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The Zak Zone

March 8, 2012

At 8:01 p.m. this Sunday evening, exactly one minute after the final bid is announced for this season's NCAA basketball tournament, March Madness officially begins.

But the madness I'm speaking of, while related to the tournament, isn't the actual tournament itself. That all begins with Tuesday's First Four, a round of play-in games.

The madness I'm referring to is the madness I experience while trying to fill out the ever-elusive perfect bracket for the 68-team tourney.

Being pegged the "sports-loving" friend in all my circles ever since I was a youngster, I've experienced a multitude of acquaintances asking for my assistance in filling out their brackets.

Friends I never even thought would consider watching basketball have asked me for help, and as it turns out, friends who have never watched a basketball game in their lives really do participate in this long-standing tradition every March.

Some fill out their brackets because it's a family thing. Their parents sat them down with a pencil and a ready-to-fill-in bracket when they were five years old, and they're just carrying on the tradition.

Others are avid sports fans, ones who feel as if it is an essential part of fandom to fill out a March Madness bracket, yet they hate basketball, and so they ask for my help.

Others still are simply honed in on winning the coveted prize at their office for scoring highest in the company's annual pool, whether that prize be a cash one or a two-hour lunch.

It really is madness. Everyone and their uncle, and their uncle's uncle, fills out a bracket.

And as a sports fan, and now, for the first time this year, as a sports reporter, I am expected to have some sort of secret formula to the winning combination.

Truth is... I don't.

I stink at filling out my brackets.

Every year, I enter with a new strategy, and every year I find myself checking my bracket after the first day, only to find I'm third from last in my pool, just ahead of the guy who picked every upset, including 16s over 1s, and the guy who filled his out wrong, entering teams on the wrong line and basically eliminating himself before the bracket ever started.

I really should be better at this.

While college basketball isn't necessarily the sport I follow most closely, I certainly see my fair share of NCAA highlights, as I tune in to about four episodes of SportsCenter on a daily basis and watch or listen to a plethora of other sports talk shows consistently.

But that's part of the beauty and mystique of the madness: It's anybody's ball game.

My grandma and my three-year-old cousin are just as likely to win the local pool as I am.

Once you get past the first round, where the powerful No. 1 seeds roll over the No. 16 seeds every time — though that's likely to change one day as well — every game really is up for grabs.

With that said, a few people around town have already asked for my pointers in filling out their brackets — including Young Township secretary-treasurer Mary Ann Redding, who inquired all the way back in December.

So, I decided to give you a few pointers that I've found helpful when filling out my own personal bracket.

Don't worry, I won't be giving you a team to crown champion this year. I'll be keeping that to myself, so your bracket won't mimic exactly those of your fellow competitors.

Tip 1: The 12-5 upset

Now listen very closely to this tip, as I have found it is the key to bragging about your bracket no matter where you finish in the office standings.

Pick every 12th seed to upset every fifth seed in the round of 64 ... Every one of them.

I've learned over the years that you could win your pool and still look like the goat when you didn't predict the run-and-gun, underdog 12th seed that snuck through to the Final Four.

The only reasonable solution to that problem of looking like an idiot is to pick them all. Sure, the statistics still go against you, but you need to trust me on this one.

Tip 2: Your favorite team

Unless your favorite team is a perennial powerhouse on the national level, and not just in its conference, pick them to lose in the first round.

Strange, I know, that I recommend you pick against your favorite team, but we're trying to win the money here, not earn some sort of "Fan of the Year" award.

This season, unless your favorite team is Syracuse or Kentucky, get them out of the way right off the bat. If you do not, you will find yourself justifying sneaking them into the finals by saying, "I think Harvard may just ride the hot streak coming off the momentum from seeing Jeremy Lin succeed at the NBA level."

If you knock the team for whom you bleed their respective colors out of the tournament right off the bat, you'll be freed to think with your head and not your heart. And that is an essential step to succeeding in your own form of bracketology.

Tip 3: 50-50 chance

While the television stations who broadcast the tournament are having a field day with silly ideas you may use to fill out your brackets this year, they really may be onto something.

Truth is, except for a few games, including the four 1-16 games in the first round and maybe the 2-15s, any game of chance is probably just as likely to be a successful route to choosing any particular game's winner.

This year, I plan to fill out two brackets. The first will be the one I pour all my blood, sweat and tears into.

I will scout each team's record, RPI, conference record, strength of schedule and whether they are a 12-seed in hopes of picking the perfect bracket.

The other bracket will begin with each No. 1 and No. 2 seed advancing in the first round, and every other game will be selected by random chance — whether I flip a coin or ask someone to pick a number between one and two.

It really won't surprise me all that much if the bracket that is selected randomly does better than my blood, sweat and tears bracket.

Just like any other sporting event, March Madness is so much fun for me because it gives me a chance to root for so many underdogs in such a short period of time.

The round of 64 itself allows 32 opportunities to pull for an upset, even if it is just a ninth seed over an eighth.

But as much fun as March Madness brings me in the form of upsets, it makes up for it in the maddening area of choosing the right ones.

So this year, I'm not going to take it too seriously.

And no matter what's on the line for you, I urge you not to take it too seriously, either.

Good luck, folks!

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