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For traction in your brackets,go large on the bigs, easy on upsets

First off, a hearty congratulations to Houston, which is back in the Big Dance for the first time in 18 years after winning the Conference USA Tournament. The Cougars advanced to three straight Final Fours in the Akeem Olajuwon-Clyde Drexler years from 1982 to '84.

I've been predicting the tourney for The News since 1990. Wow, did 20 years go by that fast? The more ardent hoop fans might recall that in '90, my first attempt, I picked Houston to go to the Final Four. They were the first team out, losing an 8-9 matchup to Cal-Santa Barbara.

My chic choice was finished before our afternoon paper had even arrived on people's doorsteps. I vowed never to go near Houston again.

But did you know that Tom Penders, the current Houston coach, is one of seven coaches who have taken four different schools to the NCAAs? Over the years, Penders has won 10 games as a double-digit seed! Lefty Driesell, who also took four different teams to the Dance, won 10 tournament games in his entire career.

So maybe, just maybe . . . no, I can't go there. Houston has a lower RPI than Sam Houston. The Cougars had a losing record before going on a four-day run to win Conference USA. It would be lunacy to pick them to win so much as a game.

That's what this wonderful, wild, endlessly absorbing event does to you. It makes you imagine the impossible. It allows you to invent unlikely scenarios in your brain, where some obscure school from Natchitoches rises up to beat a power from the Big Ten. (Actually, that happened in '06 when Northwestern State beat third-seeded Iowa. I was there. I digress).

Like many of my bad habits, it only gets worse over time. Every year, I tell myself to back off the upsets. But it's too tempting, at least in the early rounds. Anything can happen on one magical Thursday or Friday, which makes the opening round of the NCAA tourney the best two days in sports. And this year, it's back in Buffalo.

I see upsets around every corner. You know what makes it worse? Too much information (TMI, to the online crowd). In the old days, you really had to search for stats that could fool you into falling for Montana, Murray State or Morgan State. Now, with a single click, you find that Old Dominion was third in rebound margin and fifth in scoring defense.

Upset. Sleeper. Sam Houston?

The tournament is crazier than ever. Have you listened to Dick Vitale lately? One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Give me the office bracket pool, damn it. I'll show you insanity.

Picking upsets is fun. But it's cold logic that wins you the office pool. So here are a few things to remember as you contemplate the brackets:

Big guys matter. If I hear one more expert say the tournament is all about guard play, I'm going to scream. Sure, guards are important, but it's generally the teams with the best interior athletes who go far. Defending the post and scoring easy baskets are critical. You need to win a game along the way when the outside shots aren't falling.

A big man was the leading scorer in the national title game every year from 2004 to '08. No one remembers Darrell Arthur, but his inside scoring was a big reason Kansas won two years ago.

Be careful of presumed trends. As soon as people assumed Lute Olson would never win the big one, Arizona won the title in '97. Don't write off Duke just because they've underachieved in recent years, or because the ACC was down. The Dookies aren't soft on the interior anymore. This could be the year they live up to their high seed.

Go ahead and pick upsets early. Eight double-digit seeds won an opening-round game a year ago. Generally, a couple of them will move through to the Sweet 16. But be judicious. Since the field was expanded in 1985, the No. 1 seeds are 100-0 in the first round. The No. 2's are 96-4. A 15th seed hasn't won since Hampton beat Iowa State in 2001. It pains me to say it, but it's silly to pick a low seed to reach the Final Four. Over the last 16 years, 28 of the 64 berths in the Final Four went to No. 1 seeds. Ten of them won it all. There were 14 No. 2 seeds and nine No. 3's that made it.

Only three teams seeded below fifth have reached the Final Four during that time. Only one was seeded in the lower half of the bracket: George Mason was an 11 seed when it made its amazing run in 2006.

I'd like to think there's another George Mason out there. Cornell, for example. But reason dictates otherwise. Here's an overview of the four regions. When I refer to a sleeper, I mean a Final Four sleeper that is seeded fifth or lower. After all, only seven of those teams have made it to the final weekend in the last 16 years.

>East

Game to Watch: Clemson-Missouri. A clash of Tigers who both love to press and trap, right here in Buffalo. Mizzou leads the nation in steals and Clemson is seventh. Still, it might come down to who has the best big man. That's Clemson's Trevor Booker, a 6-7 forward who is one of two ACC players with 1,500 points, 1,000 rebounds, 200 steals and 200 blocks. The other? Tim Duncan.

Upset City: Cornell over Temple. Owls coach Fran Dunphy took Penn to the NCAAs nine times before moving on to Temple. Steve Donahue, the Cornell coach, was an assistant under Dunphy at Penn. Cornell is a veteran team playing in its third straight NCAA tourney and is ready to break through. The Big Red is 27-4. Two of the losses were on the road against No. 1 seeds (Syracuse and Kansas).

