Picking an NCAA tournament bracket in 68 seconds

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The idea here is to let go of everything you know, every theory that kicks around in your mind, every bit of college basketball knowledge you picked up along the way. The Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett once offered a hitting lesson. He asked a group of us to say a number between one and 5. And while thinking of that number we were to raise one hand and hold up a DIFFERENT number with our fingers. In other words, shout the number 3, but hold up two fingers. Then shout 5 while holding up one finger.

Then do it again. And again. And again. Faster, Faster. No, you can’t repeat the same numbers; you have to keep changing. Faster. Faster. No you are not allowed to use a pattern. Faster. What inevitably happens – and usually very quickly – is that the number you shout and the number of fingers you hold up will match or you will fail to think of a number in time or you will have some other embarrassing mental breakdown.

Follow along: Printable NCAA tournament bracket

Brett’s point: The mind isn’t very good at thinking two contrasting things at once. And so, when hitting, Brett said, the times he was successful were when he could make his mind a complete blank and just react to the moment. If he found himself burdened by different thoughts (Curveball? Fastball? Where are we eating after the game? What’s the score? Can’t believe I missed that throw last inning. I think that guy owes me money!) he would inevitably crumple and fail.

So it goes with our annual “Pick the NCAA Basketball Tournament in 68 seconds.”

It used to be 64 seconds back when there were 64 teams, but there are now those four extra teams in the play-in round, and they give us four valuable seconds.

You may ask: Does this pick-basketball-games-without-thinking system really work?  Well, it depends what you mean by “work.” If by “work” you mean — “is this system successful in picking winners?” well, results are mixed. Last year, this system did pick Louisville as national champ, and one year the system was good enough to win an office pool. In other words: No, the system doesn’t work.

But if by “work” you mean – does this system give you a cheap column you can rehash every single year, then yes, this system has never failed me.

Bracket Challenge: Run the table to win $1 billion

First round (3 seconds): I’m picking Mount St. Mary’s, Xavier, Cal Poly and Iowa while making my annual protest that (1) This is NOT a first round no matter what the NCAA calls it, these are four play-in games; and (2) There should not be four play-in games.

The reason the “first round” naming bothers me is that it inspires the NCAA to call Thursday’s and Friday’ games SECOND ROUND games. And they are most definitely NOT second-round games. They are first-round games. Everybody knows this. The NCAA is most definitely NOT giving 60 teams byes into the second round. That is ridiculous and wrong and gives us yet another reason to despise the NCAA.

The reason I’m opposed to the play-in games at all is that they represent a further watering down of the sport. No 16 seed has ever beaten a No. 1 seed. Ever. There is no reason to add more teams; we already have reached critical mass.

Second round (31 seconds): I picked the games a little faster this year than I did last year in order to give me some extra time in later rounds.

First thing, I advanced all the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds. The No. 1 seeds are easy to advance – as mentioned — but every three or four years, a No. 2 seed will lose. Last year, No. 2 Georgetown lost to Florida Gulf Coast, and those Eagles promptly went on a fun, dunky little run that made the first couple of rounds of the tournament more exciting and fulfilling than the last couple of rounds. I’m betting it doesn’t happen again.

We usually have a No. 3 seed that loses – last year, it was Harvard beating No. 3 New Mexico – and I’m picking Western Michigan to beat Syracuse because … I don’t know. I don’t have time to think about reasons. Syracuse seems to be in freefall and it just seems like Jim Boeheim is due for a shocking early round exit.  There you go.

There is usually at least one No. 4 seed that goes down – I’m picking Tulsa to upset UCLA because Tulsa is coached by Danny Manning, who had “and the Miracles” attached to his name when he led Kansas to the 1988 national championship. UCLA is, of course, coached by Steve Alford, who led Indiana to the 1987 national championship. So I’m actually predicting the game goes into quintuple overtime and is then decided by a one-on-one matchup between the two coaches, a game Manning wins decisively.

I suspect a lot of people will go with the New Mexico State over No. 4 San Diego State upset because that just sort of SOUNDS like it should happen. This silly reasoning is … actually excellent. This could happen. But San Diego State is really good from what I can tell, so I’m avoiding it.

The NCAA 5-12 match-up is the best in sports. Every year it provides us with awesome pseudo upsets – in reality the No. 12 seed is really not much worse and often better than the No. 5 seed. Anyway, I love the 5-12, and again, it irritates me that the NCAA is mucking it up with these play-in games. There is nothing good about these play-in games.

