March is the maddest month

Danny Manning, Jim Valvano and Gordon Hayward all gave us great NCAA tournament underdog moments. Who will deliver those moments this year? USA Today Sports, USA Today Sports, Getty Images

Meet Fred. He is about to win this year's ESPN Men's Tournament Challenge, beating about 7.15 million other brackets.

When asked how in the name of John Wooden he picked 20-loss Liberty to be the first No. 16 seed ever to upset a No.1 seed -- Duke! -- Fred will say, "John who?"

Then he'll explain: "I remembered the old line, 'Give me liberty or give me death,' so I said, 'Give me Liberty!' You know, the George Washington line."

Patrick Henry.

"Whatever," Fred will say. "Look, I just got lucky with most of my picks. I didn't watch a single college basketball game this season until March Madness started."

Meet Irene. She is about to win an office pool with more than 500 entries. When asked how she knew No. 12 seed Belmont would become America's darlings by making a Cinderella run to the Final Four, Irene will say: "I've always loved horse racing and Belmont is the longest, hardest leg of the Triple Crown."

Welcome back to Madness. Absolute, divine Madness. March Madness. Or Badness.

Prediction 1: The worst men's college basketball season I can remember is about to launch the greatest NCAA tournament yet, with buzzer-beating elation and deflation exploding all over your bracket next Thursday and Friday.

Prediction 2: Especially this year, the more you know about college basketball, the worse you'll do in your pool.

Experts will be out-picked by dogs, cats and monkeys. By little old ladies picking mascots, colors and schools they know only because a cousin once had a friend who went there. By office workers who wouldn't know a Zag from a Zagnut candy bar.

This will happen more than ever this year because nobody's very good. And nobody watching will care.

More than ever, college basketball has become overcoached, under-reffed, evenly matched mediocrity with perfectly flawed rules and tournament format. Throw an overrated high seed with a panicky coach against an unknown, underrated low seed at some strange site with a strange shooting background at a strange first-round tipoff time with strange refs for a mere 40-minute game allowing only five fouls and featuring a 3-point line three feet shorter than the NBA's … you bet, you, Fred and Irene have just as good a chance picking the winner as Dickie V or Jay Bilas. Maybe better.

March Madness is really just the world's longest, wildest roller-coaster ride -- cheap thrills and spills. The tournament has such a highly publicized history of oh-my-god finishes and buzzer-beaters, from Lorenzo Charles to Keith Smart to Christian Laettner to Bryce Drew's No. 13 seed Valparaiso shocking No. 4 seed Ole Miss on his running 23-foot walk-off jumper, that today's players have grown up believing they too should hit last-second shots. Yes, the hoop gods will guide home your desperate heave, young man. It's self-fulfilling prophecy.

So yes, I trust some kid playing for LIU Brooklyn or Florida Gulf Coast to drop a walk-off bomb more than I do, say, three-time NBA MVP LeBron James.

Just watch. I know you will.

Let's be honest: Much of the interest in the NCAA tourney is driven by America's annual pool party. Who doesn't enter an office pool and/or online contest? Who doesn't have a chance to win? Who cares that office pools are technically illegal -- unlicensed sports betting carrying a misdemeanor charge and up to one year in prison?

Nobody cares.

The FBI has better things to do than bust pools that build some of America's best intra-office camaraderie. Irene beat out two guys who played college basketball?!

Nobody cares that Gonzaga rose from No. 21 in the AP preseason ranking to No. 1 at regular season's end. Or that no player made a sensational case for player of the year. Or that, as Indiana teammates Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller vied for the honor, the Hoosiers lost their final home game -- Senior Night! -- by nine to Ohio State.

Nobody cares that no college player looks like a surefire NBA All-Star. Or that UCLA, which had the No. 1 recruiting class, has only the No. 28 RPI (though freshman Shabazz Muhammad is finally starting to flash NBA talent). Or that Kentucky, which had the second-best recruiting class, has fallen to 50th in RPI and is in danger of missing the tournament now that NBA-grade shot-blocker Nerlens Noel has been lost with a torn left ACL.

In fact, this year's office pool should be far less predictable and even more exciting without last year's prohibitive favorite Kentucky, which saw freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist go 1-2 in the NBA draft.

For sure nobody cares I've slowly but surely become more of a fan of the NBA than college basketball -- which was all I was for a long time. The first college game I watched on TV was the awesome sight of 7-foot-1 Wilt Chamberlain in the 1957 championship game -- losing in triple overtime to North Carolina! The first championship game I covered, in '79 in Salt Lake City, lifted the Final Four into Big Event status: Magic vs. Bird! I was there when a Carolina freshman named Michael Jordan beat Patrick Ewing's Georgetown … when Jim Valvano's NC State shocked Houston's Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler and Phi Slama Jama … when Villanova stunned Ewing's Georgetown … when Danny (Manning) and the Miracles, a No. 6 seed, upset Oklahoma.

Those were the nights, studded with stars bound for the NBA's Hall of Fame. At first it was Goliath vs. Goliath. Then David started beating Goliath. Now this year we could see another David vs. David, such as 2011's final pitting Connecticut (a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament but merely a No. 9 seed in the Big East tournament) versus Butler, a mid-major. Final score UConn, 53-41. Butler: 18.8 percent from the floor. Only one player from that game is starting in the NBA: Kemba Walker -- for Charlotte, the NBA's worst team.

The Final Four as NBA showcase began to fade in 1995 when Kevin Garnett skipped college. Soon, Kobe and LeBron did, too. In 2005, the NBA got away with forcing obvious future NBA stars to play at least one year of college basketball -- one-and-dones. Which, naturally, raised suspicions about one-year deals to play college ball.

Which is why many anti-NBA college fanatics I know or hear from via Twitter would just as soon have the best players leave college basketball alone and go straight to the pros. Give them J.J. Redick battling Adam Morrison for player of the year in 2006, Tyler Hansbrough dominating college basketball in '08 and '09, and Jimmer Fredette becoming the (Smiling) Face of College Basketball in '11. Never mind that none of those college idols went on to start, let alone star, in the NBA.

Just give college fans their brackets, their upsets, their "One Shining Moment."

They don't care that college basketball belongs more to egomaniacal coaches, kings of their college-town kingdoms, and that the NBA is more of a players' game. Or that ESPN's Bilas has been complaining that college ball has become a nearly unwatchable wrestling match of uncalled holding. Or that the NBA's playoff format -- best of seven, 48 minutes per game with six fouls and a 3-point line 23 feet, 9 inches from the basket, a man's distance -- is the far more conclusive method of identifying the better team.

I shudder every March when I absently flip from a routine NBA game to a March Madness barn burner. The drop-off in skill, strength and athleticism is stunning. Yet I must admit I rarely flip back to the NBA game.

Every year I rail on "First Take" about how the NCAA gets away with awarding automatic bids to the winners of conference tournaments designed mostly to generate revenue. Hence, Liberty finished 6-10 in the (Not So) Big South, got hot, won its tournament and stole an NCAA bid from a far more deserving at-large "bubble" team from a power conference. But who really cares?

This year's Madness will be madder than ever, for all the wrong reasons. And yes, I will be watching like crazy.