Last year Sports Illustrated's unidentified "council of wise guys" filled out a bracket in the magazine, a bracket touted as "our surefire picks for who'll get to Atlanta and who'll win it all." The arrogance irked me. The wise guys' picks are no better than yours, and probably worse. Mine are certainly worse than yours, but at least I admit it.
So, unbeknownst to the council of wise guys, I challenged them. I put my know-nothing bracket up against theirs. We'll see who's surefire!
Of course, they kicked my ass. But there's probably not an office pool in America that the S.I. bracket would have won.
I wrote last year that I'd remind you this year how badly I did -- I did badly -- and wondered whether the council of wise guys would do the same. I still don't know who the wise guys were, but Stewart Mandel and Phil Taylor have both posted columns working my side of the "I don't know nuthin'" street. Good for them.
This year I've expanded the field to include as many national experts as I could find. That means, as of this writing, Tim Brando, Mike DeCourcey and Kyle Veltrop at the Sporting News, but I'll include the brackets of others as I find them. We'll score it with a straightforward points-per-round method that doesn't take into account seedings, because of my belief that most seeds are random: Throw the 5 through 12 seeds into a hat and you can place them in any order you want according to your prejudices. They're seeded the way they are because of the selection committee's prejudices. But in my mind picking a 12-over-5 upset is no greater accomplishment than picking a 5-over-12. So: 10 points for a first round win, and then 20, 40, 80, 120 and 160 for each win in the subsequent rounds.
Here's how I see the first two rounds, and remember: I don't know nuthin'.
The games are listed in bracket order, so the winners of each set of two games play each other in the next round. My pick for each first-round game is in bold.
1) Kentucky vs. 16) IUPUI
All the basketball experts on TV like to act like they've heard of IUPUI before, oh, two months ago. They betray themselves, though, by always calling it I-U-P-U-I. When someone calls it "Ooweepooee," they've done a little homework. You all know that no 16-seed has ever beaten a No. 1. It won't happen in this game either, but you know what? It is going to happen. And it's going to happen soon. Maybe not this year, but then again maybe. I won't be the one to pick that upset winner correctly, because it doesn't pay to pick a 16. But a 16 will win -- OK, here's the prediction -- either this year or next.
8) Oregon vs. 9) Utah
I'm not quite going to pick Oregon to beat Kentucky if the Ducks get by Utah, which I'm picking but not exactly betting Junior's college fund on. But I do think Oregon has a better chance at beating the Wildcats than a lot of higher seeds do because of their fast-break offense and their dead-eye shooters. I think that 2-seed Pittsburgh, for example, has no chance to beat Kentucky, but if everything's going right for the 8-seed Ducks, and things aren't clicking offensively for Kentucky, the Wildcats could be in for a spill.
Round 2 winner: Kentucky
5) Wisconsin vs. 12) Weber State
All the cool kids are saying Weber State is going to beat Wisconsin. It does look like a prime chance for an upset, a classic case of a big conference team getting too much respect from the selection committee and a smaller conference team getting not enough. The Wildcats are big and athletic and tough to defend. The Badgers aren't very good away from Madison. Wisconsin will probably win by 60, but I'll jump on the bandwagon and pick Weber State.
4) Dayton vs. 13) Tulsa
A lot of the cool kids who are picking Weber State are also picking Tulsa. Not me. Dayton in a squeaker, for this reason: no reason.
Round 2 winner: Dayton
6) Missouri vs. 11) Southern Illinois
Southern Illinois is the kind of team that ruins brackets. Unheralded, they made a run to the Sweet 16 from the 11th seed last year. This year, everybody at the office has heard of the Salukis, and, hey look, they're an 11 again! More magic. Let's pencil 'em in for a couple of wins. But here's the thing: The Salukis, who miss Rolan Roberts' strength inside, aren't as good this year. The Tigers, who are developing a reputation as regular-season underachievers and Tournament overachievers -- they went to the Elite Eight last March as a 12-seed and beat Kansas in the Big 12 tourney this month -- are well-suited to beating SIU because of their inside game. So of course I'm taking Southern Illinois.
3) Marquette vs. 14) Holy Cross
Holy Cross gave Kansas a scare last year, and they might be able to give Marquette a game, but it's hard to picture the Crusaders winning. They haven't seen anything like Dwyane Wade in the Patriot League. Too much.
Round 2 winner: Marquette
7) Indiana vs. 10) Alabama
Ah, a couple of big-conference teams that were supposed to be good and ended up being not so good, but still got pretty high seedings, considering. Indiana went to the championship game last year. Alabama was actually ranked No. 1 at one point this year. They combined to lose 23 games. The good news is that after this game, one of these teams (Indiana, it says here) will be gone. The better news is that after another game, they both will be.
