I’ve been doing bracket pools for as long as I can remember, because low-stakes gambling is the sacrament of Kentucky’s two official religions: College basketball and horse racing. Today, in an attempt to impart some of that wisdom upon you — and to prove that my brain hasn’t turned to mush from watching 15 games of the Big East tournament — I weigh in on the questions about this year’s Big Dance:

Q: Did the committee snub the Big East by putting South Florida in a play-in game and leaving Seton Hall out entirely?
A: No. Anyone who endured watching South Florida’s play in the Big East tournament knows that the Bulls aren’t ready for prime time. And while the system of automatic bids means power conference teams left out will always be better than some mid-majors that get in, Seton Hall had a losing season in the league and a weak nonconference schedule. The Pirates’ early Big East tourney exit sealed their fate after their upset win over Georgetown looked to have put them firmly in the tournament field.

Q: Why does Michigan State always peak in March?
A: Tom Izzo is a maestro at scheduling, putting in tough early season matchups that prepare his team for the Big Ten and then the Big Dance. In fact, his 2000 team lost seven games, including four in the nonconference schedule, before closing the deal in the Big Ten and taking a national title. With such a capable coach and one of the nation’s best players in senior forward Draymond Green, Sparty is probably the No.1 seed likeliest to make it to the Final Four.

Q: How do the Spartans’ Big Ten rivals stack up in the Dance?
A: While the Big Ten could very well have their best year in recent memory and send several schools to the Sweet 16, I’d bet against it. Ohio State is talented but erratic, and consistency is one of the most important factors in tournament play. Wisconsin doesn’t play enough offense to have a chance against the nation’s better teams. Michigan might be the surprise of the entire league, and it’s certainly possible that the Wolverines can go a long way. Indiana looked like a great wise-guy pick as recently as a few weeks ago, but the Hoosiers struggled away from Assembly Hall this year even before Verdell Jones III’s recent injury further dented their chances.

Q: How much does John Henson’s injury mean to North Carolina?
A: The difference between Chapel Hill and New Orleans on March 31. From painful experience, Georgetown fans know that wrist injuries can be devastating, reducing a player from a floor general to a wincing turnover machine. With Henson, the Tar Heels wouldn’t have lost to Florida State in the ACC championship game. Without him, they wouldn’t have beaten Duke in Durham. I’m putting a very big question mark around North Carolina in my bracket.

Q: Speaking of Florida State, what about the Seminoles and the rest of the ACC?
A: They’re dangerous, but so is the rest of the ACC. If everything goes according to plan, Florida State’s second-round showdown with Cincinnati will be an entertaining matchup, albeit maybe not be one the Seminoles can win. Because of a favorable draw, it’s not out of the question that North Carolina State would be in a position to shock Georgetown in the second round. And Virginia has been dangerous all season, but a season-ending injury to its starting center put a dent in its tournament hopes. But if we want to talk about undersold ACC teams, we have to mention Duke. The Blue Devils haven’t done much wrong, and have turned a corner of late. They have the talent and the experience to make it to New Orleans.

Q: Syracuse and Kentucky really haven’t done much wrong. What do their title chances look like?
A: Surprisingly bleak, at least from my angle. Fab Melo’s ineligibility means that the Orange are in a world of hurt, and certainly aren’t a lock to make it even to the Sweet 16. The Wildcats are in a better position, but their loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC championship raises questions about what will happen when they face good teams and come out somewhat flat-footed. The answer is debatable. And really, there’s no way the basketball gods will let these teams get to the Superdome, right?

Q: If those teams can’t win, who can? And who are the Cinderellas?
A: I’d put my money with Michigan State and Kansas. Both of these teams fit the classic championship profile and are playing well at the right time. They also benefit from favorable draws on the road to the Final Four. For dark horses, look to New Mexico, Gonzaga and San Diego State. And for the truly bold among us, there’s always that long shot that Vermont will knock off North Carolina.

If you are foolish enough to back that idea up with money — and even if you aren’t — your luck has probably run out by the time you read this. You do, after all, have a 1-in-100 million trillion chance of having a perfect bracket. But there’s always next year. Until then, enjoy the madness.

Evan Hollander is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service and a Deputy Sports Editor of The Hoya. TOP OF THE KEY appears every Friday.

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