Sleeper: Texas. Kentucky is not happy to see the Longhorns in New Orleans in the 8-9 game, and with good reason. Texas was 17-0 and No. 1 in the nation at one point. They finished 24-9 and have issues, but they're still very dangerous. The Longhorns are in the top 20 in the nation in rebound margin and scoring defense. They could make a run.

And One: Jeff Foote, Cornell's 7-foot center, was a walk-on at St. Bonaventure under Anthony Solomon. He transferred because his mother, an intensive care nurse in Elmira, was so impressed with the way the Cornell team supported a player who was seriously injured in practice.

Sweet 16: West Virginia, New Mexico, Cornell, Texas.

>South

Game to Watch: Baylor-Sam Houston State. Two Texas teams that love to push it. Sam Houston is 10th in the country in scoring at 80 points a game. Baylor averages 77.6. The Bears have a terrific backcourt in LaceDarius Dunn and Tweety Carter (do you think Tweety will tweet during the games?), both of whom are among the national leaders in three-point shooting. Baylor forward Ekpe Udoh, a 6-10 transfer from Michigan, is a rising NBA prospect.

Upset City: Old Dominion over Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish were overseeded as a No. 6. ODU won the regular-season and tournament titles in the Colonial, the league that gave us George Mason in '06 and VCU over Duke (in Buffalo) in '07. The Monarchs are led by 6-10 senior Gerald Lee, who was born and raised in Finland. His father, Gerald Sr., is the leading scorer in the history of Finnish pro basketball.

Sleeper: Texas A&M. Only three teams in this year's field have won a game in the tournament four years in a row. Pittsburgh, Texas and Texas A&M. Mark Turgeon is one of the most underrated coaches in the nation. In 2006, he took Wichita State to the Sweet 16 (where they lost to George Mason). The Aggies have a terrific senior guard, Donald Sloan. Six of their nine losses came to teams seeded 1-3 in the Big Dance.

And One: Richmond is the only team in tournament history to win a game as a 15, 14, 13 and 12 seed. Who can forget the upset of Syracuse as a 15th seed in 1991?

Sweet 16: Duke, Texas A&M, Baylor, Richmond.

>Midwest

Game to Watch: Oklahoma State-Georgia Tech. The Cowboys' James Anderson, a 6-6 guard, is third in the country in scoring at 22.6 a game. He loves to shoot the three-pointer and is an NBA prospect. So is Tech's Derrick Favors, a 6-10 center who leads the nation in field-goal percentage. Tech could take Ohio State out in the second round.

Upset City: San Diego State over Tennessee. The Vols' last seven losses have been by an average of 17 points. When they're bad, they're really bad. San Diego State is a live underdog from the underrated Mountain West. The Aztecs are big, they rebound well and defend like crazy. This has upset written all over it.

Sleeper: Michigan State. It was a down year in the Big Ten. The Spartans lost five of their last 10 games. But I've seldom gone wrong over the years getting behind Tom Izzo, who is 31-11 in the NCAAs and took State to the championship game a year ago.

And One: Ohio State's Evan Turner led the Big Ten in scoring and rebounding and was second in assists. Wow. And you can't beat his nickname: "The Villain."

Sweet 16: Kansas, Michigan State, Georgetown, Georgia Tech.

>West

Game to Watch: Syracuse-Vermont, of course. If Arinze Onuaku doesn't play, it could be interesting. Vermont won 13 road games and has a big-time player in Marqus Blakely. A 16th seed has never won, but there have been several 1-16 games that were dead even after 30 minutes.

Upset City: Murray State over Vanderbilt. Murray State ranks among the top 30 in virtually every meaningful national category. They're a very good shooting team. They defend and block shots. All right, so they padded their stats against the likes of Tennessee Tech, Tennessee State and Austin Peay. You trying to spoil my fun?

Sleeper: UTEP. Keep in mind, UTEPs is an anagram of UPSET. Tony Barbee, who played and coached at UMass under John Calipari, has assembled a deep and gifted squad, including Louisville transfer Derrick Caracter. The Miners have four double-figure scorers and rank among the top 20 nationally in steals, scoring margin and field-goal defense.

And One: Blakely is second in career rebounding at Vermont. The late Kevin Roberson, a Hutch Tech graduate, is the Catamounts' all-time rebounding leader. The America East's Player of the Year award is named for Roberson, who died in a car crash in Buffalo in 1993.

Sweet 16: Syracuse, Kansas State, UTEP, Xavier.

Final Four: Kansas, Kansas State, West Virginia, Duke.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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