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When It's a Guessing Game, Don't Count on Perfection

March 16, 2000|CHRIS DUFRESNE

Everyone loves a challenge, and this one's a real brack(et) breaker.

It's a good thing I'm a so-called expert, the numbers whiz said, otherwise there would be almost no chance of picking all the winners in this year's NCAA tournament.

All I need, buddy, is a crack in the door.

"If we made the presumption you were able to pick 70% of the games correctly, then you'd have one chance in 5.7 billion of choosing all the games," Kenneth Alexander, professor of mathematics at USC, said.

OK, so it wasn't going to be easy, but the odds are far worse for you novices making last-second changes to your office-pool brackets.

The number Alexander tossed out was in the one-in-eight quintillion range.

"'Or," he said, "about 27,000 times less likely than winning the lottery twice in a row."

There is a web site offering $10 million to anyone who picks all 63 winners. Turns out you have a much better chance of getting struck by lightning or seeing Dennis Rodman guest host on the 700 Club.

Nobody expects anybody to pick all the winners in an office pool, but we've been conditioned to strive for perfection: perfect game in baseball, 300 game in bowling, hole in one, the perfect wave.

I figured I could knock the odds down to 1 in 3.2 billion, easy, by heeding these significant trends:

* Since the tournament was expanded to 64 teams in 1985, no No. 16-seeded school has defeated a No. 1. The No. 2-seeded teams are 57-3 in the first round, and the No. 3s are 47-13.

* Every year since 1988, at least one 12th-seeded school has beaten a No. 5.

* Seventh-seeded schools were 0-4 last year, so watch out Louisville, Auburn, Oregon and Tulsa.

* A No. 9 defeating a No. 8 is not much of an upset, but the higher seeded teams win about 70% of the games until the Final Four.

* Make sure the slick-haired coach of your championship team has five years' experience, which excludes UCLA (University of California at LAnolin).

* Don't pick a team if it lost in the first round of its conference tournament.

* Pick a No. 1 or a No. 2 to win the national title. The only title game without at least a one or a two was 1989 (No. 3 Michigan vs. No. 3 Seton Hall).

* Don't pick the top-ranked team to win it all. Since 1983, only Duke in 1992 and UCLA in 1995 have won the title after beginning the tournament as the nation's No. 1 team.

* Don't pick a defending champion to repeat. Duke, in 1990 and '91, is the only team to do it since the UCLA dynasty.

When in doubt, as always, guess.


First-round games:

No. 1 Arizona over No. 16 Jackson State, No. 9 Fresno State over No. 8 Wisconsin, No. 5 Texas over No. 12 Indiana State, No. 4 Louisiana State over No. 13 Southeast Missouri State, No. 11 Dayton over No. 6 Purdue, No. 3 Oklahoma over No. 14 Winthrop, No. 10 Gonzaga over No. 7 Louisville, No. 2 St. John's over No. 15 Northern Arizona.

Breakdown: Fresno State against Wisconsin is a tossup. Dayton is a hunch. The Flyers defeated Kentucky this season and Purdue looked lousy in a Big Ten tournament loss to Wisconsin. Omens? Gonzaga was No. 10 in the West last year when it knocked off Minnesota, Stanford and Florida before losing to Connecticut.

Second round: Arizona over Fresno State, LSU over Texas, Oklahoma over Dayton, St. John's over Gonzaga.

Breakdown: The Arizona win won't soothe relations between Lute Olson and Jerry Tarkanian. Neither team has much of a bench, but Lute's Lugs are tougher than Teflon. Oklahoma is too strong for Dayton. I'd feel more comfortable about St. John's if the NCAA weren't hovering like a television news chopper over Erick Barkley.

Regional semifinals at Albuquerque: LSU over Arizona, St. John's over Oklahoma.

Breakdown: Arizona runs out of players and has to suit up one of Olson's grandchildren. Barkley has "Leave Me Alone" stamped on his forehead, which distracts defenders in St. John's win.

Regional final: St. John's over Oklahoma. Barkley gets fouled with the game on the line but announces he's going to take another "leave of absence." He is coaxed to the free-throw line during a TV timeout by Coach Mike Jarvis, who reminds Barkley that part of the $6 billion CBS paid for the tournament includes free watches for the players.


First-round games: No. 1 Michigan State over No. 16 Valparaiso, No. 8 Utah over No. 9 Saint Louis, No. 12 St. Bonaventure over No. 5 Kentucky, No. 4 Syracuse over No. 13 Samford, No. 6 UCLA over No. 11 Ball State, No. 3 Maryland over No. 14 Iona, No. 10 Creighton over No. 7 Auburn, No. 2 Iowa State over No. 15 Central Connecticut State.

Breakdown: I'm giving Utah a win because of its coach, Rick Majerus. Kentucky could be ripe for an upset in the wake of guard Desmond Allison's suspension. Like most of you, I've never doubted UCLA's inner resolve. Creighton knocked Louisville out in the first round last year, is playing its best ball and has the three-point shooters to make this go the Bluejays' way.

Second-round: Michigan State over Utah, Syracuse over St. Bonaventure, Maryland over UCLA, Iowa State over Creighton.

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