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Picking an NCAA tournament bracket in 68 seconds

Mar 17, 2014, 1:36 PM EDT

The idea here is to let go of everything you know, every theory that kicks around in your mind, every bit of college basketball knowledge you picked up along the way. The Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett once offered a hitting lesson. He asked a group of us to say a number between one and 5. And while thinking of that number we were to raise one hand and hold up a DIFFERENT number with our fingers. In other words, shout the number 3, but hold up two fingers. Then shout 5 while holding up one finger.

Then do it again. And again. And again. Faster, Faster. No, you can’t repeat the same numbers; you have to keep changing. Faster. Faster. No you are not allowed to use a pattern. Faster. What inevitably happens – and usually very quickly – is that the number you shout and the number of fingers you hold up will match or you will fail to think of a number in time or you will have some other embarrassing mental breakdown.

Follow along: Printable NCAA tournament bracket

Brett’s point: The mind isn’t very good at thinking two contrasting things at once. And so, when hitting, Brett said, the times he was successful were when he could make his mind a complete blank and just react to the moment. If he found himself burdened by different thoughts (Curveball? Fastball? Where are we eating after the game? What’s the score? Can’t believe I missed that throw last inning. I think that guy owes me money!) he would inevitably crumple and fail.

So it goes with our annual “Pick the NCAA Basketball Tournament in 68 seconds.”

It used to be 64 seconds back when there were 64 teams, but there are now those four extra teams in the play-in round, and they give us four valuable seconds.

You may ask: Does this pick-basketball-games-without-thinking system really work?  Well, it depends what you mean by “work.” If by “work” you mean — “is this system successful in picking winners?” well, results are mixed. Last year, this system did pick Louisville as national champ, and one year the system was good enough to win an office pool. In other words: No, the system doesn’t work.

But if by “work” you mean – does this system give you a cheap column you can rehash every single year, then yes, this system has never failed me.

Bracket Challenge: Run the table to win $1 billion

First round (3 seconds): I’m picking Mount St. Mary’s, Xavier, Cal Poly and Iowa while making my annual protest that (1) This is NOT a first round no matter what the NCAA calls it, these are four play-in games; and (2) There should not be four play-in games.

The reason the “first round” naming bothers me is that it inspires the NCAA to call Thursday’s and Friday’ games SECOND ROUND games. And they are most definitely NOT second-round games. They are first-round games. Everybody knows this. The NCAA is most definitely NOT giving 60 teams byes into the second round. That is ridiculous and wrong and gives us yet another reason to despise the NCAA.

The reason I’m opposed to the play-in games at all is that they represent a further watering down of the sport. No 16 seed has ever beaten a No. 1 seed. Ever. There is no reason to add more teams; we already have reached critical mass.

Second round (31 seconds): I picked the games a little faster this year than I did last year in order to give me some extra time in later rounds.

First thing, I advanced all the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds. The No. 1 seeds are easy to advance – as mentioned — but every three or four years, a No. 2 seed will lose. Last year, No. 2 Georgetown lost to Florida Gulf Coast, and those Eagles promptly went on a fun, dunky little run that made the first couple of rounds of the tournament more exciting and fulfilling than the last couple of rounds. I’m betting it doesn’t happen again.

We usually have a No. 3 seed that loses – last year, it was Harvard beating No. 3 New Mexico – and I’m picking Western Michigan to beat Syracuse because … I don’t know. I don’t have time to think about reasons. Syracuse seems to be in freefall and it just seems like Jim Boeheim is due for a shocking early round exit.  There you go.

There is usually at least one No. 4 seed that goes down – I’m picking Tulsa to upset UCLA because Tulsa is coached by Danny Manning, who had “and the Miracles” attached to his name when he led Kansas to the 1988 national championship. UCLA is, of course, coached by Steve Alford, who led Indiana to the 1987 national championship. So I’m actually predicting the game goes into quintuple overtime and is then decided by a one-on-one matchup between the two coaches, a game Manning wins decisively.

I suspect a lot of people will go with the New Mexico State over No. 4 San Diego State upset because that just sort of SOUNDS like it should happen. This silly reasoning is … actually excellent. This could happen. But San Diego State is really good from what I can tell, so I’m avoiding it.

The NCAA 5-12 match-up is the best in sports. Every year it provides us with awesome pseudo upsets – in reality the No. 12 seed is really not much worse and often better than the No. 5 seed. Anyway, I love the 5-12, and again, it irritates me that the NCAA is mucking it up with these play-in games. There is nothing good about these play-in games.

Last year the 12 seed won three of four matchups; the 12 seed tends to win one or two ever year. I’m picking just one 12-5 upset this year, Harvard over Cincinnati, though I have to admit that I might regret not taking North Dakota State over Oklahoma.

Regional previews: South | East | Midwest | West

On the 6-11 line, I spend an extra second or two pondering the mystery that is Roy Williams’ North Carolina team. I have never seen such a baffling team. There are times that team looks like a legitimate national championship contender. And there are times that it seems you could get four others from your local YMCA and beat the Tar Heels by 20. North Carolina absolutely, positively, unquestionably could lose to Providence in the first round. Or North Carolina could make a long run. I’ll move the Tar Heels into the next round and pick it up from there.

