Thursday, March 18, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: March Madness: Time to take on the big, bad bracket

The NCAA tournament tips off today

You want upsets? Oh, you're going to get them. Tons of them, starting today.

Filling out an NCAA bracket typically gets more challenging as you move into the later rounds. That's where the point values rise, where you're forced to size up good teams against one another.

In a normal year, that's where the office pool is won or lost.

But this year feels different. The tournament field is so top-heavy, so murky beyond the best six or seven teams, that you have a chance to build a sizeable lead in the early rounds if you can nail the coin-flip games -- and there are many.

My Final Four is chalk city: Kansas, Kentucky, Syracuse, Baylor. Three No. 1 seeds and a No. 3. Give me Kansas over Kentucky in the title game, a battle of the nation's two most talent-laden teams.

In other words, give me the same thing 96 percent of the country is going to have.

But I'm also advancing all four No. 11 seeds out of the first round, an unprecedented move for me. Maybe it'll work, maybe it won't, but you've got to take a stand somewhere, and that's where I'm taking mine.

The beauty of brackets is that they are all so personal. Take the teams you like. Ride your hunches to riches.

But for all of you last-minute bracket crafters out there looking for some quick-hit advice, here are some possible upsets over the next two days -- all of which I'm taking in my own bracket (Come! Lose with me!)

No. 11 Minnesota over No. 6 Xavier: Vegas doesn't even consider this an upset, having installed the Golden Gophers as a one-point favorite.

Coach Tubby Smith will have his team playing strong defense -- or at least better defense than his leg-weary boys put in against Ohio State in their most recent game -- and the Big Ten's top 3-point marksman, Blake Hoffarber, will make things difficult for the tourney-veteran Musketeers.

No. 11 Old Dominion over No. 6 Notre Dame: One of the first games we'll get to watch -- at 12:25 p.m. today -- showcases the tough, physical Monarchs, whose style should match up well against a Big East team. The Colonial Athletic Association has been known to pull some upsets (George Mason, anyone?).

No. 11 Washington over No. 6 Marquette: Another middle-of-the-road Big East team draws a tough assignment in Washington, the Pac-10 tournament champs. Sophomore guard Isaiah Thomas has helped his squad win seven straight. The Huskies make it eight here.

No. 11 San Diego State over No. 6 Tennessee: Probably the least likely of the 11-6 upsets, but still very feasible. Mountain West tournament MVP Kawhi Leonard leads an athletic bunch that won't be intimidated by the Vols.

No. 12 UTEP over No. 5 Butler: UTEP's loss to Houston in the Conference USA title game was one of the key factors in Virginia Tech's exclusion from the tourney. Before that, though, the Miners were among the hottest teams in the country. Louisville transfer Derrick Caracter (6-foot-9, 275 pounds) gives UTEP a dimension most mid-majors don't have.

No. 13 Murray State over No. 4 Vanderbilt: Bud Foster's alma mater is a trendy upset pick -- for good reason. The Racers have balance on offense and were the only conference champions to lead their league in both scoring and defense. It'll require a lunch-pail effort and a little luck, but this is a chance worth taking.

Another key to early-round success is knowing when to stick with the favorites despite public sentiment to the contrary. No. 5 seed Texas A&M is a popular pick to go down to Utah State, but I'd look elsewhere. The same holds true for No. 7 BYU, which many think will go down to No. 10 Florida.

The truth? None of us knows for sure, which is why we're about to enter two of the most exciting days in sports.

Let the carnage commence.

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