butler?

This year Pearlman likes Syracuse to bounce back from their Big East tournament loss Friday night and make a run to the Final Four. He also thinks Kentucky has what it takes to make some hay, too. His sleeper pick?

“I’ll be going with VCU. They did me right a year ago. I kind of wish they were an 11 seed, though, not a 12. They were an 11 seed in last year’s NCAA tournament. That would have been kind of cool if they did it again this year as an 11.”

If going with Pearlman’s advice isn’t your thing, maybe a former NCAA champion’s tips are better. Miami Heat forward Shane Battier is widely considered the most cerebral player in the NBA. He won an NCAA title with Duke in 2001. When I asked him for his guidance on filling out a bracket, he offered the following: “Remember that more than half the people filling out pools will include either three or four No. 1 seeds in their Final Four. Be different. Don't be afraid to throw two or three No. 3 or No. 4 seeds in your Final Four."

Eric LaRoche, a French-Canadian sports gaming expert out of Quebec, is on the same page as Battier: “If you’re in a big pool, it does you no good at all just picking the favorites. You have to be different. You have to go for broke. It’s really your only option,” he says. “The guy or gal who wins your office pool is always the one that accurately had that No. 8 seed beating the No. 1 in the second round and the No. 4 in the Sweet 16, not the guy who just went with the favorites every round.”

“Take someone other than one of the top teams if you're in a big pool with several entrants,” he adds. “And if you’re in one of those wacky pools that rewards upsets, you should pretty much pick an upset for every first-round game other than the top three seeds’ matchups.”

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“Most novice bracket enthusiasts put way too much emphasis on the seeds, ignoring the most important number: the point spreads,” says David Mason, a sports book manager at online gaming site BetOnline.com.

“Don’t automatically assume that the higher seeded team is the better team; always take a look at the spreads,” he added. “Take, for instance, the NC State Wolfpack versus the San Diego State Aztecs matchup. State is just an 11 seed, whereas the Aztecs are five spots higher, seeded at six. The higher-seeded Aztecs are a one-point underdog in Vegas. Why? Because SDSU was 17-2 at home this season, while they were 9-5 away from home (including neutral sites). Take NC State there! No-brainer!”

Other point-spread curiosities in the first round include Georgetown, a 3 seed, being listed as just four-point favorites over 14th-seeded Belmont, and fifth-seeded New Mexico being favored by just 4.5 points over 12th-seeded Long Beach State.

Jim Nantz, the lead play-by-play announcer for CBS, will be calling his 27th Final Four. When I asked him for his picks earlier this week in New York, he pointed to history, saying that Indiana, North Carolina and Syracuse are all wise bets. Why? All three teams won NCAA championships in New Orleans in previous years.

All these tidbits and factoids can help, but in the end it’ll come down to you, that pencil in your hand and the voices in your head. Taking four No. 1 seeds to advance to the Final Four is the prudent and responsible thing to do, but what fun is that?

And if you’re not going to win it all with those four No. 1 seeds, why even bother? Have fun and take a risk.

“What’s there to lose if you get your bracket all wrong? Nothing. You might as well be different. Look what happened to me last year,” Joe Pearlman says.

I’m going with my expert on this one. Here are my Final Four picks:

South: No. 9 Connecticut

West: No. 2 Missouri

East: No. 2 Ohio State

Midwest: No. 1 North Carolina

NCAA champions: Ohio State

Tagged: North Carolina, Kentucky, Butler, Syracuse

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