TIME College Basketball

Michigan State Students Celebrate Final Four Place by Tossing Bagels in the Air

We can't understand it either

Michigan State is the only non-number one seed to make it to the Final Four this year, and the students are celebrating by…hurling bagels into the air?

Yep, hundreds of Michigan State fans gathered on the campus to celebrate the Spartans’ overtime victory against the Louisville Cardinals Sunday by tossing bagels like confetti. Some students even took the festivities to the next level by burning sweatshirts and couches. Police dispersed the crowd, making at least four arrests, according to The Detroit News.

The Michigan State University Police Department, who apparently was as confused by the bagel throwing as everyone else, issued a warning on its Twitter about the festivities:

Even the lieutenant governor tweeted about the bagel-tossing:

Though Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has reached the Final Four seven times, this one is perhaps the most incredible. The Spartans entered the tournament as a 7-seed after losing their best players from last year’s season. They’ll play Duke on Saturday.

What breakfast food will the fans throw if the team makes it to the championship game?

MONEY gambling

6 Ways to Win Your March Madness Office Pool

Aaron Harrison #2 of the Kentucky Wildcats dunks the ball during the game against the Florida Gators at Rupp Arena on March 7, 2015 in Lexington, Kentucky.
Andy Lyons—Getty Images Bet against the undefeated Kentucky Wildcats at your peril.

You can't pick the perfect bracket (ask Warren Buffett). But you might be able to edge out your co-workers with these tips.

You would have to be crazy to think you can master the betting process for the NCAA’s annual college basketball tournament. That’s part of why it’s called March Madness.

The odds of picking all the winners among the 68 teams in this year’s men’s tournament is an insane 1 in 9.2 quintillion, according to a DePaul University math professor. That is roughly equivalent to winning the Mega Millions lottery jackpot twice in a row.

No wonder famed investor Warren Buffett felt so comfortable offering a $1 billion for a perfect bracket in last year’s NCAA tournament. (No one won.)

But to pick up a few bucks winning your own March Madness office pool, which draws an estimated 50 million Americans a year, you do not have to be perfect. You just have to be good enough to beat your friends. What is at stake is some of the $12 billion that will be bet worldwide on this year’s March Madness tournament, according to the website Pregame.com.

And if you actually win a little cash? According to the Internal Revenue Service, all gambling winnings are taxable—although it’s highly unlikely your podunk office pool will be reported to any authorities, and Uncle Sam has never bothered with them in the past.

Here are six tips to help you get an edge when bracket seedings and matchups are announced on Selection Sunday, March 15.

1. Don’t Get Carried Away With Cinderella Stories

While highly entertaining, huge upsets do not happen all that often (although the Mercer Bears did knock off the powerhouse Duke Blue Devils just last year).

“For the most part, you want to stick with the favorites—especially as you get deeper into tournament rounds like the Elite Eights and the Final Four,” says Ken Pomeroy, founder of the stats-analysis site KenPom.com.

This year in particular, there is one runaway favorite: the Kentucky Wildcats and their perfect 30-0 record. Bet against them at your peril.

2. Tailor Your Picks to Your Pool

Your optimal bracket will change depending on the size of the pool, notes Brad Null, founder of the site BracketVoodoo.com. It is basic game theory: You are not just picking winners, you are playing against others.

If a pool is only comprised of three or four people, stick largely with the favorites, Null says. The bigger the pool gets, the more risks you should take in order to win the prize. In a pool of 10 or 20 people, for instance, you might want to forgo heavily favored Kentucky in favor of talented but less-probable teams like Virginia, he advises.

Even more bettors and you might want to vary it up even more, by looking at names like Wisconsin, Villanova, or Gonzaga to go deep into the tournament.

3. Get Expert Help

If you do not have an advanced degree in statistics, good news: Experts are happy to do all the number-crunching for you (sometimes for a fee).

For likelihoods of victory in any given match-up, visit sites like Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com or TeamRankings.com, advises Doug Drinen, an associate math professor at Tennessee’s Sewanee: The University of the South.

4. Factor in the Scoring System

Every individual pool can feature its own scoring method, and that in turn influences how you should bet. If there is a special bonus awarded for upsets, for instance, pencil in more shockers than you would otherwise.

