By now you've been studying the brackets for days. Perhaps more importantly, you've been fielding calls in hushed tones and "Alt-Tabbing" between instant-message screens and dummy spreadsheets (psst -- your boss is doing it, too), all about your NCAA Tournament picks.
Why would you approach this process with anything less than the most current conventional wisdom? Check out the list below for who and what is hot (and not), from cheerleaders to Cinderellas, from players to watch to coaches to avoid.
Your ability to be out front on this will cement your celebrity status within the office, at the bar and on dates for the rest of the tournament.
|WHAT'S HOT, WHAT'S NOT: THE 2006 NCAA TOURNAMENT|
|Fan||Ashley Judd After winning this title for the umpteenth year, Judd is the Wooden-Era UCLA of hot fans. Too bad her Kentucky Wildcats will be making such a brief appearance.||A-Rod Did you catch the Yankees' Most Valuable Front-Runner sitting courtside at Duke last month? Maybe after he leads Team USA to World Baseball Classic failure, he'll have time to root on his Dukies.|
|Bandwagon Final Four pick||Gonzaga In three regions, the overwhelming favorite is the No. 1 seed. Only out West is there some uncertainty. The Zags are currently the "National Bracket" favorite to go from Oakland to the Final Four.||Memphis Why doesn't Memphis get any respect? Is it its tournament inexperience? Is it because the Tigers play in Conference USA? Or is it just because fans don't particularly like coach John Calipari?|
|Sleeper||Michigan State Fans have finally learned that Tom Izzo is a sick tournament coach. MSU faces a shorthanded George Mason, would face an inexperienced UNC, then an overrated Tennessee and, finally, a tough UConn team against which they'll be one of the few teams to have no fear.||West Virginia The worst thing you want to do is jump on a tournament bandwagon one year too late. And if you didn't pick WVA last season, you might not want to start now. First-round foe Southern Illinois is precisely the tough, defensive-minded team that can give the 3-happy 'Eers fits.|
|Directional school||South Alabama "USA" has one key factor going for it when the Jaguars face No. 3 Florida: Coach John Pelphrey was an assistant under Billy Donovan at UF before taking over in Mobile. Familiarity breeds ?||Northern Iowa Earlier this season, they were the King of Mid-Majors; after stumbling through the end of the season, they face a Georgetown team that matches UNI's disciplined offense but super-sizes its talent.|
|Cheerleaders||Pacific I mean, the Tigers just HAVE to be, right?||Crazy stunts Did you see what happened to that So. Illinois cheerleader? The American Association of Cheerleading Coaches has banned the type of stunts that led to that accident.|
|Premature MOP favorite||Allan Ray The set-up is there: After suffering a gruesome eye injury in Nova's Big East tournament loss to Pitt, Ray is poised to lead Nova to a title.||Gerry McNamara If that guy didn't use up all of his "hero" karma during the Big East tournament, I'm not sure of anything.|
|Would-be Cinderella||Xavier On its face, a first-round pairing with Gonzaga looks nasty. But No. 14 Xavier has pulled tourney miracles before, and they'd face Indiana or San Diego State in the second round. Hardly brutal.||UAB I was all set to pick UAB for the Sweet 16 (or even further). But after a first-round game against Kentucky, the Blazers would draw UConn -- the consensus favorite to win it all and a team with the speed to match UAB, plus size, too.||Coach||Bruce Pearl Literally. Have you seen the Tennessee coach after a few minutes of action? He sweats through his Vols orange game suit like he jumped in a swimming pool. But he got UW-Milwaukee to the Sweet 16 last year and, in his first season, led UT to a 2-seed.||Coach K assistants David Henderson just got the boot from Delaware. Quin Snyder was bounced from Missouri earlier this season. Mike Brey didn't even make the tournament. Where are the disciples?|
|Really-needs-a-win coach||Billy Donovan The Gators' trip to the title game in 2000 seems like a long time ago. Since then, there have been way too many uninspired early-round flameouts.||Thad Matta Whether the Buckeyes lose a shocker to No. 15 Davidson on Friday or go all the way to the Final Four, Matta will be judged not by this season, but by what he does next season when the heralded "Thad Five" show up on campus.|
|"He's due" coach||Al Skinner One of the most respected coaches in all of college basketball, Skinner has created a feisty team with defensive demons and an efficient offense that is many fans' Final Four sleeper.||Roy Williams Everything this season has been a bonus. After last season's title (and with sick recruits coming in next year), if he goes out in the first weekend, no one will really be complaining.|
|Hoops hotbed||D.C. area Maryland notwithstanding, the nation's capital managed to secure three bids: Georgetown, George Washington and George Mason. Anyone else see a theme?||Missouri The "University of" went through a humiliating year that saw its coach get fired; Missouri State entered NCAA Tournament history as the highest-ranked team in the RPI to not get an NCAA invite.|
