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Bracketology: Take this job and shove it

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You can do it on the Internet; in your office; in the high school halls; in the shopping malls; have you filled out your bracket yet? It seems like everybody --- including people who think the NCAA was one of Roosevelt's alphabet agencies --- fills out a men's basketball bracket. You can win a million bucks if you guess the outcomes of the 63 games correctly.

            America loves gambling, and filling out brackets feeds that addiction. There are no social problems when it comes to March madness. Just look at how it brings our country together. Chicago-based consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas recently found that the NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament will cost US businesses $890 million in lost productivity, making it more powerful than an OJ trial.

            Frankly, I had no idea we were capable of producing $890 million of anything anymore. I'm skeptical. That gigantic number seems to be a bit of wishful thinking by Challenger, Gray & Christmas --- an employment agency that stands to benefit when you lose your job for paying more attention to the tournament than your work. At least you'll know whom to call when the big boss fires you.

The NCAA, advertisers, and seemingly every media outlet on earth capitalize on the interest in what has become known as "bracketology." But it's not science. Whoever wins the tournament does so with a healthy dose of luck. In fact, it's mostly luck. DukeUniversity coach Mike Krzyzewski has fielded arguably the best basketball teams in the nation the past 15 years, but he's won just three titles --- two more than Syracuse Orange coach Jim Boeheim.

            Bracketology --- and to a larger extent, sports gambling --- is such an alluring paradox. You think you're so smart. You swear you know the teams, the athletes, the statistics, all the details, but you're no better off armed with that knowledge in gambling than you would be by pulling a slot machine arm.

            But gambling interests have largely made pro and the semi-pro sports of NCAA Division I football and men's basketball US institutions. That's not the only thing, of course. James Michener wrote in his 1976 book Sports in America that many people have "found their cultural and spiritual life within the athletic framework of a university which most of them had not attended."

            How true and sad that is. Just how inconsequential are our lives in America, anyway? Then again, when a countryman's main concerns have to do with football, basketball, or some other sporting event, that must be the mark of a great country.

So fill out that bracket. You have just as much chance at winning the thing as Boeheim, Hakim Warrick, and the rest of the Orange do. I see Syracuse losing to MichiganState in the second round. I like the way the Spartans play defense, giving up just 63.1 points per game.

            As for the Division III men's final four this weekend in Salem, Virginia, I love the grittiness of the University of Rochester, but I don't think the Yellow Jackets will have enough offense to knock off Calvin (Grand Rapids, Michigan) in the semifinal. Still, I'm surprised that they so easily handled PotsdamState, after Potsdam manhandled St. John Fisher in the Sweet 16 last weekend.

            In men's Division I, I'm picking top-seeded Illinois to win the whole thing, coming out of the Chicago regional. Statistically, the Illini score and defend better than any other big-time program. My Final Four is rounded out by fourth-seeded Louisville (26-4) in the Albuquerque regional, fourth-seeded Florida (20-7) in the Syracuse regional, third-seeded Oklahoma (23-6) in the Austin regional. Each features a good blend of scoring and defense.

            Anyway, watch the games. Challenger, Gray & Christmas will thank you.

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