On the other hand, some pools are heavily weighted toward the eventual victor—awarding only one point for a first-round win, but 32 points for the final game. In that case, go with the heavy favorite, because “it’s almost impossible to win the pool unless you pick the champion,” says Drinen.

5. Avoid Homer Bias

It is only natural to root for your college team. It is not a winning pool strategy.

“If I’m in a pool with a bunch of people who went to college at Stanford, you know half of them are going to pick Stanford to win it all,” says Null. Be a contrarian and go the other way.

6. Think Like a Value Investor

The beauty of March Madness is that you never know who might go on a run—like last year’s champion Connecticut Huskies, who started as humble seven seeds.

“You don’t want to just look at teams who have been successful in the past, but also those who have been down lately,” says Null. “In that way, it’s kind of like picking stocks.”

TIME College Basketball

UNC Basketball Coach Dean Smith Dead at 83

Smith coached at the school for 36 seasons and retired with more wins than any other college basketball coach

University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith, often considered among the most successful athletic coaches of all time, died Saturday evening at 83, according to UNC.

Smith’s family confirmed the death in a statement and thanked the public for thoughts and prayers.

“It’s such a great loss for North Carolina – our state, the University, of course the Tar Heel basketball program, but really the entire basketball world,” said current UNC coach Roy Williams in a statement. “We lost one of our greatest ambassadors for college basketball for the way in which a program should be run.”

Smith coached at the school for 36 seasons, from 1961 to 1997, and retired with more wins than any other college basketball coach. The team won two national championships and made 11 Final Four appearances during his tenure. ESPN named him one of the seven greatest coaches of any sport in the 2oth century.

In an obituary posted at Sports Illustrated, Alexander Wolff recalled what made Smith a unique figure in the college basketball environment:

He didn’t need to put any game face on; he wore the same face, game or no game. Almost alone among coaches I’ve known, Smith actually preferred to speak to the press in the hours before tip-off. And if that game turned out to be a loss, he got over it quickly — in part because for every loss he could point to roughly three-and-a-half victories (879 all told), but also because he truly understood that a billion people in China didn’t give a damn.

During the back half of Smith’s career men’s college basketball spawned a generation of coaches who regarded the university — with its classes and standards, with its women’s teams clamoring for resources and practice time — as irritations, barriers to their entrepreneurial striving. So they tried to set their programs apart and reserve for themselves the spoils of shoe and camp and TV deals. Smith believed that every dime his team delivered to Chapel Hill belonged to the athletic department. He didn’t begrudge the women’s soccer program spending Tar Heels basketball booty; he gloried in it.

Read more at Sports Illustrated

TIME FInal Four

The Shabazz Show Wins Title for UConn

Connecticut celebrates with the championship trophy after beating Kentucky 60-54 at the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball championship game on April 7, 2014, in Arlington, Texas.
David J. Phillip—AP Connecticut celebrates with the championship trophy after beating Kentucky 60-54 at the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball championship game on April 7, 2014, in Arlington, Texas.

Senior shooting guard Shabazz Napier's 22 points helped lift the seventh-seeded Connecticut Huskies to a 60-54 victory over the eighth-seeded Kentucky Wildcats, bringing the team its fourth national championship since 1999

Thousands of basketball-obsessed kids, in schoolyards and backyards and barnyards around the country, may be trying a new kind of shot come Tuesday morning. It’s a deep one, and comes with a kick, literally: release, and kick your right foot out, like you’re also whacking an invisible soccer ball. Call it the Shabazz Shot. It just won UConn a national championship.

Shabazz Napier, the UConn senior shooting guard, scored 22 points, and hit four key three pointers — most with that signature kick — to lead the seventh-seeded Huskies to a 60-54 victory over eighth-seeded Kentucky in Monday night’s NCAA title game. His backcourt mate, junior Ryan Boatright, also had a fabulous game, shooting 5 for 6 from the field and finishing with 14 points. Napier and Boatright outscored Kentucky’s backcourt, twin freshman Aaron and Andrew Harrison, 36-15.

