Want to win your NCAA office pool? Follow these simple steps when filling out your bracket:
1. Do not pick all four No. 1 seeds to make the Final Four. Not only is that no fun, but it has only happened once since the tournament expanded in 1979.
2. However, it may be a good idea to pick a No. 1 seed to win the entire tournament. A No. 1 seed has won 20 of the 35 tourneys since 1979. Six of the last seven winners of the Big Dance have possessed No. 1 seeds (UConn was the exception in 2011 as a No. 3 seed).
3. If you do not like a very high seed (say, Virginia or Wichita State), have them losing as early as reasonably plausible. You will be the only person that has that upset if it happens, and if it doesn't, you wouldn't have had that team going much farther anyway.
4. Pick a few first-round upsets. My favorite is the 12-5 trap game. Since 1990, at least one 12 seed has beaten a 5 seed in every tournament with the exception of 2000 and 2007. That means it's happened at least once in 22 of the last 24 tourneys. In fact, last season, the 12-seed won three of the four games against No. 5 seeds. And no, picking a No. 9 over a No. 8 or a No. 10 over a No. 7 is not an upset. All those squads are essentially equal.
5. Go with your gut. This is the most important piece of advice. People have all sorts of ways of picking their brackets, anywhere from following expert analysis to choosing which team mascot would win in a fight. At the end of the day, it's your bracket. If you're going to go down, it might as well be with your own selections.
Let's look at some contenders, pretenders and Cinderellas heading into the 2014 NCAA Tournament.
Florida - The Gators are the chic pick, the top overall seed and the most polished squad in the country. Florida has been to the Elite 8 in each of the last three seasons. Their floor general, senior Scottie Wilbekin, was SEC Player of the Year, and can break defenses down or hit the open trey. The Gators are physical with Patric Young and Casey Prather, and also have a sharpshooter in Michael Frazier. Florida hasn't lost since early December on a buzzer beater to Shabazz Napier and the UConn Huskies. The last time the Gators were a No. 1 seed, they won the whole enchilada in 2007.
Louisville - The defending champs somehow pulled a No. 4 seed in the Midwest region despite putting a beatdown on the competition in their conference tournament. A lackluster non-conference schedule and a new home in the American Athletic Conference likely dragged the Cardinals down, but make no mistake: the 2014 squad is just as dangerous as last year's squad. Russ Smith has been the catalyst for the Cardinals, playing much more under control with Peyton Siva no longer in the picture. Still, he can score at will and also involve his teammates. The evolution of sophomore Montrezl Harrell on the interior has also been vital to Louisville's success. The Cardinals have been favored to knock off Wichita State in the Midwest bracket - if the Kentucky Wildcats don't get the Shockers first.
Michigan State - The Spartans have gotten healthy at the right time, as they pummeled rival Michigan to capture the Big Ten Tournament crown. Michigan State was highly touted heading into the season, but battled injuries to nearly every star player on the squad. However, MSU is whole again, and the Spartans have experience, talent and a superior coach in Tom Izzo. The inside game with Branden Dawson and Adreian Payne, both back to full strength following injuries, complements the perimeter playmaking skills of Gary Harris, Keith Appling and Travis Trice. Despite being a No. 4 seed like Louisville, the Spartans are favored to take down No. 1 Virginia and make it to the Final Four out of the East.
Arizona - I'd feel more comfortable with this pick if the Cats had forward Brandon Ashley, but Arizona still has a pretty clear path to the Final Four relative to other No. 1 seeds. Other than a date with Marcus Smart and Oklahoma State in the Round of 32, there aren't many other teams in the West region that can match up with UofA from an athletic perspective. Nick Johnson has been a National Player of the Year contender, and has been aided by the addition of true point guard T.J. McConnell, who transferred from Duquesne. Aaron Gordon is a highlight reel dunker, and Kaleb Tarczewski is a solid rebounder and shot blocker at center. The story of how the West is won could heavily involve the Wildcats.
Harvard - The Crimson won't take anyone by surprise this season after taking down No. 3 seed New Mexico in the 2013 NCAA Tournament. In addition, Coach Tommy Amaker has led the Crimson to three straight NCAA Tournaments. However, Harvard is virtually the same squad from a season ago, and perhaps even better. They did not have Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey last season, who were suspended for their involvement in a cheating scandal. Combo guard Wesley Saunders will once again lead the Crimson, though the junior has been bothered by a knee injury this season that has limited his production. The Crimson do not play big, but No. 5 seed and second-round opponent Cincinnati is not very big either. The Bearcats also struggle to score the basketball. The Crimson are a good defensive squad, too, and this 12-5 trap game has all the makings of an upset.
