First, a public service announcement: If you are reading this in the office, you are hurting the company. You're a hazard to the workplace, a drain on the national economy, a bracket-wielding affront to the our national work ethic.
According to Challenger, Gray and Christmas -- a Chicago-based job search firm -- the NCAA basketball tournament could cost employers $3.8 billion in lost productivity over the next three weeks.
Can we take this seriously? How reputable a firm can it be if "Challenger" and "Christmas" are part of its title? How did they come up with the $3.8 billion figure, and what exactly went unproduced while people were filling out their bracket sheets? If you ask me, NCAA pools are good for business, a way to keep American workers sharp and on their toes.
The NCAA Tournament enhances productivity by bringing us all together. It connects people from Boston to Birmingham to Berkeley, engaging people in a shared experience and giving college graduates renewed pride in their schools.
So be discreet if you must, but pull out your tourney bracket and join me in some good, harmless fun. As usual, I'll provide some useful information about the tournament. But the main point of this exercise is to have a good time. Don't say this out loud in front of management, but it shouldn't be work.
If you've followed my predictions through the years, you know I go overboard on the upsets. That's my fun. When I review the field, I try to identify possible upsets and "sleepers" -- that is, teams seeded fifth or lower that might make a run to the Final Four.
Once the field is set, I'm like a starving man in a supermarket. Everything looks good to me. I see upsets in every aisle. A team from the Ivy League shoots well from three-point range? Upset chance! Some obscure team from the Atlantic Sun has two senior guards? Pencil them through to the Sweet 16.
This is no way to win the office pool. But it's better than picking all favorites. That's why I usually finish near the bottom of the pools. I put far too much trust in underdogs. An actual dog could do better by pointing with his nose.
I never learn my lesson. This year, I'm picking not one, but two, No. 15 seeds to pull upsets. Never mind that the No. 15 seeds are 4-80 since the field expanded in 1985. The way I see it, the mighty second seeds are due for a fall.
Generally, I root against teams from the power leagues -- even more so now that the BCS has further inflated the influence of football schools. This year, I'll pulling for the Missouri Valley Conference, which caused a stir by getting four teams in the field.
Heaven forbid a league that doesn't play big-time football should have a great year in hoops and take a couple of extra bids from power leagues. It was disgusting to hear CBS analyst Billy Packer's shameless shilling on behalf of the rich, privileged schools.
Here's hoping the Valley wins at least half of its first-round games. It would be great if two of them made the Sweet 16 and one made it all the way to the Final Four.
But it's not likely. If you want to win your pool, it pays to be conservative. Upsets happen, but be judicious. Over the last five years, 29 teams with double-digit seeds have won a first-round game. That's an average of six a year. But when a team from a lesser conference scores a first-round upset, it rarely wins another game.
There are exceptions. Wisconsin-Milwaukee made the Sweet 16 a year ago. Nevada got there as a 10 in 2004, Butler as a 12 in 2003. Kent State made the Final Eight as a 10 seed in 2002. So pick one surprise team to make a run, but leave it at that.
Do not, however, pick against the No. 1 seeds. The top seeds are 84-0 in first-round games in the modern era. The No. 2 seeds are 80-4. Last year, Kansas became the first No. 3 seed to lose in six years, falling to Bucknell. Keep in mind, a No. 3 seed was knocked off three years in a row from 1997-99.
The smart money says one No. 4 seed will get bumped off. In the last 21 years, it's happened 14 times. But it's the No. 5 seeds who tread carefully in the opening round. Over the last 21 years, there have been 25 first-round upsets by No. 12 seeds.
When it comes to the Final Four, stick to the major schools. In the last 13 years, 49 of the 52 Final Four teams came from the six major conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big East, Big 12, Pac-10, SEC). UMass and UNLV were No. 1 seeds from mid-majors. Marquette was in Conference USA when it made the Final Four as a 3 seed in 2003.
Finally, keep this in mind: In the last seven tourneys, a conference has put two teams in the Final Four. The Big Ten has done it three times, the Big 12 and ACC twice each.
Here's a look at this week's subregionals, listed by their regional final sites:
Game to Watch: Washington-Utah State. A classic contrast of styles. Washington is a lethal transition team that pushes the pace. The Huskies are fourth in the country in scoring (82.7 ppg). Utah State is deliberate and efficient, a typical Stew Morrill squad. The Aggies are third in the nation in field-goal percentage (50.1 percent) and third from three-point land (41.9).
Upset City: Winthrop over Tennessee. No 15th seed has won a game since Hampton shocked Iowa State in 2001. It's time. Tennessee made great strides under Bruce Pearl, but the Volunteers are overseeded. They were last in the SEC in field-goal defense. They've lost four of their last six. Winthrop beat Marquette and lost close games at Auburn, Alabama and Memphis. The Eagles played Gonzaga to the wire in a first-round NCAA loss a year ago. They're deep, disciplined and extremely dangerous for a 15th seed.