Just as important, Napier and Boatright used their size disadvantage to their advantage. The Harrison brothers are both 6-ft, 6-in. Napier is 6-ft, 1-in., and Boatright is listed at a generous 6-ft. Big guys don’t like being pestered by smaller, quicker players. UConn’s Kevin Ollie, a national champ in his first NCAA tournament as head coach, scripted a smart game plan: unleash the quickness of Napier and Boatright on Kentucky’s taller guards. The Harrisons turned the ball over 7 times. Both Napier and Boatright finished with three steals.

The game wasn’t a classic. But it was a chess match. In the first half, when Kentucky clearly couldn’t stop the quickness of UConn’s backcourt, Wildcats coach John Calipari switched to a zone. The move stalled UConn, which dominated Kentucky in the first half, but only had a 35-31 lead at halftime. Calipari admitted his team should have been down 20 points. The play got a bit sloppier in the second half: combined, both teams turned the ball over 23 times. Ollie made his moves in the second-half: almost all game, his team played man-to-man, but when he threw in the occasional zone, Kentucky got flustered. Kentucky’s James Young kept slithering into the lane, keeping the Wildcats in the game almost by himself. The freshman—all five of Kentucky’s starters are freshmen—finished with 20 points.

The game was also decided at the foul line: Connecticut, money from the line all tournament, shot a perfect 10-for-10. Kentucky missed nine shots, finishing 13-24. Calipari screwed up in the final minute, ordering a foul with 54 seconds left, with Kentucky down 58-54. All that did was give UConn a fresh 35-second shot clock, enabling the Huskies to run the time down the rest of the game.

No matter: the game was still the Shabazz show. Napier, who hails from Roxbury, Mass., returned to UConn this season instead of entering the NBA draft, and is on track to graduate with a sociology degree. He’s developed a social conscience: after telling reporters that he sometimes goes to bed hungry because his scholarship does not cover the full cost of attending college, Connecticut lawmakers started chirping about allowing UConn athletes to unionize. A bit of political pandering by the statehouse reps? Maybe. But at least he started a discussion. And after the game, Napier grabbed the CBS mike to deliver a message to the NCAA. “I want to get everybody’s attention right quick,” Napier told a national television audience. “Ladies and gentlemen, you’re looking at the hungry Huskies. This is what happens when you ban us last year.” The NCAA kept UConn out of last year’s tournament because of poor academic performance by prior players. Napier used the national championship platform to publicly express his disgust with that policy.

You may not agree with Napier. But it’s still refreshing to see college athletes like him lifting their voices. And their feet. Start kicking, kids.


You Should Root for UConn Over Kentucky Tonight

UCONN vs Michigan State Elite Eight
Elsa—Getty Images Ryan Boatright of the Connecticut Huskies reacts after a turnover by the Michigan State Spartans in the second half of the East Regional Final of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Madison Square Garden on March 30, 2014 in New York City.

It's all for glory tonight as Huskies and Wildcats square off in the NCAA title game. The backcourt battle between the two top-seeded teams is also a college hoops culture clash: The kids who stayed in school versus the ones likely off to the pros

Oh, you’ve got love this Cinderella* final. Since the NCAA tournament expanded to at least 64 teams in 1985, never before have two lower-seeded teams met in the national championship game. Monday night’s title game is a dream matchup between two underdogs* who have charmed the nation.

* Never have the terms “Cinderella” and “underdog” been more of a misnomer. They’d normally apply to much lower-seeded teams. But when the seventh seed is UConn, a team that won a national title just three seasons ago, has won three national titles since 1999 and is a perennial power, and the eighth seed is Kentucky, the winningest college hoops program in history that starts five freshman who may all be playing in the NBA next season, let’s cease any and all pluckiness talk.

In tonight’s title game, homing in on the guards is key. They’re important for both the on-court result and what they say about the tensions surrounding college sports. Kentucky starts a pair of freshman twins from Texas, Aaron and Andrew Harrison. In back-to-back games, Aaron Harrison has hit two of the gutsiest three-pointers you’ll ever see, first stabbing the heart of Michigan in the Midwest regional final, then winning the national semifinal game against Wisconsin with another huge three-pointer in the waning seconds. To borrow a phrase from our pal Bill Raftery, the kid’s got some serious onions.