2) Pittsburgh vs. 15) Wagner
Pittsburgh is one of the two most overrated teams in the Tournament, along with fellow 2-seed Florida. I thought that about Pitt last year, too. I just don't buy the Panthers. But they have a pretty easy road to the Sweet 16.
Round 2 winner: Pittsburgh
1) Arizona vs. 16) Vermont
Vermont has a cool nickname. So long, Catamounts.
8) Cincinnati vs. 9) Gonzaga
Theoretically, the 8 vs. 9 matchup is the most even, and therefore the most intriguing, in each region. But I find 8 vs. 9 games to be the dullest in the Tournament other than 1 vs. 16 blowouts. Eight and 9 seeds are just kind of mediocre, second-level teams, good enough on their best nights to stay in there with anyone, but usually with major flaws and not much star power. A team like that is capable of upsetting a top seed, which is thrilling, but get two of them together and it's a lot of evenly matched so-what. I think the TV folks overrate Cincinnati year in and year out, and the Bearcats' poor Tournament performance over the years has been level-finding more than underachievement. But I'll take the Bearcats -- what is a Bearcat? -- over the Zags, who have enjoyed so much Tournament success lately that they're actually expected to win now.
Round 2 winner: Arizona
5) Notre Dame vs. 12) Wisconsin-Milwaukee
UWM is pretty good, and you all know that a 12 seed is supposed to beat a 5 seed at least once a year. But I think Notre Dame wins this one in a shootout.
4) Illinois vs. 13) Western Kentucky
The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers have a great nickname, a great orangey-red uniform color and a terrible mascot. This didn't really come across on that ESPN commercial where the mascot was the "guy" who kept track of "SportsCenter" episodes in that back room, fumbling around with tapes, but in the arena, that thing looks like a giant, red, furry penis. I just thought I'd mention that. No upset here.
Round 2 winner: Illinois
6) Creighton vs. 11) Central Michigan
Creighton's good, and Kyle Korver, their star, is really good, and plus he has cool initials. Central Michigan has a 7-footer named Chris Kaman who's also really good, but he won't be enough.
3) Duke vs. 14) Colorado State
Colorado State is here based on its upset win of the Mountain West Tournament. The Rams' only chance would be if the young, guard-reliant Dukies either get rattled, which isn't likely, or go ice-cold shooting, which is more likely, but still not very likely.
Round 2 winner: Duke
7) Memphis vs. 10) Arizona State
This time next year, Memphis will be everyone's tournament sweetheart, kind of how Gonzaga is now. The Tigers are coached by John Calipari, an old East Coast media favorite, and with their tough defense and athletic guards, they're going to go on a nice run this weekend, beating Arizona State and then giving Kansas a hell of a game and -- it says here -- upsetting them.
2) Kansas vs. 15) Utah State
The Jayhawks almost tripped in the first round last year. I think they're not as good this year, but their trip won't come until the second round. Oklahoma City is only 315 miles from Lawrence, so the first two rounds are almost home games for the Jayhawks. But they'll miss Wayne Simien more in the Tourney than they did in the regular season, and somehow the senior duo of Nick Collison and Kirk Heinrich -- the latter of whom I've never been convinced is as good as his notices -- are headed for a fall.
Round 2 winner: Memphis
1) Texas vs. 16) North Carolina-Asheville
I picked Texas Southern over North Carolina Asheville in the play-in game Tuesday. I didn't have to tell you that. You didn't watch the game and I didn't write about it. I could have said I picked UNCA and you'd never have been the wiser. But I want you to trust me. I'm 0-1 before the tournament even starts. (I will now get an e-mail from an NCAA flack telling me that that dumb play-in game is officially part of the Tournament.) Texas wins this one by, oh, 73.
8) LSU vs. 9) Purdue
A good defense always beats a bad hairpiece. And vice versa. LSU.
Round 2 winner: Texas
5) Connecticut vs. 12) BYU
If BYU wins twice, it will have to switch regions because the numbskulls on the selection committee forgot that thing about how BYU won't play on Sunday. Did you know the Cincinnati Bengals have the same policy. Hey-o! Anyway, it just might happen. BYU's one of those teams that hangs around until you make a mistake, and UConn's one of those teams that makes a lot of mistakes. But I've already got my 12 over 5 upset, so I'll go with the Huskies' superior athletes.
4) Stanford vs. 13) San Diego
I'm a Cal man, but I'm also a professional, so as much as it pains me to do so, I simply must hold my nose and type the word ... um, not San Diego.
Round 2 winner: UConn (Look, I can only hold my nose so long.)