|Nickname||Great Danes Albany is making its very first NCAA Tournament appearance. A date with UConn might make for a quick out, but at least the Danes win the award for best nickname in the field!||Braves Bradley was caught up in the NCAA's crackdown last year over potentially offensive team nicknames. Alliteration is cool; denigrating Native American culture is not.|
|Power conference||Big East Landed a record eight teams in the tournament field. The league has a good chance of putting two in the Final Four (UConn, Nova), and another three in the Elite Eight (WVA, Pitt, G'town).||Missouri Valley Only four bids? Only four?! What an underachiever. Obviously, I'm being sarcastic. This was a breakthrough year for the MVC. Warning shot to "big" conferences that only landed four.|
|Carry-the-team position||"Scorer" From Duke's J.J. Redick to Gonzaga's Adam Morrison to UCLA's Aaron Afflalo, having a position matters less than being your team's go-to guy for points.||Freshman point guard Raise your hand if you think that if Duke does not win the national title, it will be because freshman Greg Paulus did something wrong?|
|First-round Upset Special||San Diego State over Indiana Mike Davis' career at Indiana is over. It's just a question of when. The Aztecs have been a wee bit too mouthy this week, but there's nothing like the classic IU tournament fold.||No. 12 over No. 5 The classic NCAA Tournament upset seems in jeopardy this week, with a sizzling Syracuse taking on Texas A&M, a rugged Pitt against Kent State, an underrated Washington vs. Utah State, and an unknown Montana against breakthrough mid-major Nevada.|
|Sub-regional||Jacksonville Uncertainty rules in North Florida. JAX hosts a 5-12 (Cuse/TXAM), a 4-13 (Iona/LSU), a 3-14 (FLA/S.Bama) and a 6-11 (Okla/UW-Milw). Of any regional, this one could be 4-for-4 on upsets.||Philadelphia Sure, it would be fun to see top seeds like UConn and Villanova, but their games are sure to be blowouts. And the other two games are 8-9 games, unpredictable but ultimately inconsequential.|
|NBA stock||Nick Fazekas Nevada's leading guy can emerge as a lottery pick if he can carry his team to the Sweet 16, which would probably include an upset over Craig Smith and BC.||Rudy Gay Too many fans have found him too inconsistent to rally behind. If UConn is to make the title run that everyone is predicting, he's going to have to go off; if the team is derailed along the way, you can bet your box score he had a soft game.|
|Sound smarter at the water cooler||"Bracket of integrity" Do you enter multiple brackets in multiple pools with multiple pick choices, or do you have one bracket that you enter in many pools, and are willing to ride to glory (or failure)?||"Um, I like Duke vs. UConn" Come on: Give yourself a break and take at least one team in the finals that is even remotely unexpected.|
|Historical perspective||Louisville's 1986 miracle Twenty years ago, no one gave Louisville a chance against juggernaut Duke. Then "Never Nervous" Pervis had his One Shining Moment. Let's keep that spirit in mind.||Kentucky's 1996 title Hope that 10-year anniversary keeps Wildcat fans comfy after UAB runs them out of the gym on Friday.|
|"OH-ver-RAY-ted!"||Tennessee as a No. 2 Perhaps inflated by their success relative to previous years, the Vols are by far the weakest No. 2 seed. They have very little size, though they're speedy.||UCLA as a No. 2 Won the Pac-10 regular-season title, then followed it up with a Pac-10 tourney title. Features the best backcourt in college hoops, anything-but-West-Coast-soft defense and a coach (Ben Howland) with solid tournament experience.|
|Will kill your pool sheet||Blowing the Memphis pick If Memphis exceeds expectations and goes to the Final Four, the fans who picked them to get there will rack up serious points, while those of us who pick them to bow out early can only watch helplessly.||Relying on the "National Bracket" Last year, the aggregate picks of everyone in ESPN.com's Tournament Challenge outperformed 90 percent of individual entries. By following this, you'll do a lot better than everyone else in your office -- but you won't win.|
|"One Shining Moment" cover-band wish||John Legend Believe it or not, I actually picked him as my "Hot" O.S.M. cover-band wish last year. That was before all the Grammys. He's even more worthy now.||Three-6 Mafia Not that I'm not down with "It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp," but it just doesn't set the right mood for the NCAA title game. ... Maybe for recruiting season, though.|
|Champ||UConn The Huskies have size, speed, depth, great point guard play, spectacular shooters, a budding (if reluctant) superstar and a coach who knows how to win in the tournament. What they don't do is blow out teams, which -- like in 2005 -- would be their undoing.||Duke Does J.J. Redick look tired to you? Do the freshmen look a little edgy? Does the lack of depth scare you? How about Coach K's penchant for an even shorter bench as the tourney goes on? Finally, no coach owns Coach K. Except UConn's Jim Calhoun.|
Dan Shanoff is a columnist for Page 2. His "Daily Quickie" commentary appears every weekday morning.