But UConn’s own backcourt, senior Shabazz Napier and junior Ryan Boatright, have stepped up their defensive game during this tournament run: can these elder statesmen thwart the rookie twins from Kentucky? On Saturday night, Napier and Boatright shut down Florida’s two highly regarded guards, Scottie Wilbekin and Michael Frazier II. Wilbeken, the SEC Player of the Year and master of penetrating into the lane, scored just four points on 2-9 shooting, and recorded a single assist. Frazier, a three-point specialist in the mold of a Ray Allen, sank his first three of the game. It was his only one. He only got off two more shots from downtown, and finished with a measly three points.

The backcourt battle is also a college hoops culture clash — the kids who stayed in school (Napier-Boatright) vs. the ones likely off to the pros (Harrisons). Some experts are saying that Kentucky’s tournament run has really helped the brothers’ draft stock. Both Napier and Boatright considered heading to the pros after last season, but decided against it: the title game is a pretty sweet reward.

Boatright’s journey to the championship, in particular, represents college sports in all its craziness. I wrote a magazine feature on Boatright in 2007, when he was just starting ninth grade, because he was at the forefront of a disturbing trend: college coaches recruiting and offering scholarships to kids at younger and younger ages. Boatright was a curious case: USC coach Tim Floyd offered him a scholarship in eighth grade, even though Boatright was only 5-ft., 9-in., and 138 lbs. Boatright and his family gladly accepted the offer. It’s one thing to try to lock-up a man-child. But Boatright was a ninth-grader who actually, you know, looked like a ninth-grader.

Boatright picked his college before he even picked his high school. Recruiting experts scratched their heads. “What am I supposed to do?” Floyd, now the coach at the University of Texas-El Paso, told me at the time. “Should I wait until another school offers and then come in? I can’t do that. Because they’re going to say ‘Well, you’re late.'”

After meeting Boatright back in September of 2007, if you would have asked me to make a bet, right then and there, on his future, I would have wagered against him living up to the hype. He needed muscle, and some serious rotation on his jump shot. As I wrote, “Boatright [is] a bright, personable kid with a supportive extended family worth rooting for.” But gosh, he was so small — not surprising, considering he was 14. And all that pressure – failure almost seemed predetermined.

But Boatright came across unfazed. “I like the pressure,” said Boatright during our conversation, noshing on a chocolate long john at Dunkin’ Donuts before a Saturday-morning shoot-around. “I feed off it. I hear all the negative stuff, I just add another workout. I’ll make them feel stupid in the end.”

I’ve never been happier about being stupid. “He knew that, as a little guy, he had to work even harder,” says his grandfather, Tom Boatright, during a phone interview from Dallas, where he’ll attend his grandson’s championship game. Tom Boatright, who runs a track club in Aurora, helped train his grandson from an early age. Floyd resigned as coach of USC in 2009, after Boatright’s sophomore year of high school, amidst allegations that he gave $1,000 in cash to a middleman who helped steer current NBA player O.J. Mayo to the Trojans.

“After Floyd left, we just didn’t know if the new coach was even interested,” says Boatright. Ryan decommited from USC, but since he met, and maybe even exceeded expectations in high school, offers from plenty of big-time programs came pouring in. Boatright committed to West Virginia early in his senior season, but backed out after coach Bob Huggins signed another point guard. Eventually he decided on UConn, who went on to win the national championship.

In the end, Boatright, who now checks in at 6-feet, 168 pounds, was too good for USC. But his UConn career got off to a rocky start. The NCAA suspended him for six-regular season games for an infraction involving accepting a plane ticket while playing AAU ball. Then he had to sit three more games after the NCAA said he and his mother received additional improper benefits. When he was on the court during the 2011-2012 season, he and Napier, a year older, clashed.

“My freshman year, it was tough,” Ryan Boatright said on Sunday afternoon, CBS Sports reports. “I was used to having the ball all the time and making plays, and scoring the ball. Naturally as a kid, I was immature. You come in and you think it’s all about you. I grew up and, Shabazz will tell you, he wasn’t the best leader at that time. He had some stuff he had to work on. We bumped heads a lot. Both of us being from inner cities, and being tough guys, we ain’t back down to each other. We had some rough practices.”

