I may or may not have been the administrator of a not-for-profit NCAA basketball office pool at one time in my life or another, which if it were true, would be my most illegal vice as far as you know.

Look, it’s a wimpy pool. Honest. I’ve never congratulated a champion who could buy one nosebleed seat at the actual championship game with his or her winnings.

The entertainment value perennially exceeds the potential payoff. The raucous laughter, the hysterical sobbing and the prospect of paying out the money I should have stashed in an envelope instead of using it to finance a Final Four party have taught me too much.

At the risk of empowering the competition and inviting a federal audit, here’s a peek at the seven deadly sins of bracket-teering in 2007:

• Don’t go near the Gators. Florida won the championship a year ahead of schedule. The entire starting five just said no to the guaranteed millions and groupies awaiting in The Association. And the Gators have sleepwalked to the No. 1 overall seed, proving that they’re ready for the next level by playing the ubiquitous, fabricated “respect” card like pros.

So we should project them into the little rectangle that reads “national champion” and work backward, right? No, because Florida looks hungry as a fat guy who has the flu and a refrigerator full of tofu. The Gators’ gift draw sets up a stumble against Wisconsin in the regional final.

• Don’t overanalyze. My wife won’t watch basketball. Doesn’t get it. Says it lacks the raw, primal appeal of football, boxing and auto racing. I tell you this not to explain the mysterious bruises on my arms, but to point out that she invested the equivalent of one TV timeout filling out her bracket last year and finished second. She was alone in forecasting eventual runner-up UCLA to win the title on the rock-solid convictions that they have “nice uniforms” and “a cool name.”

Knowledge is not power. Don’t waste your company’s time this week trying to become Rain Man.

• Don’t waste your money. As a promoter or participant (uh, maybe), I should lop off my two typing fingers before doling out this self-defeating advice. With conscience as my guide, I must confess that my heart breaks every year for the guy who turns in $25 and ink color-coded brackets for (names changed to protect the perpetrator) Joe, Jane, Junior, Jessica and Jasmine.

By filing five different brackets in the names of himself, the missus, the kids and the parakeet, complete with five different final four combinations and champions, Joe expects to outsmart the system. Problem is, he makes the same chowder-headed picks through the early rounds for all five entries, and they turn out wrong. This isn’t Mass Millions. The law of averages compels me to cast one bracket upon the waters.

• Don’t overlook the Dirty Dozen. It is the favorite statistic of every fired coach wearing a blue blazer and Brylcreem and picking up a payroll check from ESPN: A No. 12 seed knocks off a No. 5 seed every year. I cringe at catch-all words such as “every” and I abhor hype, but this sensationalism has a shred of history behind it. Move Old Dominion and/or Arkansas into the second round with confidence. However

• Don’t fall in love with a dreamer. Yes, I know George Mason danced all the way to the semifinals last spring. The last time any other rabble-rouser from a mid-major conference made it that far: 1979. In other words, back when the tournament was such a non-phenomenon that you got to watch two first-round games. On tape delay. At 1:30 a.m.

The point value of picking winners goes up with every round, often exponentially. So play it smart. Throw Davidson, Holy Cross or Albany a bone in the first round, if you’re so inclined. Beyond that, those teams with a low number next to their name were assigned that number for a reason. Ride their bandwagon.

• Don’t vote a conservative party line. There’s a guy in our office who picks the higher seed in every game, every year. What’s his gimmick when he gets to the Final Four and runs into nothing but number ones? Flips a coin, throws darts or consults his horoscope, I don’t know. What I do know is that he never wins.

Oh, he’s usually leading and celebrating like a drunken frat boy after the first round, but then he swoons like the Celtics on draft day. Mild second and third-round upsets always happen. Scout out a hot No. 3 (Oregon, Pittsburgh) or a streaky No. 5 (Virginia, Tennessee) in a weak corner of the bracket and steal some middle-round points that are yours alone.

• Don’t bet against Ohio State. The Buckeyes are this year’s Florida, starring Greg Oden as Joakim Noah. They will scorch the South like General Sherman, get rid of Georgetown in the semifinal and kiss Kansas goodbye in a fun, free-wheeling final.

After which I will write a check to my wife, who will have picked the actual winner. Pittsburgh, probably, on the can’t-miss criteria that they play in the same city as the Steelers.

Kalle Oakes is a staff writer. His e-mail is [email protected]


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