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Five Things You Absolutely, Positively Have To Know About March Madness

Summer vacation? It's for slackers. Those first gorgeously colored leaves of fall? They'll have to be raked into soggy piles a month later. And Christmas? Bah ...

For a big chunk of America, this is the most wonderful time of the year — a time for Cinderellas and chalk, for early exits and deep runs, for bracket busters and buzzer-beaters.

We speak, of course, of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, aka the Big Dance, March Madness — or, if you will, the Cavalcade of Cliches (with bonus points for alliteration).

But if you're wary of the linguistic thicket — or if you can't tell a baseline drive from a one-and-done — fear not! Winning that pile of cash in the office pool is within your grasp. And we're here to help.

So here are the five things you absolutely, positively have to know about March Madness:

1) You Know Nothing. And Neither Do The Experts

The NCAA tournament was born 73 years ago, in 1939, when eight schools competed and Oregon buried Ohio State, 46-33, to win the title. This time around, 68 teams will take the floor starting Tuesday night in Dayton, Ohio. And somewhere along the way, we got saddled with office pools and the "bracket" — the ubiquitous spiderlike chart with all the teams and their seedings that used to be churned out of mimeograph machines but, except for a few prehistoric holdouts, has gone digital.

Figuring out where teams will be seeded has become an arcane science, dubbed "bracketology." And its guru is ESPN's Joe Lunardi. His tournament obsession began in 1982, when he was a student at St. Joseph's (where he's an assistant vice president of marketing today). He tells USA Today that he has picked the teams getting into the tournament 97 percent of the time.

His choices for the Final Four last year? Pure "chalk" — the top-seeded team in each of the four regions: Kansas, Kentucky, Ohio State and Pittsburgh.

And not a single one of those schools made it. So much for the gurus.

Look out for: Just about anybody. Of the nearly 6 million brackets that ESPN fans entered last year, only two picked the Final Four correctly. So be on the watch for teams that are just out of the national spotlight, like Wisconsin, Baylor and Memphis.

2) Story Lines Look Perfectly Clear — In Hindsight

Last year at this time, the only mentions of Virginia Commonwealth University among the pundit class were complaints that it was even in the tournament. ESPN's Jay Bilas famously ripped into the selection committee for choosing the Rams, saying, "We talk about the eye test. This one fails the laugh test."

Meanwhile, Connecticut had just transformed itself from tournament outsider to Big East postseason champion, winning an unprecedented five games in five days. Yet almost no one thought Jim Calhoun's team could string together six more wins.

Three weeks later, UConn and VCU were squaring off in the national semifinal. And two days after that, the Huskies were hoisting the national championship trophy in Houston.

Look out for: Schools that might weave a compelling narrative. Kansas' Thomas Robinson, a national-player-of-the-year candidate, fought through brutal personal tragedy last season, with his mother and two grandparents dying within a few weeks of each other. That left just him and his 9-year-old sister, Jayla. Harvard is in the tournament for the first time in 66 years — a feat not even the Crimson's Jeremy Lin could accomplish long before America heard of Linsanity.

3) Pick Age Before Beauty

The past decade or so has seen the rise of the "mid-major" school — teams in less respected leagues that upend "blue bloods" like Duke, North Carolina and Georgetown. VCU was a perfect example last season, seeded ninth in the Midwest region but toppling No. 1 Kansas. So was Butler, which reached the national final for the second year in a row.

What links teams like VCU and Butler — along with Final Four surprise George Mason in 2006 — is a reliance on veterans, especially senior guards. These schools, unlike the blue bloods, can't recruit the "one-and-dones" — the guys who plan to stay in school just one year and then leave for the NBA.

There's a caveat here: Kentucky reached the Final Four last year with a cast of one- or two-and-dones. These "rent-a-players," as they've been dubbed, are a specialty of Wildcat coach John Calipari, who has taken three different schools to the Final Four. (Two of those trips were later voided because of NCAA rules violations.) And Calipari, whose Kentucky team is this year's runaway favorite, has never won a title with his flocks of freshmen.

Look out for: Iona, subject of the same kind of dismissive talk that motivated VCU last year. The Gaels are a tough veteran team, led by two seniors, point guard Scott Machado and forward Mike Glover. And Florida State hails from a major conference, the ACC, but flew under the national radar most of the year. The Seminoles' starting lineup includes one junior, three seniors and a graduate student. (And sorry, Butler fans, the Bulldogs won't be re-creating their Final Four magic a third time: They didn't make the tournament.)

4) Blue Bloods Win Championships

The lesson from last year is clear: Don't discount the little guy. But another lesson got reinforced, too: Every national champion for the past 20 years has come from one of the "power" conferences: the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC or PAC 12.

Look out for: All the top seeds, but especially battle-tested North Carolina, Syracuse and Ohio State.

5) There's No Shame In Picking Based On Team Mascots

Sure, a Final Four of top seeds Kentucky, Syracuse, North Carolina and Michigan State would be worthy (although all four No. 1s have reached the Final Four only once, when Kansas won it all in 2008). But Orange, Wildcats, Spartans and Tar Heels? Wouldn't you rather watch Wolverines (Michigan) tangle with Grizzlies (Montana), Bears (Baylor) and Dirtbags (the self-proclaimed nickname of a few Long Beach State alums)? Talk about a steel cage match!

Look out for: The two teams my feline companions, Gus and Lulu, chose in their annual bracket: Ohio (Bobcats), Missouri (Tigers), Cincinnati (Bearcats) and the future champ, Kentucky (Wildcats). Hey, after last year's madness, a pair of lazy cats have as much chance as the rest of us.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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