At my first job after graduating college, I was afforded one week of paid vacation.

I chose the third week of March.

College basketball, and the NCAA Tournament in particular, has been an obsession since childhood. Watching games on television consumes many of my winter evenings. I’ve traveled to seven Final Fours.

You would think that would be of some use when filling out my bracket, something I’ve been doing for at least 35 years. As a kid, I’d scribble all the matchups on notebook paper in our living room and expertly deduce a Final Four within 15 minutes.

Never was I right about all four teams.

Before I was old enough to work, I would enter my dad’s office pool. I have repeated this ritual at job after job of my own. I have exactly one “victory” to show for it, and that came way back in 1988, a year when no one that I know predicted No. 6 seed Kansas to ride Danny Manning’s back all the way to the title. I picked the other three Final Four teams that year – Arizona, Duke and Oklahoma, with the Sooners winning it all. Close enough for $83 or whatever that pool paid out.

I feel compelled to reveal that my ex-wife won an NCAA Tournament contest at my office once, too. It was sometime in the 1990s. I’ve tried to forget the particulars, but I know that part of her “strategy” involved choosing teams by the color of their uniforms.


Office pools are springing up throughout America this morning, a seasonal rite as anticipated as St. Patrick’s Day. And only slightly less intoxicating. Printers are humming, and workers are bending over their desks with a febrile intensity that their employers must barely recognize.

A procession of colleagues will sidle up to you today and casually ask who you have in your Final Four. This is a trap. What they really want is to tell you who they have selected.

Open yourself to their innocuous query and you will be forced to hear about which teams have been tournament-tested and which have the magical senior backcourts and even, heaven help you, which ones fare well in the advanced statistical rankings of the Internet genius Ken Pomeroy.

All of this is nonsense.

Filling out a pristine bracket is an impossible task that an estimated 40 million Americans will attempt this week. Most won’t stop at one, meaning some 70 million brackets will actually be turned in, with about $9 billion in wagering on the line.

At least 50 million of those brackets will be crumpled up by the weekend. Here’s why:

Those who have actually followed the sport all winter have no better idea what will transpire between now and April 6 than those who’ve witnessed not a second of action.

These aren’t best-of-seven series where the stronger team will almost always prevail. The tournament is a morass of single-elimination games fraught with danger for the favored teams, and therefore with drama for the rest of us.

It’s as difficult to predict who will emerge unscathed as it is to correctly guess at the outset of a PGA tournament, with 144 golfers in the field, who will claim the trophy.

Even this year, with Kentucky playing the part of Tiger Woods circa 2000, it’s wiser to take the rest of the NCAA field than the undefeated Wildcats. There are just too many things that can go wrong, or too many highly motivated opponents that can get everything to go right, at least for 40 minutes.

At any rate, what’s the point of trying to predict the outcome of 67 men’s basketball games over the next three weeks if you can’t discuss it, ad nauseum, with anyone who will listen?

So here’s my take on this year’s madness, not that you asked.

Kentucky is the class of the field, and I see them getting past last year’s undefeated regular-season team, Wichita State, again, this time in the Midwest Regional final.

I’m not buying Villanova to emerge out of a relatively weak East Regional. At a previous paper, I covered Northern Iowa for two seasons, and have tremendous respect for Coach Ben Jacobson. Look for the Panthers to muzzle Virginia in a not-for-the-faint-of-heart regional final and get to Indianapolis.

The South Regional seems set up for Duke to advance, But I’ve seen the Blue Devils cut down the nets twice in Final Fours and have grown weary of them. So let’s say this is the year that Gonzaga finally breaks through and joins Northern Iowa as a second mid-major in the Final Four.

The West Regional, by contrast, is a murderer’s row. I’ll take Wisconsin over Arizona in a regional final for the ages.

And, then, what the heck, how about Wisconsin to upend another Wildcats team in the national semifinals a week later? No college basketball team has gone undefeated in 39 years. Kentucky is good enough, but its luck has to run out sometime. Or so I’m telling myself as I type this.

I’ll ride the Northern Iowa Panthers for one more game, over Gonzaga, setting up the lowest-rated NCAA title game in history.

Which Wisconsin will win.

Or not.

I’ll just be ecstatic to be able to watch it all unfold.

And it won’t even cost me a week of vacation.