Last year the 12 seed won three of four matchups; the 12 seed tends to win one or two ever year. I’m picking just one 12-5 upset this year, Harvard over Cincinnati, though I have to admit that I might regret not taking North Dakota State over Oklahoma.

Regional previews: South | East | Midwest | West

On the 6-11 line, I spend an extra second or two pondering the mystery that is Roy Williams’ North Carolina team. I have never seen such a baffling team. There are times that team looks like a legitimate national championship contender. And there are times that it seems you could get four others from your local YMCA and beat the Tar Heels by 20. North Carolina absolutely, positively, unquestionably could lose to Providence in the first round. Or North Carolina could make a long run. I’ll move the Tar Heels into the next round and pick it up from there.

I am picking No. 11 Dayton to beat Ohio State in the “You didn’t recruit me” revenge game, and I’m also picking No. 11 Nebraska to upset Baylor because I really want to see that Nebraska-Creighton match-up in the next round. This was a mistake, by the way; you should never look ahead when making picks. But my time was running out and I panicked.

Nothing after the 6-11 line is really an upset. The lower seeds I picked are: No. 10 Stanford over New Mexico, No. 10 St. Joe’s over Connecticut, No. 10 BYU over Oregon, No. 9 George Washington over Memphis, No. 9 Oklahoma State over Gonzaga and No. 9 Kansas State over Kentucky.

MORE: Must-watch games from the round of 64

The last of these reminds me: When John Calipari won his national championship at Kentucky two years ago, there were a lot of people who believed he would build a one-and-done dynasty there by bringing in the best recruits year after year and leading them to title after title. Since then, Kentucky missed the tournament entirely and now is a No. 8 seed. Calipari did not seem happy at all with the seeding … and I can’t help that this is the sort of fragile team that already has No. 1 Wichita State in their plans. And that’s how they lose to a gritty Kansas State team.

* * *

Second round … oh, wait, I mean third round (18 seconds): To me, this is always the toughest round to pick. Sometimes a No. 1 seed loses (last year, Gonzaga lost to Wichita State) and on average you will usually have at least one No. 2 seed lose.

I’m guessing a lot of brackets will have Kentucky beating Wichita State, but since I didn’t even pick Kentucky to win the first round, that will not be my choice. Anyway, I think Wichita State is really, really good. I don’t want to offer any spoilers, but I really do think that Wichita State, small conference and all, might be the best team in America.

More: How to run the perfect NCAA tourney pool

The one game that troubles me is Oklahoma State against No. 1 Arizona. That upset sounds really good to me. But if I pick it, then I lose Arizona, and Arizona is REALLY good. I could get burned. Trouble is, when you have 18 seconds to pick 16 games, you don’t really get to think too much about the consequences. I instinctively write down Oklahoma State and will live with it. All the other No. 1s get through.

My No. 2 line upset – St. Joe’s over Villanova in the second installment of the “you didn’t recruit me” revenge game.

Other lower seed picks: No. 14 Western Michigan over Dayton (the Broncos ride on!); No. 6 North Carolina over Iowa State (I just know these Tar Heels are going to blow my entire bracket); No. 5 Oklahoma over San Diego State (setting up the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State game that may blow up the Sooner State).

* * *

Sweet 16 (5 seconds): No time to look back on what is clearly a terrible bracket I have to just keep going.

Oklahoma State over Oklahoma and Wisconsin over Creighton in the West.

Wichita State over Louisville and Duke over Michigan in the Midwest.

More: The eight best crunch-time players in the tourney

VCU over Florida (Shaka Smart upset!) and Kansas over Western Michigan in the South. Bill Self quietly getting his team healthy and dangerous.

Michigan State over Virginia (upset!) and North Carolina over St. Joe’s in the East.

I thoroughly loathe my bracket.

* * *

Elite 8 (4 seconds): The Duke-Wichita State game is one worth pondering. But there’s no time for that, so I’m taking the Shockers to knock off Duke and go to their second consecutive Final Four.

My other Final Four choices: Wisconsin (after holding Oklahoma State to, like, 13 points), Kansas (barely preventing Shaka Smart from his second Final Four at VCU) and Michigan State (pounding a North Carolina team that I had no business sending all the way to the Elite Eight in the first place).

