Filling out an NCAA tournament bracket is tougher this year, and it has nothing to do with the caliber of competition.
It's the bracket itself that is more maddening.
Instead of a single "play-in" game that most pool managers ignored, this year's tournament features the debut of an "opening round" of four midweek matchups. That left bracket meisters around the country to decide whether to ask their buddies to pick all 67 games by tipoff Tuesday evening, or to give them until the usual time on Thursday at the risk of skipping an entire layer of games that could produce the tournament's first upsets.
The purist might say "Pick 'em all."
But the realists seem to be winning this debate.
It looks like the the majority of contests are sticking with the old way of doing things. From ESPN.com and its pool that drew 5.4 million entries last year to Mark Fehrman of Wausau, Wis., and his pool of about 80 entries, the reasoning was the same: People already were pushing the Thursday deadline, so it just didn't make any sense to ask them to pick four more games in two less days.
"I thought about it all weekend," said Fehrman, a paper broker who is in his 12th year of running his pool. "I considered offering an incentive, maybe an extra point if they got their bracket in on time and got it right. But knowing the group, everyone is going to drag their feet. If there was a deadline of Tuesday, a lot of people might not enter."
Jason Waram, vice president of fantasy games and social media for ESPN.com, said his staff began kicking around this dilemma last summer, shortly after the NCAA decided to expand the field from 65 teams to 68. They also polled some contestants to see what they thought. After what he called "definitely a spirited debate," the status quo won out.
"First and foremost, it was about getting the most people inside and letting them have a chance," Waram said. "We all know that the more people in this, the more fun it is."
The same was true at Yahoo, which had another thing to consider — its $1 million bonus for accurately picking every game.
Considering that no entry has come closer than 56 of 63, there wasn't much of a push to make the challenge any more difficult, said Edwin Pankau, Yahoo's senior product manager for fantasy sports.
"I read somewhere that getting perfect with 63 is about as likely as winning the Powerball twice in a row," he said. "Getting perfect with 67 is probably up to 10 times in a row."
In addition to their nationwide contests, ESPN.com and Yahoo also host pools for people who put together a contest among family, friends and co-workers. This year, those pools are limited to the usual 63 games. Waram and Pankau said there may be an option for those smaller pools to switch to a 67-game format next year.
In a sampling of more than a dozen pools Monday by The Associated Press, one of the few that bumped up its deadline was in the clubhouse of the Houston Astros.
Third baseman Chris Johnson said he and his teammates were scrambling to get their ballots turned in, but they also had extra motivation about this year's tournament. The Final Four and the championship game are in Houston.
"I gotta get home and do some serious research," Johnson said. "But I've got Duke winning it all."
The new tournament format caught plenty of fans and pool organizers by surprise.
Since the old play-in game was for a No. 16 seed and the dubious honor of being first-round fodder for the No. 1 overall seed, it was widely assumed the "First Four" games would serve up the fresh meat for all four No. 1 seeds.
It wasn't until the new-look bracket came out Sunday that the masses realized how different things are.
Only two of the games will decide No. 16 seeds. The others will decide the No. 11 seed in the Southwest and the No. 12 seed in the East. There are some pretty familiar teams in that mix, too — Clemson vs. Alabama-Birmingham for No. 12 on Tuesday night, and Southern Cal vs. Virginia Commonwealth for No. 11 on Wednesday night.
So instead of pushing up the ballot deadline, there could be incentive to wait even longer to see which teams snag those 11th and 12th spots, especially since teams in those seeds have a pretty good track record of pulling off upsets.
"A lot of the things that we used to do for March Madness, we've had to change a little bit," said Bob Scucci, race and sports book director for Boyd Gaming in Las Vegas.
The point spread might be different depending on whether Clemson or UAB plays West Virginia, and whether USC or VCU Georgetown. So Scucci doesn't want people filling out entire brackets. He wants them to wait until the actual matchups are set, and that will happen soon enough.
No matter how much confusion the new format causes, just remember that it could've been worse.
The NCAA had been considering a tournament with 96 teams.
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