The greatest thing about college basketball's March Madness is that nobody ever really knows what will happen next. The NCAA Tournament is always full of buzzer-beating thrillers and unbelievable upsets. All it takes is one bad day for a team's dream season to end, and a person's office pool to get shot down in flames.
Looking at this year's brackets, it would appear that things are even more unpredictable than ever. The national championship truly is up for grabs this time around.
If recent history is any indication, though, the safest way to go still is to pick a No. 1 seed to win it all. Twelve of the last 21 and 5 of the last 7 champions were No. 1 seeds.
That would mean the winner could be Duke, who lost its last two regular season games. It could be Memphis, who went virtually unchallenged in Conference USA. It could be Connecticut, attempting to become the first team ever to lose in its conference tournament quarter-finals and still win a national title. Or it could be Villanova, who's been all along lurking in Connecticut's shadow.
Prediction: Connecticut. The Huskies appear to be the best team from the best conference.
Final Four - It has never happened that all four No. 1 seeds reached the Final Four, and only in 1980 did all four fail to get that far. Some kind of combination with at least one No. 1 is guaranteed.
Never has a No. 7 seed got to the Final Four, and other than No. 11 LSU in 1986, no team higher than a No. 8 has got there either.
For seven consecutive seasons, two teams from the same conference have reached the Final Four, and during the last five years no Southeastern Conference schools have gone that far.
Prediction: Connecticut, Duke, Villanova, Kansas.
Sweet 16 - Don't be surprised to see a couple of huge upsets before the third round. Number 1 seeds have lost in the second round 6 of the last 9 seasons. At least one No. 10 seed has reached the Sweet 16 in nine consecutive tournaments, which means a No. 2 seed had lost along the way. Also, a No. 12 seed has got as far as the Sweet 16 four of the last five years.
In the last 10 tournaments, solely in 2004 did only one double-digit seed reach the Sweet 16.
Predictions: Duke, LSU, Southern Illinois, Texas, Memphis, Kansas, Gonzaga, UCLA, Connecticut, Utah State, North Carolina, Seton Hall, Villanova, Florida, Georgetown, and Nevada.
First round - The most exciting time of the entire tournament is the first round. Which Cinderellas will be wearing their glass slippers at the Big Dance?
When filling out your bracket, remember that ever since the NCAA adopted the 64-team format in 1985, not a single No. 16 seed has ever won a game. Number 15 seeds have won only four times.
Number 14 seeds have done much better, winning twice out of every three tourneys. Number 13 seeds have won 16 times, including six in the last eight years.
No. 12 seeds have been out of this world, with 27 wins and at least one victory in 16 out of the last 17 tournaments.
Number 11 teams have won 25 times. Number 10 seeds are an equal 18-18 the last nine years. Number 9's are 46-38, but the numbers are hit and miss from season to season.
Possible first round upsets and Cinderellas - Texas A&M, NC-Wilmington, Southern Illinois, Bucknell, Kent, San Diego State, Utah State, Winthrop, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, South Alabama and Davidson.
First round point spread wagering - Last year the underdogs went 18-12 with two pushes against the spread. In 2004 they were 16-16. In 2003 the dogs had a remarkable 19-10-3 record. In 2002 they were even at 16 again, and in 2001 they were 17-15. Handicappers should definitely be leaning towards betting the underdogs, although the pattern does suggest that they will finish even this year.
First round spread picks: Southern Illinois +4; Bucknell +5 1/2; Albany +23; Belmont +20 1/2; South Alabama +9.
Second round wagering - Combining 2001-2003 and 2005, favorites have been a very strong 37-23-4 against the spread. That excludes wacky 2004, when the underdogs went an amazing 12-4. Handicappers should consider 2004 a fluke, and stick more with the favorites in the second round.