Ah, the blank NCAA tournament bracket.
There could be nothing more intimidating.
But don't let a blank bracket psych you out. Though the Elias Sports Bureau hasn't confirmed it, I'm fairly sure Phyllis from Accounting has won more office bracket pools than any of the ESPN talking heads.
One in four office workers submits brackets to an NCAA pool, according to a recent survey by Spherion Staffing Services of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. CBS, meanwhile, anticipates a significant hike from the 7.52 million unique visitors to its On Demand video player in 2009. In short, everyone's going to be taking part in the fun this week. Don't let your fear of the unknown or complete lack of college hoops knowledge keep you away from the madness.
I've heard tales of 6-year-olds winning 500-person pools, great-grandmothers finishing first, pools won on picks based around jersey colors, mascot names and geographical preferences. You name it, it's happened.
Year to year, it's a crap shoot. But that doesn't mean there aren't some useful tips to consider before filling out your field of 65. Here are 10 of them ... on the house:
1. Go with the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the first round. Sounds boring? Eh, save your big first-round upset picks for those 3-14, 4-13 and 5-12 matchups. Since the tournament was expanded to 64 teams in 1985, No. 16 seeds are 0-for-100, and No. 15 seeds are 4-for-100 in first-round contests. So put Kansas, Kentucky, Duke, Syracuse, Kansas State, Villanova, West Virginia and Ohio State through to the second round. In ink.
2. Take at least one 12 seed to beat a 5 seed in the first round. No. 12 seeds have won 16 of their past 36 first-round games. Last year, three of the four No. 12 seeds won opening-round games. Since 1999, No. 12 seeds are winning first-round games at a 33 percent rate, far better than No. 11 seeds vs. No. 6 seeds. Don't ask why. It makes no sense, and you'll drive yourself nuts trying to figure it out. Even the most advanced students of bracketology have no logical answer for this. Just trust the numbers. Go with a 12 over a 5. This year? I like one 12-5 matchup: UTEP over Butler.
3. Take your biggest risks in the first week of games, then play it relatively safe in the second and third weeks of the tournament. In most pools, first-round games are worth a point each, second-round games are worth two points each and third-, fourth- and fifth-round games jump exponentially in point value. Tackle your bracket knowing that. Have some fun early on, take a few 10, 11, 12, and 13 seeds in the first round, and then go with the big dogs in weeks 2 and 3. If you nail a 13 seed beating a 4, you'll be the toast of the water cooler for oh, five minutes. But if you win the pool, you're the office's grand poobah for the next 12 months. Trust me, that 13 seed you like in Round 1 isn't winning the NCAA championship. (Sorry, Murray State Racers fans.)
4. Go with who's been hot. Do you tell friends you're a fan of NBC's The Marriage Ref ? Do you boldly promote your love for Chris Brown's latest album? Wear a New Jersey Nets hat into a bar full of basketball fans? No one wants to back something that's on a recent losing skid. The same goes for the NCAA tournament. Instead, go with teams that are peaking at the right time.
Georgetown was up and down throughout the season but seemed to hit its stride down the stretch. The same goes for Temple, Texas A&M, Washington, Marquette and Saint Mary's. Momentum breeds confidence. You should be confident in teams that are playing the smartest, strongest and most impressive basketball of late. Be wary of the teams that haven't. (Hello, Wake Forest. Goodbye, Wake Forest. Hello, Florida. Goodbye, Florida.)
5. Beware of teams with just one scoring option. Tim Brando knows a thing or two about upsets. In 2008, he was the CBS play-by-play man in Tampa when four first-round upsets -- Western Kentucky over Drake, San Diego over Connecticut, Siena over Vanderbilt and Villanova over Clemson -- occurred on the same day. His advice on picking a 2010 tourney sleeper? "Look for a team with multiple scoring options. If the top scorer gets shut down, is there someone capable of picking up the scoring slack?
"This year, Vanderbilt really intrigues me. People, especially in SEC country, knock them quite a bit. They think, 'Same old Vandy.' But in [A.J.] Ogilvy, they've got a tough inside presence. In [Jermaine] Beal, they've got a top-flight scorer in the backcourt. And in [Jeffrey] Taylor, they've got a swingman who can fill it. That's three legitimate scoring threats. I like that a lot."