Then UConn was put on academic probation and barred from playing in the 2013 tournament. Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun retired. Boatright, however, never seriously considered transferring. In January, Boatright’s cousin, Arin Williams, was shot to death in Aurora. They were like brothers.

“It’s just been such a long, tough journey,” says his mother, Tanesha, unable to hold back her tears during a phone interview from Dallas. “During the lowest moments, he was the one giving me encouragement.” When Boatright committed to USC in eighth grade, Tanesha was taken back by the criticism: that she was hungry for money, rushing her son into a major life decision. “After hearing the commentators and critics, it’s a relief to know I wasn’t a crazy mom,” says Tanesha, a single mother of four.

Boatright texted Tanesha just this morning, telling her to relax and smile. “Shouldn’t I be the one doing that?” Tanesha says. On offense, Boatright learned to accept his supporting role to Napier, the team’s top scorer. “Batman can’t function without Robin,” says Tanesha. “Even though Ryan’s not Batman, there are a thousand people in this world wishing they were Robin.” Boatright, who Tanesha says is on track to graduate, could still wind up leaving a year early for NBA riches. However, he’d probably benefit from a senior year of seasoning, out of Napier’s shadow.

But no matter what, Boatright conquered the early pressure, stayed in school longer than many pro prospects, and fought through setbacks and tragedy. If UConn’s upperclassman beat the hotshot frosh tonight, forgive this stupid spectator for giving a little cheer.

TIME NCAA Tournament

Moments of Madness: Weird Photos From the NCAA Tournament

College basketball's chaotic tournament produces some strange moments. These are 10 of the best

TIME March Madness

The Only Final Four Drinking Game You’ll Need Tonight

Patric Young
David J. Phillip—AP Florida center Patric Young dunks during practice for an NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball semifinal game, April 4, 2014, in Dallas.

It's a good time to be a sports fan as we prepare for today's big Final Four games: UConn vs. Florida and Wisconsin vs. Kentucky. To celebrate, TIME presents its inaugural Final Four drinking game. Enjoy, but don't forget to drink responsibly

Final Four parties are super fun. The games are played on a Saturday night, so unlike, say, parties for the Super Bowl, you don’t have to worry about work in the morning. And they’re also a celebration of something more: the best few weeks of the sports calendar. College hoops is about to crown a champ, baseball’s getting into the swing of things, the Masters is coming up, the NBA playoffs are approaching, the NFL Draft is in the foreseeable future. It’s a good time to be a sport fan, tax season be damned.

So, to help prep for today’s big games — Florida vs. UConn at 6:09pm EST, and Wisconsin vs. Kentucky at 8:49pm, both on TBS — and celebrate your good sports fortune, TIME presents its inaugural Final Four drinking game. Enjoy, but please do so responsibly. Obey all local drinking age laws, don’t overindulge and take a cab ride home if need be.

Here are TIME’s rules for a Final Four drinking game:

1. The first time Florida’s Michael Frazier makes a three-point shot, imbibe. It shouldn’t take that long: Frazier can catch fire quickly. Against South Carolina in early March, Frazier sank a school-record 11 three-pointers: this season, he led the SEC in three-point percentage field goal percentage, shooting at a 44.7% clip. He also led the SEC in an even more important stat, true-shooting percentage, at 65.1% (true-shooting percentage is an efficiency measure that takes into account three-point field goals, two-point field goals, and foul shots). Frazier models his work ethic after Ray Allen, the NBA’s all-time leader in three-pointers: on game days, he’ll launch upwards of 400 shots to get in rhythm.

2. Every time you hear the word “student-athlete” in an NCAA commercial during the games, drink. The NCAA has a habit of running propaganda ads during big events, touting how the organization is like a spirit squad for “student-athletes,” has the backs of “student-athletes,” etc. Drink now, cause that term may soon be disappearing. According to the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago, “employees” is the more appropriate name for college athletes — at least for football players at Northwestern.

3. Every time UConn star Shabazz Napier makes an outside shot with a defender harassing him — the kind of shot that makes you say “noooo, what are you doing?” – and that shot goes in anyway, chug away. Napier’s an expert at making the “holy s–t” shot.

