Florida guard Scottie Wilbekin shows a part of the net after his Gators beat Kentucky for the SEC Championship on March 16.
Image: Steve Helber/Associated Press

March Madness is back, which means three things:

  1. It’s time to load up on snacks.

  2. It’s time to invent the debilitating illness that will leave you no choice but to stay home from work on Thursday, when the games begin.

  3. It’s time for basketball. And more basketball! So. Much. Basketball.

But college basketball’s Big Dance has a way of sneaking up on us. Perhaps work and personal matters — you know, life — have kept you from tracking college hoops as close as you’d have liked these past four months. Who should you pick for the Final Four? Which teams and players should you invest in emotionally? Fear not, dear reader: Spend 15 minutes with this handy guide and you’ll be ready to roll.

Sunday’s winners and losers


U mad? Rick Pitino — shown here on March 31 of last year — coaches Louisville, a team most expected to get a better seed this year.

Image: Darron Cummings/Associated Press

Sunday’s annual selection and unveiling of the March Madness bracket (here’s a printable version) had its usual share of slights and inexplicably generous seedings. The day’s biggest loser was Louisville — the Cardinals are rank fifth overall in the latest Associated Press college hoops poll and won the national title last year, but the NCAA selection committee seeded them fourth in the West region. Talk about disrespect.

The committee didn’t do any favors for top-seed Wichita State, either. Wichita State is on track for a Sweet 16 showdown with the Cardinals. But even before that, Wichita will probably have to fight their way past an inconsistent but uber-talented Kentucky squad in Round 2 just to get a crack at Louisville. The bottom half of Wichita State’s bracket — featuring two-seed Michigan and three-seed Duke — isn’t the easiest either.

Big winners included Florida, which was gifted a relatively easy path to the Final Four as the committee’s top overall seed. North Carolina State also surprised many by getting slotted into a Tuesday play-in game, despite a relatively shaky resume and 13 losses overall. The Big 12 Conference, meanwhile, flexed its might by getting seven teams into the field, led by Kansas, the South region’s second seed.

You know what’s cool? A billion-dollar bracket


Cal Poly fans and players celebrate after defeating Cal State Northridge 61-59 in the NCAA Big West tournament championship on March 15 to earn an unlikely March Madness berth.

Image: Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

So you and your friends have a nice little bracket pool with some prize money on the line? That’s not cool. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.

Warren Buffett and Quicken Loans are offering a whopping $1 billion to any fan who picks a perfect bracket this year. The contest is open to the first 15 million people to sign up here, and it looks like spaces are still available.

Either way, the contest will provide an entertaining side-plot to the whole tournament if any fans make it through the first few rounds with all of their picks intact.

Those killjoys at the Washington Post calculated the odds of someone actually picking all 63 games correctly are 9.2 quintillion to 1. The New York Times featured a bunch of math nerds who’re taking their best shot.

3 potential Cinderellas

Siyani Chambers

Harvard’s Siyani Chambers, points and smiles at his team as he dribbles in the final seconds of an NCAA college basketball game against Yale, Friday, March 7, 2014, in New Haven, Conn. Harvard won 70-58.

Image: Jessica Hill/Associated Press

Every year it happens: Teams pull shocking first-round upsets, or make much deeper runs than their seedings would dictate. Here are three potential Cinderellas for this year:

Harvard: The Ivy Leaguers are seeded 12th in the East, but have experience on their side, as well as a more talented roster than you might expect. This may help them get past five-seed Cincinnati in round one. Still, getting past Michigan State in the second round will be a tall order for Harvard.

Michigan State: Don’t be surprised if the Spartans make a much deeper run than four-seeds are supposed to. Tom Izzo’s squads are always tough, but this year’s team has a strong backcourt, and many were surprised to see the Spartans slotted so low. Don’t be surprised to see them in the Final Four.

