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Net lets novice dive into the NCAA pool

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Even if you don’t know a Billiken from a Bearcat and your best guess is that St. Bonaventure is the guy you pray to in hopes of having a nice trip, you still have a decent shot at winning the office March Madness pool. All you need is an Internet connection, an hour or so for research and a bit of luck to record your own “double-double” by bagging both the cash and bragging rights over the maniac in the Duke sweatshirt in the next cubicle.

INTEREST IN THE 64-team college basketball playoff isn’t limited to office pools, but interest in the sport soars at this time of year in large part because of such workplace wagers — never mind that they are illegal and on rare occasions subject to raids by the vice squad.

Operators of sports-betting franchises in Nevada and in cyberspace say the new interest is reflected in wagering on the tournament, which generates much more betting than the Super Bowl in large part because it lasts for three weeks.

“Outside of a major soccer tournament like the World Cup, March Madness is our busiest time,” Simon Noble, executive director of the Antigua-based Intertops sportsbook. “Last year we had close to 240,000 individual bets and we’re hoping for 350,000 to 400,000 (at an average of $38 each) this year.”

While once-a-year players are at a disadvantage against season-long fans in office pools, the power of the Internet gives them a chance to narrow the gap to the point where it is very surmountable.

MSNBC’s report on the NCAA Tournament is a great starting point for your exploration, beginning with a printable bracket on which you will record your selections. Before departing, be sure to check out the latest news on both the men’s and women’s tourneys, an inside look at the men’s matchups by MSNBC contributor Anthony L. Gargano, as well as a full array of reporting from around the country in the college basketball section.

Other Net sports sites also have special sections devoted to the championship, naturally. The news on the various sites is very similar, so you’ll want to hone in on the analysis, which isn’t always easy to find.

Among other good special sections:

CNN/SI is good for the give-it-to-me-quick surfer, featuring easy-to-find selections by five experts and Sports Illustrated’s game-by-game breakdowns and predictions.

ESPN has all the coverage you’d expect, but this crowded site doesn’t make it easy for the once-a-year fan to find the big-picture analysis he or she craves.

Fox Sports reduced its who’s-going-to-beat- whom take to the most simple level possible - a filled-in bracket sheet.

USA Today has done a rather perfunctory job on its Big Dance section, with lots of confusing in-text links links to an array of stories but not much in the way of analysis, unless you’re a big fan of cliché-meister Dick Vitale.

CBS SportsLine features analysis by staff writer Rob Miech, but the handy bracket that shows his game by game selections is unreadable on-screen and has to be printed out unless you want to lay on your desk while repeatedly scrolling up and down.

If you’re looking for a path not quite so well-traveled and bells and whistles are your thing, check out, which features written analysis accompanied by animated diagrams showing individual teams’ favorite plays.

Several of the aforementioned sites also are running contests with prizes for top selectors, so you may be able to parlay the knowledge you are rapidly gaining into a more concrete reward than co-workers’ kudos. Several are even offering a $10 million windfall to any fan able to correctly pick the results of each of the 63 games to be played through April 3, an achievement that would defy astronomical odds.

While the above sites provide much of the basic information you’ll need to excel, I found the March Madness Web sites run by fans and statistics buffs easier to navigate and digest than their professionally produced counterparts.

A good first stop is Kent Gilley’s Tourney 2000. This well-designed page doesn’t actually give you any picks, but it contains a great page of links to other tournament-related sites and gives a rundown on every online pool or contest that its owner has been able to find out about.

It also will include fan-written analysis of games once the action gets under way.

For the home-grown analysis you crave, turn to Ryan McGhee’s March Mania 2000, which features a no-nonsense game-by-game forecast along with the author’s pithy comments. Also noteworthy is the look at the history of Cinderella teams (small schools that outperform their expectations) and a list of possible live longshots for this year.

One excellent site that doesn’t really fall into the amateur category is BSASports, a basketball-focused site featuring the opinions of its publisher, Brian Stinnette, who isn’t shy about forecasting an early tournament exit for Duke, the top seed in the East. Only time will tell, but Stinnette writes like he knows his hoops.

A number of sites take a statistical approach to the tournament, forgoing individual matchups and emotional considerations in favor of the comfort of cold, hard figures.

Two of the best presentations I found were Massey’s college basketball ratings and’s power ratings, which factor 45 separate categories to arrive at a single-digit ranking.

Finally, remember not to get so wrapped up in forecasting this year’s champion that you fail to enjoy the process of arriving at your selections.

A great way to do that is to stop by the site of the Official Basketball Tournament Extravaganza, otherwise known as the ‘Ganza. Contestants in this national prestige pool pay $1 a year to compete for the “Coveted Ostertag Plaque” — a handsome plaque named in honor of Utah Jazz reserve center Greg Ostertag for reasons that remain unclear to me. It’s a no-lose proposition, since you’ll receive for a year’s subscription to the Ganza Gazette for the entry price, which includes four updates during the tournament,.

And finally, since you may well soon be walking the walk, you’ll want to bone up on the talk as well.

And what better way to impress your colleagues with your knowledge than to hold forth on that most interesting of team names — the Billikens. You’ll be well equipped to do that after visiting, a fan-run site devoted to the St. Louis University team of that name.