6) Maryland vs. 11) North Carolina-Wilmington
Maryland's a hip pick to go a long way. Tim Brando of the Sporting News has the defending champion Terps repeating. Wow! I don't think so. Not without Juan Dixon and Chris Wilcox, who carried them last year. UNCW pulled off a nice first-round upset over Southern Cal last year. Not this year.
3) Xavier vs. 14) Troy State
It's always worth tuning in to watch Xavier power forward David West. I haven't seen them, but the Trojans are supposed to be fun to watch too, a run-upcourt-and-shoot-it team. This should be a fun one, but it's hard to picture Troy State winning.
Round 2 winner: Xavier
7) Michigan State vs. 10) Colorado
This should be just as dull as an 8 vs. 9 game. Colorado, for the hell of it.
2) Florida vs. 15) Sam Houston State
I'm not a big believer in Florida and haven't been all year. The Gators would be ripe for an upset against the Bearkats -- Bearkats? -- the Southland Conference champs, but they're practically playing home games in the first two rounds, in Tampa, so like Pittsburgh they'll have a smooth ride to the Sweet 16.
Round 2 winner: Florida
1) Oklahoma vs. 16) South Carolina State
Maybe this one. This might be the top seed that loses. I'm not picking the Bulldogs, you understand, because that would blow up my bracket in the likely event I'm wrong. But Oklahoma's vulnerable. They're a lot shakier than last year's Final Four team. Ebi Ere's hurting, Hollis Price, who is small, is banged up. There's a lot of talent here, and I'm picking them to go to the Final Four, but an upset anywhere along the line wouldn't shock me.
8) California vs. 9) North Carolina State
Have I mentioned how much I love 8 vs. 9 games? This is the usual tossup between so-so big conference teams. For literally no reason other than that it's my alma mater, I'll take Cal. And I have to amend my previous statement: If Cal wins this game and then beats Oklahoma, I'll be shocked.
Round 2 winner: Oklahoma
5) Mississippi State vs. 12) Butler
Bet on the Bulldgos. Butler got the shaft last year, left out of the Tournament despite 25 wins. This year, the Bulldogs are in, and they'll be out in a hurry, losers to the other Bulldogs. I like Mississippi State a lot, by the way. They have Mario Austin, a really good, really big forward who's playing center in college. A guy like that, with some athletic teammates, can take a team a long way.
4) Louisville vs. 13) Austin Peay
Which Louisville will show up? The team that won 17 in a row at one point during the year or the team that went 2-5 in its next seven games? The answer, of course, is that it doesn't matter. Austin Peay isn't beating Louisville even if he brings four friends. But despite Rick Pitino's reputation as a great Tournament coach, I think it's one win and out for the Cardinals.
Round 2 winner: Mississippi State
6) Oklahoma State vs. 11) Pennsylvania
Oklahoma State has been struggling of late and Penn is a pretty good club, so this looks like a prime pick for an upset. And it's a feel-good upset, since the Ivy League Quakers are, you know, plucky. We in the typing classes love it when a bunch of kids who go to class all the time and know who Michel Foucault is use precision passing, stout defense and all-around heady play to beat a bunch of corn-fed education majors from a state school on the prairie. Ergo: Cowboys in a rout.
3) Syracuse vs. 14) Manhattan
Syracuse is better than Manhattan. There you go, Syracuseans. That's the only time you're ever going to read those words. Actually, Syracuse, with the brilliant freshman Carmelo Anthony, could go a long way.
Round 2 winner: Syracuse
7) St. Joseph's vs. 10) Auburn
St. Joe's has my undying gratitude for almost beating Stanford when the Cardinal were a 1 seed two years ago, but I think Auburn is that rarity: a major-conference team that's actually a little bit underseeded. Throw in the fact that the Tigers are only a day's drive from home in Tampa, and Auburn should be the "upset" pick.
2) Wake Forest vs. 15) East Tennessee State
The Demon Deacons always choke in the Tournament, don't they? Maybe not this year. Wake won the regular-season ACC crown by two games, after all, and they don't just give that thing away. They have a pretty good Tournament package: They rebound and play defense, and they have a star, Josh Howard, who can carry them. I don't think Wake will go to the Final Four, but I don't think they'll choke either.
Round 2 winner: Wake Forest
I'll keep you apprised of my little virtual office pool as the Tournament progresses, but just to get my picks on the record, my Elite 8 teams are Kentucky and Marquette in the Midwest, Arizona and Duke in the West, Texas and Xavier in the South, and Oklahoma and Wake Forest in the East. My Final Four are the four top seeds. I know, that never happens, but that's what I'm picking: Kentucky vs. Arizona and Texas vs. Oklahoma, the latter of which will be a certified event in San Antonio. I have Kentucky beating Texas in the championship game.