* * *

Final Four (3 seconds): I have given myself an extra second to ponder this. It is not impossible that I have set up my entire bracket just to get the Kansas-Wichita State final that I really want to see. For one thing, this would be the greatest thing to happen to Kansas in forever, and I love the state of Kansas. Two, this would make my in-laws —who have lived in Kansas all their lives and who love both teams — extremely happy and conflicted. This also would greatly please my friend Bill James, who loves Kansas basketball about as much as he loves piercing through baseball idiocy.

So, what the heck, the momentum is too strong. Kansas against Wichita State in the final.

* * *

Championship game (1 second): Every NBA mock draft I have seen has Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embid going in the first three picks. Many have them as the Top 2. In NBA Draft history, the top two picks have been from the same team only 1 time.

2012: Kentucky’s Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

More: The eight teams that can win it all

Of course, that Kentucky team rolled to the national title. My sense is that this Kansas team is the most talented in the country. When healthy – and Embid has not been healthy – it might be the most talented team Bill Self has ever coached. They have been wildly inconsistent, often frustrating and confusing and sometimes dreadful. The Jayhawks have also for stretches been about as good as any team I’ve seen. The Jayhawks might be the team that makes or breaks your ballot – pick them to keep winning and they could lose in the first round, pick them to lose early and they might win it all.

That’s what I’m going with. I’m picking Kansas to beat Wichita State in the national championship game. And while this will never happen, I do have three seconds to spare on the clock.

Mykhailiuk helps No. 4 Kansas rout South Dakota State, 98-64

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LAWRENCE, Kan. — Svi Mykhailiuk scored a career-high 27 points, Lagerald Vick finished with 22 and fourth-ranked Kansas routed Summit League favorite South Dakota State 98-64 on Friday night.

Udoka Azubuike added 17 points and Malik Newman had 13 for the Jayhawks (3-0), who shot 60 percent from the field and didn’t commit a turnover until midway through the second half.

By that point, the Jackrabbits (3-1) were staring at a 30-point deficit.

Mike Daum led South Dakota State with 21 points and 11 rebounds. Tevin King contributed 12 points and David Jenkins Jr. scored 10 off the bench.

Once again without heralded freshman Billy Preston, the Jayhawks were forced to use the same reduced rotation that managed to top seventh-ranked Kentucky on Tuesday night. But their perilous lack of depth became crippling in the first half when Azubuike and Mitch Lightfoot picked up two fouls each.

That forced coach Bill Self to use walk-on Clay Young in the post.

The 6-foot-5 senior turned out to be a bright spot, too, keeping the ball moving on offense and handling the 6-9 Daum inside. The Jackrabbits’ leading scorer at more than 21 points per game had eight on 2-for-8 shooting in the first half, when Young spent a good chunk of time covering him.

Nobody could cover Mykhailiuk, though.

The senior from the Ukraine hit his first three shots — the Jayhawks made eight of their first nine — while getting into an easy rhythm. Even on the seemingly rare occasion that his jumper didn’t splash the net, it often rattled around the rim and dropped through to a thunderous ovation.

Several of his baskets came on feeds from Devonte Graham, who didn’t hit a field goal until deep in the second half. He finished with eight points but also had 11 assists and five boards.

PRESTON SITS

Preston went through early warmups but remained on the bench as Kansas investigates an on-campus incident that raised questions about the “financial picture” of the car he was driving. Self declined to discuss the situation other than to say “we’re definitely going to hold him out until we get to the bottom of this.” Self did say he expects a resolution soon.

BIG PICTURE

South Dakota State can recover from its thumping in paradise with a trip to the Cayman Islands Classic up next. But their next trip to the Sunflower State figures to be just as tough: They visit No. 6 Wichita State on Dec. 5.

Kansas cruised despite a shortened lineup again, and help is only a month away. Arizona State transfer Sam Cunliffe becomes eligible for a trip to Nebraska on Dec. 16, and there is a chance five-star prospect Silvio De Sousa from Florida’s IMG Academy enrolls at the semester break.

UP NEXT

South Dakota State plays Wyoming on Monday in George Town, Cayman Islands.

Kansas continues a four-game home stand against Texas Southern on Tuesday night.

No. 18 Louisville hangs on over Omaha 87-78

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Ray Spalding had a career-high 19 points and 11 rebounds, Deng Adel had a game-high 21 points and Anas Mahmoud had eight of his team’s 15 blocked shots as No. 18 Louisville outlasted Omaha 87-78 on Friday night.