4. Choose which mascot TBS will show first in each game. Pick one, and drink if you’re correct. I’ve got Albert E. Gator and Bucky Badger.

5. The first time an announcer mentions that UConn coach Kevin Ollie played for 11 different NBA teams during his 13-year career, start double fisting.

6. For CBS, the Final Four has traditionally served as one big promo for its upcoming coverage of the Masters, which starts next week, on April 10. So even though the games are being broadcast on TBS this year, the networks are partners on NCAA tournament coverage. You’ll surely hear the soothing Masters piano – “ding, ding, ding, ding,” — that accompanies the Masters plugs. So each time you hear the Masters theme song, dream of azaleas and Amen Corner and all the mythical beauty of the Augusta National, and take a few soft sips. You’ll have a healthy buzz.

7. Sip every time TBS shows Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan scowling on the sideline. Like this. Or this. Ryan’s always been a first-class all-tournament scowler.

8. Kentucky has reached the Final Four with five freshman starters. Michigan, led by Chris Webber and Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard, was the last team to win this much with five rookies, back in 1992. That Michigan team was christened “The Fab Five.” So during Kentucky-Wisconsin, the first time you hear a “Fab Five” reference from one of the announcers, you know what to do.

9. Ever since the NBA set a rule in 2005 essentially mandating that players spend a year playing college ball before entering the pros, Kentucky coach John Calipari has done a better job than any coach in the country of recruiting a collection of talented freshmen, molding them in to a championship-caliber team, and shuttling them to the NBA. So the term “one-and-done” is now stuck to Calipari’s suit. When the TV cameras show Calipari, and someone says the words “one-and-done,” you will drink.

10. Wisconsin’s most intriguing player is seven-footer Frank Kaminsky. His game, and personality, are a little quirky: Kaminsky can fool you with his awkwardness, as he’s just as comfortable firing threes as he is posting up around the basket. And he was always a bit of a class clown, earning the nickname “Frank the Tank” a decade ago, in homage to Will Ferrell’s character in the movie Old School. So when someone mentions “Frank the Tank” on Saturday, you may have to pull a Frank the Tank yourself.

But seriously, be careful. Don’t end the night like the original Frank the Tank did. Because on Final Four Saturday, you don’t want to miss the drama. If we’re lucky, Florida-UConn and Wisconsin-Kentucky will treat us to two classics. Let’s all raise our glasses to that.

TIME NCAA Tournament

The Final Four: 4 Predictions

Getty Images Scottie Wilbekin of the Florida Gators scores against the Dayton Flyers during the Elite 8

Since Obama bombed his bracket, see how the pro predictors are calling the shots

The final rounds of the Big Dance tip off Saturday in Dallas with Florida playing UConn at 6:09pm and Wisconsin taking on Kentucky at 8:49pm. Kentucky’s thrilling upset over Michigan makes the 8-seed one to watch. And while Florida has only lost two games this season, one of those losses was to the team it’s now up against. The other? To Wisconsin. See who the favorites are below.

FiveThirtyEight and Nate Silver
The lead data-cruncher has Florida favored over Connecticut and Wisconsin over Kentucky with Florida winning it all. Silver, who called the 2012 Presidential election correctly, also accurately predicted Louisville as last year’s tournament champ.

Sports Illustrated
The magazine’s new issue might be cursing Kentucky by putting the team on its cover. The issue puts Kentucky and Florida in the finals with the overall estimate that Billy Donovan will bring home his third ring for the Gators.

ESPN’s Top Bracket
ESPN’s current bracket leader mike_opheim24 (who has 10 different brackets) earned a perfect prediction score for the Elite Eight. For this weekend’s match up, he has Florida and Kentucky meeting on Monday ending with the Wildcats cutting down the net.

Warren Buffett Bracket
Though nobody won Warren Buffett’s billion-dollar bracket challenge, the top scorer thus far puts Florida and Kentucky in the finals game, predicting Florida will win 72-64.

