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Picking NCAA tournament winners is a delicate balance of luck, preparedness

Published: Tuesday, March 19, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, March 19, 2013 1:15 p.m. CDT
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(Sarah Nader – snader@shawmedia.com)
Brett Slapke of McHenry uses the newspaper, Internet, trends and statistics to fill out multiple college basketball brackets. Slapke has been filling out brackets since he was a kid. This year his favorites are Georgetown and Indiana.

For Brett Slapke – and for many – March isn’t a bad time to be alive.

His birthday lands in the middle of the month. St. Patrick’s Day isn’t long after. The weather – usually – starts to turn around. And, probably most importantly, the NCAA basketball season culminates in a three-week frenzy of Cinderella stories and busted brackets, 20-year-olds deciding the wagers, work output and general happiness of those two or three times older.

It is March Madness. And it is here.

“I’ve been a sports fan my whole life,” said Slapke, 34, of McHenry. “March Madness has always been my favorite time of the year.”

Basketball heads and novices alike get a taste of the tournament tonight, as four teams compete in play-in games to make the final 64-team bracket. The same setup happens Wednesday.

On Thursday, Valparaiso and Michigan State kick off 12 straight hours of basketball at 11:15 a.m. There’s another 12 hours Friday. The weekend is packed, too.

“I think people love the excitement of the underdog story,” Slapke said. “Either they’re rooting for their team, or if they’re not following a team, they’re rooting for the underdog.”

Slapke said he gets into a bracket pool each year with some of his college buddies, and joins whatever else he comes across.

There’s plenty of luck involved in making picks, he said, but he’s had some success with a few strategies he’s developed through the years.

Slapke usually will pick at least one 12 seed over a 5 seed – a decision many who fill out a bracket follow. Less popular is choosing a 13 seed over a 4 seed, despite the fact the underdog has gotten the better of that matchup at least once in five consecutive years.

No 16 seed has ever beaten a 1 seed, but all four 1 seeds have made it to the Final Four only once, in 2008.

Slapke pays attention to who’s hot going into the tournament and who was slighted by the selection committee, receiving a higher seed than deserved.

He also has the advantage of staying unbiased because his alma mater, Northern Illinois University, rarely makes the field.

That’s not something McHenry County College math specialist Bob Reass has been able to do.

“I’m a Notre Dame fan, so my heart plays a part in that, too,” Reass said.

Reass, who deals with statistics, said you could go through and assign probability to each team if you wanted, but he’s never made that effort. Judging by the number of upsets, that’s probably a good decision.

Last year, two 15 seeds beat 2 seeds in the first round. Eight teams seeded five or higher have made the Final Four since 2000.

Picking the games can be a crapshoot. Less up-in-the-air is the effect that all the bracket watching has on the workplace.

Denise Benages, president of HR Midwest, said 8.4 million work hours were spent watching the games in 2011, costing employers $175 million in lost productivity during the first two days of the tournament.

So how do companies combat the falling productivity that can accompany March Madness while keeping employees happy? Embrace it.

“You know you’re going to have the people who are into it, you can’t avoid it,” Benages said. “But what you want to do is prevent the people who aren’t into it from resenting the people who are.”

Benages, who runs the HR blog dontbitetheapple.net, recommends having contests within the office to get everyone – not just the basketball fans – excited for the games.

She also says employers should keep a bracket posted with up-to-date results, and stream games in the break room.

“People will be less apt to sneak if they feel you’re giving it to them,” she said.

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