Spalding scored 14 points after halftime, and Adel made 7 of 8 shots from both the field and the free-throw line to pace the offense for the Cardinals (2-0), who led by 20 early in the second half but didn’t make a field for the last 4:36 of the game.

Omaha (0-4) was competitive in facing its highest-ranked opponent since becoming an NCAA Division I program in the 2011-12 season. The Mavericks hung around with a 12-0 second-half run and got within 71-64 on KJ Robinson’s 3-pointer with 5:45 left, but Louisville answered with seven straight points to keep the lead large enough to stay unbeaten under interim coach David Padgett.

Louisville’s three primary big men — Spalding (6-foot-10), Mahmoud (7-0) and Malik Williams (6-11) — bothered Omaha with their length around the rim. Mahmoud flirted with a triple-double, posting 10 points and eight rebounds to go with his blocks. Williams, a former five-star recruit who made his first career start in place of Mahmoud, had eight points, four rebounds and three blocks. Spalding blocked three shots, too.

Daniel Norl led five Omaha scorers in double figures with 16 points and eight rebounds.

BIG PICTURE

Omaha: The Mavericks averaged 83.9 points in their first three games but dug a hole in the first half when they shot only 24.4 percent to go down 40-25 at halftime. Louisville finished the first half on an 18-7 run, and Omaha made only one of its final nine shots before the break.

Louisville: Adel, who scored 20 points in the season-opening win over George Mason, continues to impress with his slicing drives and up-tempo play and shapes up as one of the top wings in the Atlantic Coast Conference. He made his first seven shots and added eight rebounds.

UP NEXT

Omaha plays at TCU on Monday as part of the Emerald Coast Classic, the fourth of seven straight games away from home to start the season while the Mavericks’ home arena hosts the U.S. Olympic Curling Trials.

Louisville has home games against Southern Illinois on Tuesday and Saint Francis next Friday before traveling to Purdue on Nov. 28 for the Big 10/ACC Challenge.

No. 7 Kentucky cruises past East Tennessee State, 78-61

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Quade Green scored a career-high 21 points, Kevin Knox had 17 points with 10 rebounds and No. 7 Kentucky overcame an early deficit to run away from East Tennessee State 78-61 on Friday night.

Bouncing back from Tuesday’s 65-61, Champions Classic loss to No. 4 Kansas required the Wildcats (3-1) overcoming an 18-8 first-half hole. Green took charge to score 10 of their next 12 points to cut the lead to 23-20, and Hamidou Diallo and Wenyen Gabriel combined for 11 of the next 16 as Kentucky outscored ETSU 28-12 over the final 10:05 for a 36-30 halftime lead.

The Wildcats kept rolling behind defense that held the Buccaneers (1-2) to 32 percent shooting, including just 10 of 36 (28 percent) in the second half. They also owned the paint (38-22), fast break points (14-2) and registered eight blocks to win their first game of the Adolph Rupp Classic.

Green made 9 of 13 from the field to top his previous high of 15 points on Sunday against Vermont.

Peter Jurkin had 17 points and David Burrell 11 for ETSU.

BIG PICTURE

ETSU: The Buccaneers started four seniors and initially flexed their experience on Kentucky’s young lineup. They shot well at first but went cold after starting 7 of 13 from the field. ETSU couldn’t match the Wildcats inside nor slow them on the break. They were outrebounded 40-37 but stayed close most of the night.

Kentucky: The learning curve continued as another veteran squad knocked the young Wildcats on their heels before they found their resolve and shooting touch. This hole occurred early enough for them to regroup from 4-of-14 shooting, and they didn’t look back in making 57 percent from the field. While Green provided the offensive spark, Sacha Killeya-Jones (eight rebounds) and Knox handled the boards. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander came off the bench to post 10 points and a career-high six assists.

UP NEXT

ETSU hosts Delaware State on Monday night.

Kentucky hosts Troy on Monday night.

Wendell Carter Jr. scores 20, No. 1 Duke beats Southern 78-61

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DURHAM, N.C. — No. 1 Duke proved this week it’s talented enough to beat the best team on its schedule — but not so dominant that it can take one of the worst for granted.

The Blue Devils beat Southern 78-61 on Friday night behind 20 points and 11 rebounds from Wendell Carter Jr.