Stephen F. Austin State: The Lumberjacks out of Nacogdoches, Tex., are another great 12-seed. They enter the tournament on a 28-game winning streak. They play Virginia Commonwealth in the first round, a team that may not be used to the pressure of being favored to win. Then, in the second round, Austin would likely face a very beatable UCLA squad. Just don’t count on them getting past Florida in the Sweet 16.

3 teams to actually root for

Chadrack Lufile, Cleanthony Early, Tekele Cotton

Wichita State’s Chadrack Lufile, left, Cleanthony Early, center, and Tekele Cotton celebrate during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Northern Iowa on, Feb. 8, 2014.

Image: Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

Handicapping bracket picks and making educated guesses about March Madness may be fun, but it’s far better to invest yourself in some teams on a purely emotional level. Here are three fine candidates for adoption if you’re looking to get passionate — or if your favorite team didn’t make the tourney.

Wichita State: The Shockers boast an undefeated record at 34-0 but, as noted above, the selection committee gave them a brutal path to the Final Four. Succeeding for a second straight year would be a truly remarkable feat for such a small school. Better yet, they’re led by two great players with amazing names: power forward Cleanthony Early and point guard Fred VanVleet.

Iowa State: The Cyclones are just plain fun to watch. The team’s two best players are its bully of a point guard DeAndre Kane and forward Melvin Ejim, who exploded for 48 points (on 20-24 shooting) and 18 rebounds in a game against Texas Christian earlier this year.

San Diego State: The Aztecs are rarely thought of as a basketball power, but coach Steve Fisher has built the school into one of the top programs out West. Fisher won it all with Michigan 25 years ago. Can he pull a rabbit out of his hat twice?

3 players who deserve your attention

Kyle Anderson

Kyle Anderson’s deliberate-yet-effective style of play has earned him the nickname “Slow-Mo.” He’s shown here on March 6.

Image: Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

These three players have a range of styles and fascinating facets, but they’re all worth keeping an extra eye on as March Madness gets underway.

Doug McDermott: The man they call Dougie McBuckets scores unstoppably, and in every way imaginable. He plays for a tiny school in Creighton — but one that could do some serious Big Dance damage under the wily coaching of Doug’s father, Greg McDermott. Sports Illustrated even drew this rather lofty comparison with a recent cover:

Andrew Wiggins: The Kansas star entered this season with perhaps the most hype of any college basketball player ever. He hasn’t lived up to those expectations this year, but had a stellar freshman year nonetheless. Wiggins will be among the most closely-watched players in this tournament — not least because he’s a likely number-one pick in June’s NBA Draft.

Kyle Anderson: Anderson’s nickname is “Slow-Mo” because he’ll never wow you with jaw-dropping athleticism. But the way he dictates tempo and see the court are a basketball purist’s dream. If UCLA makes any noise this month, it’ll be thanks to him.

5 championship-caliber Twitter follows

If you want to keep up-to-date on all the action, analysis and major storylines, these five Twitter accounts are a great place to start.

1. Rob Dauster

Dauster heads up NBC Sports’ college hoops blog, and is a tweeting, analyzing and writing machine.

2. Jay Bilas

ESPN’s Bilas doesn’t tweet a ton, but he’s one of the best college hoops analysts around and has a great sense of humor.

3. Jonathan Givony

If you like March Madness more as a sneak-peek at tomorrow’s NBA stars, Givony is the undisputed top source on Twitter and a must-follow this time of year.

4. Andy Katz

The ESPN reporter is a tireless worker and equally adept at breaking news and analysis.

5. Luke Winn

The Sports Illustrated senior writer combines pop culture and deep data dives to delightful effect.

How will the Final Four play out?


Image: Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

What’s a March Madness column without some fearless predictions? I have Florida coming out of the South, Arizona out of the West, Iowa State out of the East and Louisville out of the Midwest.

In the Final Four, Florida takes out Iowa State and Arizona beats Louisville, then Arizona beats Florida for its first championship since 1997.

That said, chances are high that these picks — like most predictions at this time of year — will look foolish in two weeks’ time.