WASHINGTON — Being the sort of humble sports journalist that doesn't like to tout his accomplishments or receipts -- like ghost-writing Shaquille O'Neal's only best-selling autobiography; covering hoops for 25 years in some capacity for either the New York Times, Washington Post, ESPN and now Sports Illustrated; playing college basketball (very poorly) at N.A.I.A. Hawaii Pacific and two-year California junior college American River; oh, and winning one stupid, office pool in 30 years -- I'm really just like you:
A novice. A rookie. A mere spring chicken of bracketeering, trying to negotiate the maze of the 68-team NCAA Tournament.
It's true -- the greatest three weeks of the American sporting calendar is often preceded by the most stressful, humbling, downright humiliating ("I forget, where's Wofford?") three days of the year imaginable.
"March Madness" is not merely a CBS-copyrighted term about memorable buzzer-beaters by 20-year-old college kids who absolutely ruined your brackets; it's about freaking out over your picks before the games begin. The "Ides of March" is not just a notable calendar day in which the Romans established as a deadline for settling debts; it's the day you have to say goodbye to your $10 pool donation, the day you remember how mentally inept you were to pick Ohio State to go to the Sweet 16 even though the Buckeyes probably should have stolen an NIT bid from some other sorry program.
You don't care that Julius Caesar was offed on the "Ides of March," or that it became a turning point in Roman history; no, you've already died a thousand deaths after Middle Tennessee and UMBC stunningly knocked off Michigan State and Virginia, respectively, in the first round a year ago, thereby rendering the next three weeks utterly useless television.
But enough misery. It's time to make magic. It's time to unveil our We-Got-This, 10-Point Formula for winning not just the $1,500 WUSA9 2019 NCAA Tournament Bracket Challenge but any pool you want. You don't need analytics, algorithms, Jerry Palm, Quadrant 1 wins; none of that. You don't need cheat sheets. You don't even need Dick Vitale or what's beneath Wally Sczerbiak's impressive eyebrows. You need only this tried and true 10-point plan, which has yet to be used in actual competition but, hey, who knows.
You're welcome, America:
1. Pick One Small-School Team Most Likely to Break Your Heart Once You Start Liking Them to Advance... Just two rounds, though, tops. (Northeastern, Yale and ODU are all decent choices this year.)
2. Pick One Coach You Absolutely Can't Stand Because He Either Cheated or Is Just Annoying and Imperious-Looking. Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and Kentucky's John Calipari for some, Baylor's Scott Drew and Auburn's Bruce Pearl for others. Then pick that coach's team to lose in the first or second round. (Addendum to Formula: Pick Duke to go past round two this year. #Zion)
3. Between Michigan State's Tom Izzo, Villanova's Jay Wright, Coach K, North Carolina's Roy Williams, Calipari, Michigan's John Belein and Gonzaga's Mark Few, pick two to go to the Final Four. (Izzo and Few for me this year). If you've already got Calipari being upset in the second round but changed it because you know Kentucky can go to the Final Four, consider yourself advanced; by going with logic over emotion, you've passed a major hurdle in the process.
4. Actually, Calipari is going down. Change it back.
5. Ask your youngest child or niece or nephew or grandbaby -- actually any toddler that can talk -- who they think is gonna win it all. As long as the answer is not Liberty, North Dakota State or Daniel Tiger, put that team in the Elite Eight. Always works, guaranteed.
6. Team You Like With the Dopest Mascot (That Does Not Insult a Race of People), put that team in your Elite Eight. Purdue's Boilermaker, UC Irvine's Anteater and Bradley's Kaboom The Gargoyle all have potential. But I still like the bobbing heads of Michigan State's Sparty and the pencil mustache on Virginia's Cavalier.
7. The George Mason Rule. Pick one mid-major team of old dudes (Average Age 22), who have been playing together since 3rd grade in CYO or at the Y and all of whose players have no chance of ever being drafted or playing in Europe. Pick that team to KO a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. Remember, they don't have pro futures. This is their One Shining Moment. (I'm gonna say Wofford or St. Mary's.)
8. The Wunderkind Rule. Take one team of young kids (Average starting lineup 19 years old) that got beat down in their conference tourney's first or second round, a team not even the mothers of the players think is going anywhere, and pick them to go to the Elite Eight. Remember, these youngsters have what Andy DuFresne said The Pacific Ocean had in "Shawshank Redemption." No memory. Believe it or not, Maryland is your best choice in this situation. And if they get there, the Terrapins most likely meet their rival Duke at Capital One Arena in the District of Freakin' Colombia for the right to go to the Final Four. And if that happens, there will not have been a more monumental upset on that floor since 2006 when itty-bitty George Mason took down mighty No. 1 UConn, which nearly forced Connecticut native Darren Haynes to put his foot through his just-purchased flat screen. As Dickie V. might say, "Awesome, baby!"
9. Make a Final Four heart bracket [computer literate person, please add heart symbol here]. This is the bracket that makes no sense whatsoever but really distills who you WANT to win, rather than who you think will win. For me, that pool would be Cincinnati (wife's hometown), Michigan (because John Belein's teams all pass and move and make the game look beautiful), Gonzaga (because the 'Zags are due and a parade in Spokane, Washington, would be cool,) and Colgate (because I used to play pick-up and media league with this New York Daily News reporter named Graham Rayman, whose son is Will Rayman, one of Colgate's stars.)
10. Delete your heart bracket. Now. You sappy, pathetic sentimentalist, haven't you learned anything since No. 3? Go with your head bracket. That means your Sweet 16 should be made up from a group of teams that actually have a chance to win it all -- this season, Michigan, North Carolina, Duke, Gonzaga, Michigan State, Virginia, Tennessee and maybe Kansas State are the only genuine national-champion threats. Put six of them in your Elite 8 and four of them in your Final Four. I'm thinking Duke, Gonzaga, North Carolina and Kansas State. Now make the final and national champion using your head again. Duke vs. North Carolina, the greatest modern rivalry in college basketball. And your winner is: whatever team Zion Williamson is playing for: Duke. What Mars Blackmon said years ago about Nike remains true today: "Gotta be the shoes, Money. Gotta be the shoes."
[Final addendum to formula]: Screw it, go with your heart. Duke goes down. Take Gonzaga to win it all. Better yet, save your $5. Treat yourself to Starbucks and just watch the thing.