Picking March Madness is tricky

College basketball's national championship tournament always lives up to its billing of March Madness. Heading into the Sweet 16 this year, already two No. 2 seeds, three No. 3s and three No. 4s have been eliminated. Overall, 14 lower seeded teams have prevailed over higher seeds, and 11 underdogs on the point spread have pulled off outright upsets. All the No. 1 seeds, however, escaped unharmed.

If your own personal brackets got sabotaged, take comfort in the fact that most everyone else's did, too. To get an idea of how unpredictable this tournament has been, out of the 2.8 million entries in ESPN's free on-line contest, zero have the correct 16 teams, and less than 20 have 15 still alive.

Out of all the so-called experts on sports television shows, only wacky Woody Paige and LSU head coach John Brady had every Final Four pick survive the weekend. If you have all of your Final Four intact on any of your brackets, consider yourself ahead of the game.

Predictions: Can't help but brag about last week's picks, as 7 out of 8 were winners. Ohio, Old Dominion, Delaware State, Central Florida and Tennessee-Chattanooga covered the spread as underdogs, while dogs Pacific and Bucknell won outright. If Utah State had held on to its half-time lead over Arizona, or just stayed close, the choices would have all hit. Overall, underdogs went 18-12-2 in the first round.

The selections get tougher in the Sweet 16, but confidence is high enough to bet on every game. A No. 12 seed has never beaten a No. 1, and No. 5s are 4-24 this round, with Syracuse and Illinois both losing and failing to cover last year.

Illinois vs. Wisconsin-Milwaukee - Illinois' great guards should neutralize the Panther full-court pressure which caused 22 Boston College turnovers. The Illini are basically playing at home in Chicago, where they have won 14 consecutive games. There is also a revenge factor on Wisconsin-Milwaukee head coach Bruce Pearl, whose snitching initiated an NCAA investigation into Illinois athletics while he was an assistant at Iowa. The pick is Illinois -10.

Oklahoma State vs. Arizona - This should be a close one, so just taking a shot on the Under 151.

Washington vs. Louisville - The second and sixth-highest scoring teams in the nation combine to average 167 points a game. Choosing the Over 160.

Texas Tech vs. West Virginia - Texas Tech has a disadvantage inside, where they were outrebounded over the course of the year. Any reason is a good one to root against the tournament's No. 1 seeded jerk, Tech head coach Bobby Knight. Hopefully it's West Virginia +1 1/2, or even better, on the money line at +105.

Wisconsin vs. N.C. State - Both teams prefer a slow pace, while Wisconsin led the Big Ten in scoring defense at 60 points per game. Going with the Under 126.

North Carolina vs. Villanova - After shooting 64 percent against Oakland, Mich., the nation's scoring leader Carolina lit up Iowa State for 92. The loss of Villanova's second-leading scorer Curtis Sumpter helps the Tar Heels here. Trying North Carolina - 10.

Utah vs. Kentucky - Utah's Australian center Andrew Bogut will be the first pick in June's NBA draft, and the Utes' offense goes through him. Kentucky is a very young team prone to scoring droughts. Liking Utah +5 and on the money line at +175.

Duke vs. Michigan State - Lacking depth, during the tournament Duke has purposely killed clock and reduced the amount of possessions. The Blue Devils owned the best defense in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and Michigan State allows only 60 points a game. The bet is on the Under 141.

Elite 8 - History says to lean towards the underdogs in this round, as at least two out of four have covered the spread every year since 1998. That doesn't necessarily mean that there will be multiple outright upsets, though, as those numbers are inconsistent.

At least one No. 1 seed has reached the Final Four every year except 1980. Never has a No. 10 like N.C. State or a No. 7 such as West Virginia made it that far. Excluding 2000, only two seeds below No. 4 have advanced. The last six seasons, two of the Final Four teams have come from the same conference, and in the past four years no Southeastern Conference teams like Kentucky have moved on . From 2002-04 at least one school and five overall have come from the Big 12. The ACC (8-2) and the Big Ten (6-2) have the best records in this tournament so far.

Final Four - Even with only 16 teams to choose from, the Final Four is still difficult to predict. With Gonzaga sent home, the revised Final Four here is North Carolina, Duke, Oklahoma State and now Washington.

National Championship - The prediction of North Carolina over Oklahoma State is still alive.

Note: Joe Ellison's column will appear on its normal day, Friday, beginning next week.


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