I am picking No. 11 Dayton to beat Ohio State in the “You didn’t recruit me” revenge game, and I’m also picking No. 11 Nebraska to upset Baylor because I really want to see that Nebraska-Creighton match-up in the next round. This was a mistake, by the way; you should never look ahead when making picks. But my time was running out and I panicked.

Nothing after the 6-11 line is really an upset. The lower seeds I picked are: No. 10 Stanford over New Mexico, No. 10 St. Joe’s over Connecticut, No. 10 BYU over Oregon, No. 9 George Washington over Memphis, No. 9 Oklahoma State over Gonzaga and No. 9 Kansas State over Kentucky.

MORE: Must-watch games from the round of 64

The last of these reminds me: When John Calipari won his national championship at Kentucky two years ago, there were a lot of people who believed he would build a one-and-done dynasty there by bringing in the best recruits year after year and leading them to title after title. Since then, Kentucky missed the tournament entirely and now is a No. 8 seed. Calipari did not seem happy at all with the seeding … and I can’t help that this is the sort of fragile team that already has No. 1 Wichita State in their plans. And that’s how they lose to a gritty Kansas State team.

* * *

Second round … oh, wait, I mean third round (18 seconds): To me, this is always the toughest round to pick. Sometimes a No. 1 seed loses (last year, Gonzaga lost to Wichita State) and on average you will usually have at least one No. 2 seed lose.

I’m guessing a lot of brackets will have Kentucky beating Wichita State, but since I didn’t even pick Kentucky to win the first round, that will not be my choice. Anyway, I think Wichita State is really, really good. I don’t want to offer any spoilers, but I really do think that Wichita State, small conference and all, might be the best team in America.

More: How to run the perfect NCAA tourney pool

The one game that troubles me is Oklahoma State against No. 1 Arizona. That upset sounds really good to me. But if I pick it, then I lose Arizona, and Arizona is REALLY good. I could get burned. Trouble is, when you have 18 seconds to pick 16 games, you don’t really get to think too much about the consequences. I instinctively write down Oklahoma State and will live with it. All the other No. 1s get through.

My No. 2 line upset – St. Joe’s over Villanova in the second installment of the “you didn’t recruit me” revenge game.

Other lower seed picks: No. 14 Western Michigan over Dayton (the Broncos ride on!); No. 6 North Carolina over Iowa State (I just know these Tar Heels are going to blow my entire bracket); No. 5 Oklahoma over San Diego State (setting up the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State game that may blow up the Sooner State).

* * *

Sweet 16 (5 seconds): No time to look back on what is clearly a terrible bracket I have to just keep going.

Oklahoma State over Oklahoma and Wisconsin over Creighton in the West.

Wichita State over Louisville and Duke over Michigan in the Midwest.

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VCU over Florida (Shaka Smart upset!) and Kansas over Western Michigan in the South. Bill Self quietly getting his team healthy and dangerous.

Michigan State over Virginia (upset!) and North Carolina over St. Joe’s in the East.

I thoroughly loathe my bracket.

* * *

Elite 8 (4 seconds): The Duke-Wichita State game is one worth pondering. But there’s no time for that, so I’m taking the Shockers to knock off Duke and go to their second consecutive Final Four.

My other Final Four choices: Wisconsin (after holding Oklahoma State to, like, 13 points), Kansas (barely preventing Shaka Smart from his second Final Four at VCU) and Michigan State (pounding a North Carolina team that I had no business sending all the way to the Elite Eight in the first place).

* * *

Final Four (3 seconds): I have given myself an extra second to ponder this. It is not impossible that I have set up my entire bracket just to get the Kansas-Wichita State final that I really want to see. For one thing, this would be the greatest thing to happen to Kansas in forever, and I love the state of Kansas. Two, this would make my in-laws —who have lived in Kansas all their lives and who love both teams — extremely happy and conflicted. This also would greatly please my friend Bill James, who loves Kansas basketball about as much as he loves piercing through baseball idiocy.

So, what the heck, the momentum is too strong. Kansas against Wichita State in the final.

* * *

Championship game (1 second): Every NBA mock draft I have seen has Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embid going in the first three picks. Many have them as the Top 2. In NBA Draft history, the top two picks have been from the same team only 1 time.

2012: Kentucky’s Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

More: The eight teams that can win it all

Of course, that Kentucky team rolled to the national title. My sense is that this Kansas team is the most talented in the country. When healthy – and Embid has not been healthy – it might be the most talented team Bill Self has ever coached. They have been wildly inconsistent, often frustrating and confusing and sometimes dreadful. The Jayhawks have also for stretches been about as good as any team I’ve seen. The Jayhawks might be the team that makes or breaks your ballot – pick them to keep winning and they could lose in the first round, pick them to lose early and they might win it all.

That’s what I’m going with. I’m picking Kansas to beat Wichita State in the national championship game. And while this will never happen, I do have three seconds to spare on the clock.

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