TIME College Basketball

4 Things to Know About The Final Four

Andy Lyons—Reuters Marcus Lee of the Kentucky Wildcats shoots the ball against the Michigan Wolverines during the midwest regional final of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium on March 30, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana

The last chapters of the 2014 NCAA Tournament promise more madness than all of March after Kentucky's win over Michigan on Sunday night

It’s the homestretch of March Madness, with the Final Four finally set after Kentucky’s thrilling win over Michigan on Sunday night. The last rounds of the Big Dance start Saturday at AT&T Stadium—yes, the $1 billion spaceship Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones built that has no business hosting a basketball game, save for the gazillions in cash all those extra seats bring in.

When looking at the teams left standing, what first pops out is the seeding. A No. 1 seed (Florida) and a No. 2 seed (Wisconsin) made it out out of the South and West regions, respectively. But two lower-seeded teams made it to Texas, too: a seventh-seed out of the East, and a No. 8 seed out of the Midwest. But those two teams, UConn and Kentucky, aren’t exactly Cinderellas. Not when they’ve won two of the last three national championships (UConn took the title in 2011, and Kentucky won it all in 2012).

No Butlers, no VCUs, no George Masons, no Wichita States this season: In 2014, the Final Four belongs to basketball royalty. Except for Wisconsin, really. The Badgers last made the Final Four in 2000, and despite its 1941 national basketball championship, Wisconsin is still primarily known as a football school. But that can all change this year. The Badgers, who face Kentucky in one national semifinal game, are deep, fast, and for the first time in forever, actually kind of fun to watch. If we’re making predictions—and why not?—we see Wisconsin cutting down the nets next Monday night. As you prepare to make your own Final Four calls, here are four things worth considering.

Gators Chomping

Florida, which won back-t0-back national titles under coach Billy Donovan in 2006-2007, has won 30 straight games going into this year’s Final Four. That’s a remarkable streak, given that Florida doesn’t seem to have NBA-ready players like Joakim Noah, Al Horford, and Corey Brewer—standouts on those title teams—on this year’s roster. However, Florida plays an inside-out style that’s given teams fits all year. Inside, senior Patric Young, a 6’9″, 240 pound center, makes clever moves around the hoop with both hands. On defense, he finished third in the SEC in block percentage, and swatted away four shots against Dayton in Saturday’s regional final. Outside, senior Scottie Wilbekin was the SEC Player of the Year, and few players in college hoops are more creative off the dribble.

The last time Florida lost was on Dec. 2, to UConn, who the Gators will face in the other national semifinal.

The Shabazz Show

If there’s one team in the this year’s Final Four that represents that chaos of college sports, it’s UConn. The Huskies play in the American Athletic Conference, which in the first year of its existence is sending a team to the Final Four. Pretty heady stuff for a rookie league. The AAC was born after the basketball-centric schools from the old Big East, in which UConn used to play, decided to form their own conference, which is still called the Big East. The AAC has a football, and basketball, imprint that will weaken next year, when Louisville flees to the Atlantic Coast Conference, and Rutgers decamps to the Big Ten.

Whatever: What’s important here is that UConn beat Michigan St. at Madison Square Garden on Sunday in what was essentially a home game. For years, UConn fans flocked to New York to support the Huskies in the Big East tournament, and the UConn fans gave the building a similar electricity on Sunday. So a team no longer in the Big East is going to the Final Four, in part because it was playing in the friendly confines of its former conference.

UConn is also coming off of academic probation. The Huskies were ineligible for the 2013 tournament because of poor academic performance. Meanwhile, the University of Central Florida released a report last week, detailing the Graduation Success Rates (GSR) of the Sweet 16 hoops teams. UConn’s graduation rate: eight percent. So how in the world is a school with an eight percent graduation rate coming off of academic probation? Because the NCAA has designed another metric, the Academic Progress Rate (APR), which measures whether current students are remaining academically eligible. So while a past cohort of UConn students failed to graduate at alarming rates, the current UConn students are maintaining sufficient enough grades to compete, according to the NCAA. But are these UConn players actually going to graduate? Is the APR a true measure of academic achievement?

Such debates, often involving mind-numbing acronyms like APR and GSR and AAC, always lurk in the shadows of college sports. For Final Four purposes, however, just know this about UConn: The team’s leading scorer, Shabazz Napier, has an uncanny ability to make shots with defenders draped all over him. Back in 2011, another UConn scorer, Kemba Walker—who now plays for the Charlotte Bobcats—carried the Huskies to a championship. Napier, who was a freshman on that title-winning team, seems to be having his Kemba Walker moment. That’s pretty terrible news for Florida.

