Before you dive into pool, pencil in these suggestions


Only one thinking day left until the NCAA tournament, leaving little time to grab a pencil, reach for your wallet and dive into some murky, unpredictable water:

Your office pool.

You've pored over the team capsules, squinted at USA Today's computer ratings and flipped on ESPN to catch Dick Vitale's picks.

And you're still having trouble.

Or you don't know North Carolina from Coastal Carolina, pick teams because you like their nickname and hope Kansas wins it all because your Aunty Em went there.

It's all guesswork.

But there are ways to avoid the land mines, spot the upsets and walk into the office with your basketball pride intact.

A few helpful hints:

* 1. Learn from history -- Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, no No. 16 team has beaten a No. 1 seed.

Another tidbit: No more than two No. 1 seeds have reached the Final Four in the same season. So don't pick all the favorites to get to New Orleans.

* 2. Be wary of No. 3 seeds -- In the last eight years, a No. 14 seed has beaten a No. 3 seed eight times in 32 games. And it's happened every year since 1986.

East Tennessee State upset Arizona last year, Xavier beat Nebraska in 1991, Northern Iowa shocked Missouri in 1990, Siena stunned Stanford in 1989, Murray State topped North Carolina State in 1988, Austin Peay surprised Illinois in 1987 and Arkansas-Little Rock stopped Notre Dame in 1986.

* 3. Go with the power conferences -- In the last six seasons, the Atlantic Coast (seven), Big Ten (five), Big Eight (three) and Big East (three) have sent 18 of a possible 24 teams to the Final Four. The Big West (three, all by Nevada-Las Vegas), Southwest (one), Great Midwest (one) and Pac-10 (one) have the other spots.

* 4. Put your money in the stars -- Star players, guys who can take over a close game with the clock winding down, mean everything in the tournament. And it helps if a team's great player is a guard instead of a big man.

Guards control the game. So Duke's Bobby Hurley might prove more valuable than Kentucky's Jamal Mashburn. And Seton Hall's Terry Dehere might stick around longer than Indiana's Calbert Cheaney.

Memphis State's Anfernee Hardaway, Kansas' Rex Walters and Adonis Jordan, Cal's Jason Kidd, North Carolina's Derrick Phelps and Donald Williams, Cincinnati's Nick Van Exel and Xavier's Jamie Gladden are other perimeter players who should make a big impact.

* 5. Stick with great coaches -- Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, Kansas' Roy Williams, Indiana's Bob Knight, North Carolina's Dean Smith, Kentucky's Rick Pitino, Oklahoma State's Eddie Sutton, Cincinnati's Bob Huggins, Evansville's Jim Crews, Temple's John Chaney and New Mexico State's Neil McCarthy are coaches you don't want to pick against.

With these tips in hand, those intimidating brackets look a little easier:

EAST -- Second seed Cincinnati and third seed Massachusetts are overrated, leaving No. 1 North Carolina with an easy road to New Orleans. Keep an eye on New Mexico State and Virginia. Both are capable of reaching the Sweet 16.

SOUTHEAST -- Kentucky is the popular choice, but Seton Hall has good guards, a solid coach in P.J. Carlesimo and a blue-collar worker in forward Jerry Walker. So send Seton Hall to New Orleans. And put that No. 3 seed hex to work. Look for Evansville, a fundamentally sound team, to shock unpredictable Florida State in the first round.

MIDWEST -- The strongest region. Indiana, two-time defending champion Duke and Kansas could all reach the Final Four. Louisville, the No. 4 seed, also is dangerous.

Indiana won't survive without injured forward Alan Henderson at full strength. Kansas has great guards and a great coach but not enough inside.

So book Duke its sixth consecutive trip to the Final Four.

WEST -- The only team that can beat Michigan is Michigan. If the Wolverines pay attention each game, they'll reach New Orleans.

A hunch says Vanderbilt will advance to the regional final. And Long Beach State will upset Illinois.

In New Orleans, take North Carolina over Duke and Seton Hall over Michigan. And stick with North Carolina to win it all. But if the Tar Heels don't, take heart. There's always next year.

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