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Bluff It Through the Office NCAA Pool

Sunday, March 13, 2005; Page M03

Selection Sunday is upon us -- the brackets for the NCAA men's basketball tournament are announced today. And you don't need a bookie to tell you that odds are on the office pool dominating water cooler conversation all month long. Want to get in on March Madness, but don't even know what NCAA stands for? (It's National Collegiate Athletic Association, by the way.) Don't fear: We've got a beginner's guide to help you fake it 'till you make it. (Seasoned veterans can check out bracketology on espn.com for more in-depth information.)

PLANTING THE SEEDS. The tournament begins with a selection committee dividing 64 teams (65 with the play-in game) into four regions and seeding them on the bracket. The best teams receive the highest seed (1, 2, 3, and so on, through the lowest at 16). Once the bracket is set, you usually have four days to make your picks. Newspapers and sports' Web sites can provide background information on the season's stars and team histories that might inform these decisions -- www.cbssportsline.com and www.sportsillustrated.com are particularly helpful.

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A CINDERELLA STORY? NCAA newbies don't need to cram a season's worth of material into a few days to compete with the regulars. The beauty of the tournament is that your novice guess could be as good as the avid fan's one cube over. There's an element of luck here, akin to joining an Oscar pool when you haven't seen all the movies. Winning brackets have been created by amateurs basing their picks on the teams with the cutest players or the best mascots. So go on: Root for the home team and bring them through the Sweet 16 -- even if they've never made it past the first round. Superstition and pride also play a role: you won't find many Terps fans penciling in Duke to win it all.

PLAYING THE ODDS. If you decide to fill in your bracket strictly by probability, don't base all of your decisions on the numbers. Upsets are one thing you can definitely, no-question count on. While it's unlikely that a No. 16 seed will beat a No. 1, it's possible that 9 can beat 8 or 12 can beat 5. Pools are scored in different ways, but most award more points per win as you get further into the tournament, so you can lose a few games early on and still come out on top. (Pick your upsets in the first two rounds, where they're worth less, and go with the higher seeds in the Sweet 16 and Elite 8). Teams that make it to the Final Four typically have strong records in past tournaments and veteran players who can handle the pressure -- favorites this season include Illinois, North Carolina and Kentucky. The lowest-ranked team to make it to the Final Four was a No. 11 seed.

ORGANIZE IT ALL. Novices will probably just fill out paper brackets and submit them to the commissioner (the person organizing the pool) but it's easier than ever to set everything up online. The Yahoo! Tournament Pick'Em (tournament.fantasysports.yahoo.com/) lets users create online groups with a bracket, scoring system and message board for plenty of trash-talking. ESPN's online bracket (games.espn.go.com/tcmen/frontpage) pits you against friends and strangers for a $10,000 prize. A final hint: Before you invite the boss to ante up, research your company's policy on gambling. It could be frowned upon (or even a fireable offense). Even if you can't play for money, though, you can still make your best picks and play like the college kids do -- from the heart, and for the satisfying feeling of sweet victory.

Jennifer Plum Auvil

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