NCAA tournament brackets are like opinions…

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Darren Hellwege, Sports Commentator

Most columnists will be sharing with you about now their brackets, showing which teams they’re picking to win the games in the NCAA tournament. And while I filled one out for giggles, and will give you a few upset picks, I’m not posting mine for a couple of reasons.

First, I am doing TWO brackets, because there are two tournaments. One of the things about which I am most proud is that after I, and I’m sure many others, complained when President Obama did a bracket only for the men’s tourney his first year in office, he’s done both tournaments since. And, given the strength of both the Big 12 and SEC in this great sport, women’s basketball shouldn’t be ignored. Like me, Obama has daughters that play sports and like me, he should use his love of them and pride that they have this opportunity to recognize the value of women’s athletics. Plus, there will be some great, great games in this tournament and the women’s Final Four I covered in St. Louis a few years back is one of the best events I’ve ever been part of.

The other reason is this—I will do a bracket for fun, but will not take part in any pools or betting. In trying to promote a football playoff, we heard it said that the NCAA basketball tourney is the best event in all of sports. It’s not. It’s a great event, I’m very much looking forward to it, but there’s a reason everyone’s talking about, and the TV ratings will be through the roof, and it’s not about whether or not people genuinely care if Virginia is better than Florida…this is about gambling. People fill out brackets by the millions for gambling, and it’s a serious concern.

First, because we’ve seen the incredibly destructive influence gambling can have on the sports. From point-shaving scandals to Pete Rose, any time gambling touches sports very bad things happen. One of the reasons we love watching a ball game is that we know upsets happen, we know teams are fighting for something they both want, and gambling’s influence can destroy that credibility. Allowing players to shave points and looking the other way as gambling influences these sports will turn them into professional wrestling, a pretend, scripted performance meant to look a little like an athletic event. Anyone who loves sports should fear the influence of gambling above all other negatives that could infest our games.

And that doesn’t begin to touch the personal destruction gambling causes within families. It’s an addictive behavior, and there are countless instances of money needed for rent and feeding kids and things like that going instead to lotto tickets or poker games. My concern about this is the reason I’ve established a long-standing rule for KBIA Sports—we don’t do point spreads. I find it deeply troubling that the sports media promotes gambling so blatantly. Can you imagine if a rock station promoted drug use the way sports talk radio promotes gambling?

“There’s a guy down at Bingnoodle Park selling grass at pretty good prices, but the quality’s not so hot. Meanwhile, the guys in the alley behind the bar downtown charge more, but it’s worth the extra cost and they have some excellent cocaine, as well.”

A guy doing this on the radio would be arrested before the next commercial break. Yet listen to sports talk radio in a major market on Sunday morning during NFL season and you’ll often hear entire hours dedicated to promoting gambling “services” in which you pay some “expert” 50 bucks to tell you whether to bet on the Titans or the Seahawks. It’s crazy.

So, let’s love this tournament because there will be some great basketball played, because there’ll be some upsets that make college sports such fun, and just because we love sports. And let that be it. I doubt I’ll make an influence on any other media outlet. But as for me and my house, we aren’t promoting gambling and sports. When I say “this is for amusement only,” it’s not a sarcastic joke before I go turn in my bracket and my 20 bucks. I really mean it, and I’d encourage you to think twice before you dive into the pool. Ask an Auburn basketball fan if gambling on sports is a harmless lark.

As for my crazy upsets, let’s start with the East, and it’s not the one you think. Yes, last year’s Cinderella pick VCU is back, but Wichita State’s been a very strong if under-appreciated team all season and they’ll make short work of Shaka Smart’s bunch. No, it’s on the other side. New Mexico State, a 13-seed, combines strong inside play by Hamidu Rahman with dangerous 3-point shooting. Indiana’s been hot and cold this season, mostly cold of late. They weren’t impressive in losing to Wisconsin in the Big Ten. Besides, if you think Hamidu Rahman is a great name (and it is) you’ll LOVE the Aggies, with roster full of players from outside the U.S., they’re an announcer’s nightmare. My favorite name is starting guard Hernst Laroche. Just say it a few times. Hernst Laroche. Fun, isn’t it? This tournament needs Hernst Laroche into the second round.

On the other side, it’s a mild upset but I’m ready to give up (somewhat) on my Scott Drew bashing and pick a Baylor team that impressed me greatly in Kansas City to knock off Duke in the third round. I’m not ready yet to pick them to beat Kentucky, but…I sure hope for Mizzou’s sake someone does.

In the West we find my very best upset pick, the one I’m telling my close friends. There is a 12-seed in this bracket headed to the Sweet Sixteen in Long Beach State. They’ve played great all year and while some may see eight losses and Big West Conference, many of those losses came to such teams as North Carolina, Creighton, Louisville, and even Kansas. With an RPI of 36 they’re badly under-seeded, and I like them to beat two ranked teams in New Mexico and Louisville. My other upset here is one you’ll love—no matter who comes out of the top, probably Michigan State, I’m picking Missouri to win the West.

In the East, I’m having a hard time deciding between Wisconsin and Vanderbilt, I go back and forth from one day to the next, but I know one think — whichever team it is, they’re taking down Syracuse. I have less faith in the Orange than any other 1-seed. Take the Commodores into the Elite Eight, and…what the heck. Into the Final Four, you gotta have one upset pick, one team not a 1- or 2-seed, and Vandy’s as good a pick as any.

In the Midwest, I want like heck to take Creighton over North Carolina, but that’s too much of a flyer even for me. I do think we may get another 12-5 upset here, Cal impresses me lately. The bottom should go as seeded, and in the final, in a matchup the TV guys have to be drooling over, Roy Williams loses to his alma mater as (sorry, Tiger fans) Kansas beats UNC and makes another Final Four.

So, in my Final Four, we have Kentucky, Missouri, Vanderbilt, and Kansas. My championship? 
None of you know where I live, right? Where I park my car on campus??

Kansas beats Kentucky. Yeah, seriously. I think talent-wise Kansas is one of the few that match up with UK, behind them but only a little. I think experience and coaching wins it for the Jayhawks. Given the number of brackets I’ve seen filled out in Columbia that have Detroit beating the Jayhawks, there’ll be few who agree with me. Oh, well.

On the women’s side, I like Baylor, St. Johns, Notre Dame and Kentucky into the Final Four. Kentucky pulls a couple of upsets to get to the championship game, but there is nobody in women’s college basketball that I think will so much as give a serious challenge to Baylor, Brittney Griner will cut down the nets in Denver.

Oh, you wanted a good upset pick there for your bracket? In the Kingston bracket (we’re playing in Jamaica?) is a 6-11 matchup where I like Gonzaga over Rutgers. Rutgers used to be a championship contender but they’ve fallen off a lot and I think their name still has pull, so this will look like a bigger upset than it really is.

KBIA Sports will be at NCAA tournament play with the Tigers (if they get knocked out, can I go to Kingston?) so follow the Tigers all the way to New Orleans with us!

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