The One-and-Doners Do It Again

Kentucky starts five freshmen. Of the three players who came off the bench during the Wildcats’ thrilling 75-72 win over Michigan in the Midwest regional final, two were freshmen. The other was a sophomore. Kentucky coach John Calipari, as he seems to do every year, assembled what’s called one of the greatest recruiting classes in college basketball history. In 2012, led by future NBA standout Anthony Davis, the Wildcats won the whole thing. Then poof, everyone went pro. This crop of freshman didn’t gel during the regular season—thus, Kentucky’s 8-seed. But the Wildcats peaked when they had to. Now, Calipari can test his one-and-done formula at another Final Four. Calipari’s sales pitch is simple: Come to Kentucky for a year, play with some fellow future NBA players, maybe win some games, and, most importantly, move on to the pros as quickly as possible. Million-dollar contracts, not diplomas, dominate the discussion.

To many moralists, Calipari’s act is despicable. But all he’s done is play the system. The NBA set the age-limit rule, disallowing players to jump straight to the pros, like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant had done in the past. Calipari has a history of mass-producing NBA players, assembling like-minded stars for their temporary campus stay, and melding them into a competitive team. If you’re a Julius Randle, the NBA-bound Kentucky forward, why not spend your only college season at the Final Four? It’s the Calipari way. Coach K wins the gold medals. But his one-and-done star, Jabari Parker, won’t be in Dallas. Duke couldn’t hang with Mercer.

Badgers Have Bite

Kentucky won’t roll over Wisconsin. Under coach Bo Ryan, the Badgers have always had a reputation for being one of those tough, grind-it-out Big Ten teams that will always finish high in the polls. But they just aren’t dynamic enough to win the whole thing. In other words, they’re kinda boring. No more: Wisconsin is one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country, and the Badgers can pick up the pace. Against Kentucky, Wisconsin may try to slow things down a bit. Racing future first-round picks up and down the floor probably isn’t wise.

And if things go wrong for the Badgers, Ryan will scowl. You can do worse things on a Saturday night than watch Bo Ryan scowl.

This Final Four just has the right vibe. Now, let’s hope it lives up to expectations.

Another zany prediction: It will.


March Sanity: How to Build a Better NCAA Bracket

Big teams fall in the NCAA tournament almost every year and underdogs sometimes rise to the top. And many of us end up puzzling over a March Madness bracket, the one that some guy from IT is emailing everyone about. Faced with all those blank spaces where your projected winners should go, it can be enticing to take a chance and choose an upset the 15 seed over the 2 seed —especially if you’re guessing anyway. There’s got to be a chance right?

Tuns out, long-shot is an understatement. Picking a 15 seed or a 16 seed to win is so close to statistically impossible it’s practically out of bounds.

Pro tip: If you let math be your guide, you can significantly improve your bracketology odds. Here’s a method derived from averaging the number of teams from each seed that have advanced over the last 29 years, round by round.

Round of 64: Choose four #1 seeds, four#2 seeds, four#3 seeds, three #4 seeds, two #5 seeds, two #6 seeds, two #7 seeds, two #8 seeds, two #9 seeds, one #10 seed, one #11 seed, one #12 seed, and one #13 seed to advance. There are three picks left over for you to use at your discretion.

Round of 32: Choose four #1 seeds, three #2 seeds, two #3 seeds, two #4 seeds, one #5 seed, one #6 seed to advance. There are again three picks left over for you to use at your discretion.

Sweet 16: Choose three #1 seeds, two #2 seeds, one #3 seed to advance. There are two picks left over for you to use at your discretion.

Elite 8: Choose two #1 seeds, one #2 seed to advance. There is one pick left over to use at your discretion.

Final 4: Pick one #1 seed. There is one pick left over to use at your discretion.

Championship: There is one pick left over to use at your discretion. (Note: 62% of the ultimate winners have been #1 seeds).

Numbers from cbssports.com and bleacherreport.com

[Special thanks to Jim Sannes and Mark Moog for the assist.]

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