“We just didn’t come ready to play,” Carter said. “I can’t really speak for everybody, I don’t know if everybody was energized or not or if people were hurt or not. Just as a team, we didn’t play as a unit. We starters had an opportunity just to be selfish, and that’s not the way to go. We’ve got to take every game seriously, and we did not do that tonight.”

Marvin Bagley III added 19 points and 11 rebounds and Grayson Allen and Trevon Duval finished with 10 points apiece for the Blue Devils (4-0).

Coming off a victory over No. 2 Michigan State three nights earlier, Duke showed several classic symptoms of a letdown — in part, coach Mike Krzyzewski explained, because the Blue Devils didn’t practice the previous two days due to NCAA time-management rules.

The Blue Devils finished with a season-high 15 turnovers, shot just 4 of 20 from 3-point range and for a while struggled to keep Southern off the offensive glass before regrouping to finish with a 51-34 rebounding advantage.

“There was something missing tonight,” Krzyzewski said.

Gary Trent Jr. had 10 rebounds but was 3-of-11 shooting for Duke, which never led by fewer than 10 points in the second half, but also had trouble putting Southern away, not pushing its lead into the 20s until the final 5 minutes.

Jamar Sandifer had 14 points and Torrey Mayo added 11 to lead the Jaguars (0-4) — whose resume included a 102-55 loss to Illinois, an 86-58 loss at Missouri State and the No. 319 spot in an unofficial replication of the RPI formula.

They gave the Blue Devils about 15 minutes’ worth of serious headaches before Trent hit two 3-pointers during a 15-3 run late in the first half that pushed Duke’s lead into double figures to stay.

BIG PICTURE

Southern: The Jaguars open the season with five road games in 10 days, and this should have been the most daunting. Instead, Southern made it competitive for far longer than expected by taking advantage of the Blue Devils’ numerous turnovers, repeatedly sending Bagley — who entered as a 22 percent free-throw shooter — to the line and holding their own on the glass.

“We talked about just trying to get better, each and every game, and tonight we fought as a unit and tried to instill in those guys that if we continue to do that, by the time we get to league play … we can compete” for the Southwestern Athletic Conference title, interim head coach Morris Scott said.

Duke: This should lead to quite the educational film review session for Krzyzewski, his assistants and players. For a team that has reasonable Final Four expectations, the tape will show plenty of teachable moments — starting with the turnovers, many of which were unforced. Because the Blue Devils took the previous two days off, Krzyzewski said they will practice Saturday and Sunday.

“They thought it would be a lot easier than it was, and that’s on us, too, to make sure,” Krzyzewski said. “We’re all responsible for it. The other thing is, we won. We won. So that’s a good thing.”

THE EYES HAVE IT

Allen was poked in the left eye when he was fouled by Southern’s Chris Thomas with 1:08 left in the half. Allen hit 1 of 2 free throws before heading to the bench for treatment with the eye swelling almost immediately. He was back to start the second half. Three nights earlier, Bagley didn’t return after he was poked in the eye during the Michigan State game.

HIGHLIGHT REEL

Southern was still in the game, trailing just 30-27 with about 5 minutes before the break when Sandifer put up a jumper in the lane. Bagley blocked it all the way to midcourt and Allen chased it down, whipped the ball behind his back and converted a left-handed layup that energized what had been a morose Cameron Indoor Stadium.

CAPEL’S RETURN

Associate head coach Jeff Capel was back on the Duke bench. He didn’t make the trip to Chicago for the Michigan State game after his father, former Old Dominion coach Jeff Capel Jr., died less than two years after he was diagnosed with ALS. He was honored with a moment of silence before tipoff.

UP NEXT

Southern: The Jaguars stick around Durham to face N.C. Central on Sunday.

Duke: The Blue Devils wrap up their quick home stand Monday night against Furman.

Albany suspends coaches 1 game for recruiting violation

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ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — University at Albany men’s basketball coach Will Brown and associate head coach John Iati have been suspended for one game for an NCAA recruiting violation.

The school said Iati would serve his suspension Friday night against Yale, and Brown will miss Monday’s game against Oneonta.

The Level III violation occurred when Iati staged the national letter of intent signing ceremony of a prospective student-athlete. The recruit and his family were photographed wearing team-issued apparel.

The university said the violation was reported to the NCAA.