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March 19, 2014

MARK BENNETT: Breaking down the Billion Dollar Bracket

TERRE HAUTE — Guts, graphite and glory.

That’s the key to a successful NCAA Tournament bracket.

Use a graphite pencil, but don’t erase. The realization that you could change your pick but resist that temptation steels your nerves for America’s 63-game basketball festival that fully begins today. You trust your gut. (Keep antacids for your gut nearby, though, in case your Final Four teams go down the tubes by the first weekend.) Then, imagine the glory of winning your office bracket pool, or an online pool with friends, or even Warren Buffet’s Billion Dollar Bracket Challenge.

Confidence is good. But if you’re counting on any of those possibilities as a source of income, dip your face in some ice water. As the writing on the wall in the movie “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” puts it, “the odds are never in our favor.”

The co-worker who randomly scribbled in picks, while others toiled and combed the Internet for injury updates on every NCAA team, will probably take home the $25 office pool prize.

And Buffet’s Billion Dollar offer to anyone who picks all 63 games perfectly? Well, as Slate Magazine calculated, if every living American (317 million of us) filled out a bracket (many can’t, including babies), the Billion Dollar Challenge could go on for 290 million years with a 99-percent probability that nobody would ever win it (that’s a long time).

So they’re telling us there’s a chance.

Personally, I’m content to pit my knowledge against that of others in NCAA bracket competitions with little more than bragging rights at stake. (The greater motivation, though, is to avoid finishing at the bottom of your pool’s standings. Friends, relatives and colleagues tend to remember such a dubious distinction.)

With that risk in mind and the deadline for entering your bracket just hours away, I’ll share my predictions. Publicly. For the record, some involve mere hunches. Others, just wild guesses. Tradition of the various programs mattered, too. I’ve studied the field and considered each team’s RPI, BPI and SOS. (Actually, I’ve concluded that those acronyms — which stand for various ratings calculations — are basically TMI.)

One final disclaimer: I’m not responsible if you copy my picks and get destroyed in your NCAA pool at work.

I wish you the best, though.

(Remember, an “upset” means a lesser-seeded team beats a higher-seeded team.) Here goes …

• South Regional — Look for only a couple mild first-round surprises pulled off by Dayton (over big neighbor Ohio State) and Pitt (over Colorado). Upset victories by VCU (over UCLA) and New Mexico (over Kansas) will give them Sweet 16 spots in the South, facing Florida and Syracuse, respectively. Florida and Syracuse should win and face each other in the regional final. Florida goes to the Final Four.

• East Regional — This region should drift a bit further from the Selection Committee’s plan, but not much. Expect first-round upsets by George Washington U. (over Memphis) and Harvard (over Cincinnati). The top four seeds — Virginia, Michigan State, Iowa State and Villanova — advance to the Sweet 16, where Michigan State tops Virginia, and Villanova beats Iowa State. ’Nova stops the Spartans and makes the Final Four.

• West Regional — The West should be wild. Likely Round 1 upsets are Oklahoma State (over Gonzaga), North Dakota State (over Oklahoma) and Nebraska (over Baylor). Then, upset wins by Oregon (over Wisconsin) and North Dakota State (over San Diego State) place both in the Sweet 16, facing Creighton and Arizona, respectively. Creighton and Arizona prevail, play each other, and the Bluejays are Final Four bound.

• Midwest Regional — Some expect top-seeded, undefeated Wichita State to be shocked early. I don’t. Two underdogs will win first-round games — North Carolina State (over Saint Louis) and Wednesday night’s Tennessee-Iowa victor (over Massachusetts). In the Sweet 16 round, Wichita tops Louisville, and Michigan defeats Wednesday’s Tennessee-Iowa victor. The Shockers beat the Wolverines, and make a repeat Final Four trip.

• Final Four — In the NCAA semifinals, Florida beats Villanova, and Creighton (now a Big East Conference team) beats former Missouri Valley Conference rival Wichita State. The Gators derail Doug McDermott and the Bluejays to win the championship.

I’m certain about this. Pretty much. Then again, maybe if Wisconsin-Milwaukee gets hot …

Nah. Stick with Florida.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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