A handful of other under-the-radar teams with three reliable scoring options? Consider Notre Dame, Siena and Xavier.
6. Value early-season out-of-conference road wins. CBS commentator Clark Kellogg says "tough, out-of-conference road wins" are one of the main things he looks for when determining which teams are truly tournament ready.
"Who'd they beat out-of-conference away from their home building? That's what I want to know," Kellogg stressed when I spoke with him earlier this week. Some at-large teams with noteworthy out-of-conference road victories? Temple (beat Seton Hall) and Baylor (beat Arizona State and South Carolina).
7. Hitch your wagon to a red-hot shooter. Every year, there's a pesky guard on an under-the-radar team that captures the nation's imagination with an outside shooting barrage. Whether it's Bryce Drew, Harold "The Show" Arceneaux, Courtney Lee or Stephen Curry, these guys tend to be under 6 feet 5, possess uncanny scoring skills and serve as team leaders. Two guys to watch for this year are BYU's Jimmer Fredette and Houston's Aubrey Coleman.
The former is a 6-2 lightning rod that, despite battling a brutal case of mononucleosis midseason, led BYU in scoring with 21.7 per game. Fredette, who has about as cool a college hoops name as there could possibly be, torched Arizona for 49 points on 9-for-13 from three-point range, arch-rival Utah for 36 on 5-for-6 from long range and TCU for 45 this season.
Coleman, meanwhile, stars on one of the unlikeliest tourney teams in the field. Tossing a 19-15 Houston Cougars squad on his back, the 6-4 guard led Division I in scoring at 25.6 points per game. Though perhaps not a pure shooter like Fredette, Coleman is a lethal scorer who burned Marshall for 37 and Memphis for 34 this season. Both players should top 30 in the first round. Whether they're around for Round 2 is an entirely other issue.
8. Know the key injuries. Purdue star Robbie Hummel was lost for the season with a knee injury against Minnesota last month, and Thursday in the Big East quarterfinals, Syracuse senior forward Arinze Onuaku was helped off the court in the second half. The severity of Onuaku's knee injury will be known later this week, but he likely won't be at his maximum strength. Keep these boo-boo's in mind when figuring out those later-round winners.
9. Go with your gut. Have an old high school friend that has a torrid long-distance Facebook/Twitter-based romance going on with someone who went to Murray State? Take 'em. Like UCSB's team nickname of the Gauchos? Pick 'em. Dig Cornell because Andy Bernard from "The Office" went there? Go with it. So you're a War of 1812 history buff and a big fan of Sam Houston's work at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend? Take Sam Houston State.
Listen, if you pick only the favorites, you're missing out on the beauty of this process. And you're not going to win your pool, anyway. It just never works out that way. So don't think too hard.
As CBS studio host and former NCAA tournament hero Greg Anthony told me last week: "The key is having some fun with it. A lot of people go through what I call 'paralysis through analysis.' They over-think and over-analyze. That has crippling effects. Sometimes, you just need to go with your gut."
10. Listen to Phyllis from Accounting. If all else fails, Phyllis sits on the 11th floor, over by the vending machines, and has pictures of her three cats taped along her cubicle. There are usually some mints or chocolates in a jar by her computer. Pop by her desk if you have a moment. She's usually pretty good at this. And take a Werther's Original for the road.
Schrager's tournament picks
Round 1 upsets: No. 12 UTEP over No. 5 Butler, No. 10 Georgia Tech over No. 7 Oklahoma State, No. 10 Saint Mary's over No. 7 Richmond, No. 13 Siena over No. 4 Purdue, No. 9 Louisville over No. 8 California.
Sweet 16 upsets: No. 4 Vanderbilt over No. 1 Syracuse, No. 3 Pittsburgh over No. 2 Kansas State, No. 5 Texas A&M over No. 1 Duke, No. 6 Marquette over No. 2 West Virginia.
Final Four: No. 1 Kansas, No. 1 Kentucky, No. 2 Villanova, No. 3 Pittsburgh.
Five lesser-known 2010 tournament heroes: Tweety Carter, Baylor; Jimmer Fredette, BYU; Omar Samhan, Saint Mary's; Juan Fernandez, Temple; Darius Johnson-Odom, Marquette.