Kentucky - The preseason No. 1, the youthful Wildcats purred that they would finish the season 40-0. While they didn't come close to those lofty expectations, coach John Calipari may finally have his inconsistent squad playing its best basketball of the season. The Wildcats had the ball with a chance to take down the No. 1 Gators in the final seconds of the SEC Championship. Although they came up short, this team is loaded with talent. Julius Randle is a top-5 pick in June's NBA Draft, the Harrison twins are getting better in the backcourt and the two-headed monster of Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson can wreak havoc on the interior. Add in scorer James Young, and the Wildcats could be peaking just at the right time. Wichita State should be worried about a possible matchup with Big Blue Nation.
Dayton - There have been rumors that Ohio State coach Thad Motta has been ducking in-state rival Dayton for some time in the non-conference portion of the Buckeyes' schedule. In another case of committee conspiracy, the No. 6 Buckeyes will face the No. 11 Flyers in the Round of 64. Dayton coach Archie Miller, the brother of Arizona Wildcats head coach Sean Miller, also used to be an assistant under Motta, adding further intrigue to this matchup. The Flyers can ball, too; they beat Gonzaga, Saint Louis, UMass and George Washington this season, all tournament teams. The A-10 was extremely competitive this season, getting six teams into the Big Dance. The Flyers are battle tested, can beat Ohio State, and could give struggling Syracuse a run for their money too.
Oregon - The Ducks made the Sweet 16 last season as a surprise No. 12 seed. Oregon is a No. 7 seed this time around, and the Ducks have been buoyed by the play of transfers Mike Moser and Joseph Young. The guard-heavy Ducks also receive a favorable draw in the Round of 64, facing a depleted BYU squad. The Cougars lost their most versatile player, Kyle Collinsworth, to a season-ending ACL injury during the West Coast Conference Tournament. Collinsworth averaged 14.0 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game for BYU. The Ducks would likely get Wisconsin in the subsequent round, and the Badgers have not had the greatest NCAA Tournament success despite consistently getting high seeds. Wisconsin lost in the first round as a No. 5 seed last season, and the Badgers have lost in the first or second game in nine of their last 15 tournament appearances. This may be coach Bo Ryan's most talented squad, but the Badgers could still succumb to the athletic Ducks.
Wichita State - Has the magic run out? The Shockers are 34-0, went to the Final Four last season and are the No. 1 seed in the Midwest region. However, they are getting no respect from the public. The committee gave them by far the hardest bracket; the Shockers would likely have to beat Kentucky, Louisville and Duke just to get to the Final Four. The above-referenced Cardinals are favored to win this region. Is it a mistake to underrate the Shockers? Or will the fact that the Shockers have not faced any team in the top 100 this season come back to haunt them? I will say this; it will be extraordinarily difficult for the Shockers to go 40-0.
Virginia - The Cavs are the other No. 1 team that can't get any love. All Virginia did was win the ACC regular season and tournament crowns, no small feat with teams like Duke, UNC and Syracuse in the mix. Still, the Cavaliers play a slow-down, defensive game that isn't sexy and keeps opponents in the game. They don't win pretty, lost by 35 points earlier this season to Tennessee and also may have to face Michigan State in the Sweet 16. The emergence of Malcolm Brogdon as a consistent scorer has taken Virginia to the next level this season, though, adding a steadying influence on the offensive end to take the pressure off sharpshooter Joe Harris. The best defensive team in the country will give Memphis or GW fits in the Round of 32, but the Michigan State Spartans will be up to the task in the Sweet 16. That makes the Cavaliers a risky No. 1 seed.
Michigan - The Wolverines have been tabbed as the most overrated squad in terms of seeding in the Big Dance. Michigan has been extremely surprising if you consider they lost three starters from last season's team that went to the NCAA Championship Game to Louisville. Nik Stauskas and Caris Levert have really stepped up their respective games in the absence of Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and the injured Mitch McGary. However, the Wolverines are an extremely poor rebounding squad and rely on shot-making to carry them through. Well, what happens if one game the shots aren't falling? Therein lies the issue, particularly against a team like Texas in the Round of 32. Add in that UM is in the region of death with the above-referenced Shockers, Duke Blue Devils and Louisville Cardinals, and the odds of Michigan getting back to the Final Four are slim to zero.
Kansas - What is Joel Embiid's true status? With the freshman center, the Jayhawks are arguably the best team in the country. Without the 7-footer, though, the Jayhawks can be rather pedestrian. The Jayhawks will have a big test against either Stanford or New Mexico in the Round of 32, likely without Embiid. Both the Cardinal (Josh Huestis and Dwight Powell) and the Lobos (Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow) have impressive size on the interior, so the Jayhawks will almost certainly miss Embiid's presence. The Andrew Wiggins Show will be in full effect, but it remains to be seen of the uber-athletic swingman can carry KU on his own. Kansas lost two of three down the stretch without Embiid, including a March 8 loss at West Virginia in which Wiggins exploded for 41 points. If Embiid returns for the second weekend, and the Jayhawks are still around, the outlook could be markedly different for the Jayhawks.