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End Zone

If you're like most people, you didn't really follow college basketball this season — until the NCAA Tournament bracket came out Sunday afternoon.

Now you want to become an instant expert to win big bucks in that office pool, or at your favorite tavern or, of course, in the Independent-sponsored online contest at marchtothechampionship.com. But it's not easy to fill out your projected winners in that blank bracket without really knowing the difference between Creighton, Belmont and Bucknell.

Not to worry. You've come to the right place, as in past years, for helpful strategy, dos and don'ts, and a few favorites and longshots to watch. No sense wasting time, so let's get started:

• Don't try to pick a bunch of upsets. The less you really know, the smarter it is to follow most teams' seeding in the early rounds, going with the higher seeds. Yes, you'll miss the big surprises, but so will almost everyone else.

• If you're a fan of a certain team or conference, don't let that bias sway your picks. Don't just blindly pick Colorado over Illinois in the first round because you like the Buffs. They actually have a tough draw, facing Illinois first and likely Atlantic Coast champion Miami (Fla.) after that. Colorado State has to face Missouri, also a challenging test, followed by overall No. 1 seed Louisville. Ouch.

• Later in the bracket, it's OK to pick a No. 3 or 4 seed to go as far as the Final Four. And feel free to hang your hat on one real longshot, because underdogs have made a few noteworthy surprises in recent years. Of course, that's why teams like Butler, Virginia Commonwealth and Gonzaga aren't overlooked anymore.

• Pay attention to this list of teams noticeably underseeded, based on their computer rankings: Minnesota, Mississippi, Wichita State, Oregon and Missouri. Several of that group probably will win at least their first game.

• If you're itching to predict upsets at the start, focus on No. 11s against No. 6s, or No. 12s against No. 5s. For example, Oregon (12) against Oklahoma State (5), Minnesota (11) against UCLA (6), California (12) against Nevada-Las Vegas (5), and Belmont (11) against Arizona (6). The key is picking the right ones. Most "experts" think Minnesota will knock off UCLA, which has injury issues.

• This year's No. 1 seeds are weaker than usual; several would have been No. 3 or 4 in other years. So the second and third seeds in most regionals should go far. Look closely at Miami (No. 2 in the East), New Mexico (No. 3 in the West) and Florida (No. 3 in the South).

• The way to win most pools and brackets is making the right predictions in the second and third rounds. For instance, in the East, Butler (6) might sink Marquette (3) in the second round. Or in the South, Virginia Commonwealth (No. 5) could reach the Elite Eight.

• My best longshots — meaning they're seeded No. 4 or worse — to make a long run: Midwest, St. Louis (4) or Memphis (6); South, Virginia Commonwealth (5) or North Carolina (8); East, Syracuse (4) or Butler (6); West, Wichita State (9) or Iowa State (10).

• Don't expect too much from the Mountain West Conference, despite its strong computer ranking and five NCAA berths. League champion New Mexico looks like the only one capable of advancing beyond the first weekend. The rest have rugged opening opponents: CSU vs. Missouri, San Diego State vs. Oklahoma, UNLV vs. California (probably followed by Syracuse), and Boise State in a play-in game followed by Kansas State.

• One thought for a huge early shocker that nobody will predict: In the East, Davidson (14) could stun Marquette (3).

• My Final Four: Louisville, Florida, Miami and New Mexico. For early rounds, go to marchtothechampionship.com, sign up and find them there. Good luck.

routon@csindy.com

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