Sleeper: Michigan State. The Spartans underachieved after a promising start, losing six of their last 10. They never found a reliable fourth scoring option behind Maurice Ager, Shannon Brown and Paul Davis. But never count out a team coached by Tom Izzo, who is 23-7 in the NCAA's and has led the Spartans to four Final Fours in eight seasons. Last year, they made the Final Four as a No. 5 seed.
Get to Know: Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina. The 6-9 freshman is the centerpiece of Roy Williams' surprising young team. Hansbrough leads Carolina in scoring (19.0) and rebounding (7.6). He's the only freshman in the program's glorious history ever to do that.
Sweet 16: Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan State, Wichita State.
Game to Watch: West Virginia-Southern Illinois. If the Missouri Valley wants to answer its critics, this would be a good place to start -- by beating a Big East team. The Salukis allow 57 points a game, ranking among the top five in the country. They're not a good rebounding team, but neither are the Mountaineers, who live and die by firing three-pointers out of John Beilein's precise passing offense. West Virginia is fun for hoop purists to watch, but they won't sneak up on anyone after last year's run to the Final Eight.
Upset City: Iona over LSU. As coach Jeff Ruland is quick to remind us, Iona can be a perplexing team. But the Gaels are a dangerous bunch. Senior guard Steve Burtt could play for any team in the country. He's sixth in the nation in scoring at 25.2 ppg and was at the top of his game at the MAAC Tournament. LSU has a huge front line, but star freshman Tyrus Thomas is coming off a sprained ankle. The Tigers are suspect in the backcourt, always a concern at tournament time.
Sleeper: Syracuse. The sentimental choice after winning the Big East Tournament. Senior point guard Gerry McNamara seems capable of willing the Orangemen on a long NCAA run. More college players should be so overrated. Freshman Eric Devendorf is playing like a veteran and the junior big men are coming of age. Jim Boeheim's zone defense always causes problems at tourney time. CBS is salivating at the prospect of a Duke-Syracuse regional semifinal.
Get to Know: Leon Powe, California. The Bears' 6-8 sophomore was named MVP of the Pac-10 Tournament, though Cal lost to UCLA in the finals. Powe had 22 points and 20 rebounds in the quarterfinals and 41 points in the semis.
Sweet 16: Duke, Syracuse, North Carolina State, Southern Illinois.
Game to Watch: Nevada's Wolf Pack vs. Montana's Grizzlies. It's a geographic dream -- two large, lightly populated Western states colliding in what should be a high-scoring, entertaining game. Montana averages 80 points a game and has two of the Big Sky's leading scorers in Andrew Strait and Kevin Criswell. Nevada has Nick Fazekas, a versatile 6-11 forward who averages 21.9 points and 10.3 rebounds, while shooting 53 percent from the field.
Upset City: Davidson over Ohio State. Davidson is awfully good for a 15 seed. The Wildcats beat Missouri and St. Joseph's. They're 10th in the country in rebounding and seventh in free-throwing shooting. They have five seniors among their top six, led by guard Brendan Winters, the son of former NBA player Brian Winters. Ohio State was the surprise team in a balanced Big Ten, but they're an average rebounding team and far from unbeatable.
Sleeper: Georgetown. The Hoyas beat Duke, the overall top seed. They won 10 games in the Big East. John Thompson III runs the Princeton offense, which is always difficult to prepare for. Remember when his dad's Georgetown team nearly lost as a No. 1 seed against Princeton in 1989? Speaking of '80s flashbacks, how about a Georgetown-Villanova regional final?
Get to Know: Boston College's Craig Smith is the second man in school history with 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. Danya Abrams was the first.
Sweet 16: Boston College, Georgetown, Florida, Villanova.
Game to Watch: Bucknell-Arkansas. People will be eager to see Bucknell after the Bison upset Kansas in the first round last season. All the key players are back for Bucknell, which went unbeaten in the Patriot League and finished 26th in the AP poll. But Arkansas is dangerous. After a rough start, the Razorbacks won 10 games in the SEC. They have a strong, veteran backcourt in Ronnie Brewer and Jonathon Modica. The winner could give Memphis fits in the second round.
Upset City: Xavier over Gonzaga. The Zags have gone from a chic pick to overrated. They struggled to beat weak teams in their conference tournament and are too reliant on Adam Morrison. Xavier is thin overall and suspect at point guard, but it is underseeded at 14.
Sleeper: Indiana. What a story it would be if Mike Davis coached the Hoosiers to another Final Four after resigning late in the season. Indiana's players relaxed and began playing well after Davis announced he was leaving. If their three-point shooting is on, they can beat anyone and make a run.
Get to Know: Kansas freshman Brandon Rush has scored more points than any Jayhawk frosh other than Danny Manning. He's the brother of former college stars JaRon and Kareem Rush.
Sweet 16: Kansas, Arkansas, Indiana, Marquette.
Final Four: Duke, Kansas, Boston College, Connecticut.