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Aimless Strategy

Darts. It always comes back to the darts.

Nothing is as meticulously designed as a regulation dart board — a circle perfectly divided into 20 pie slices with a precise series of inner rings.

For the avid dart-thrower, the board represents a chance to chase perfection in the form of landing three consecutive throws within the tiny triple-20 box — a task that becomes increasingly difficult if you follow pub rules and down a pint between matches.

I don't play darts.

But I do have a dart board that would come in handy every year at this time. I could pin my NCAA Tournament bracket to it and flail away.

For as much success as I've had picking office pool winners in the last 15 years, the dart method probably would improve my final score.

Instead, I try to use research to come up with my own set of criteria, my own absolute truths, then base my pool picks on those rules.

You can see my picks at "> Go ahead and laugh at my two No. 1s meeting in the final, with Florida defeating North Carolina to repeat as champion.

Going with the chalk is easy, but it won't put you in the winner's circle. Count that as Absolute 1, the first of nine I used to fill out my 2007 bracket.

Absolute 2: Don't bet the 12.

I mentioned this in a blog the other day. Every year, a No. 12 seed beats a No. 5 seed. But the No. 12 you choose to win is guaranteed to lose by 20. The No. 12 most likely to win this year looks like Illinois, so I went with Virginia Tech because of truism No. 3.

Absolute 3: When in doubt, go against the Big Ten.

Sorry, Buckeyes fans, but Big Ten teams beat up on each other in the regular season because the style of officiating in that conference allows it to happen. It's a "No decapitation, no foul" league, which fosters a low-scoring style of play they mistake for defense.

Starting Thursday, the six Big Ten teams will get into foul trouble and lose because they don't know how to pick up the tempo once they fall behind. My bracket has one Big Ten team in the Elite Eight, and none in the Final Four.

Absolute 4: Choose a conference and ride it hard to the Sweet 16.

My wife was amazed at how much basketball I watched last weekend in the name of "research." By default, that made the beer and chips on the table next to me "research assistants."

But I was checking out the major conference tournaments, just to see the different styles and levels in each. I was looking for teams that could play a physical game and be able to score in spurts. I liked what I saw in the Big East and Pac-10, and was turned off by the lack of physical play in the ACC and lack of scoring in the Big Ten.

Absolute 5: The cream will rise.

For every George Mason, there are 40 Winthrops and Virginia Commonwealths. The odds are stacked against a No. 11 seed making another Masonite run into the Final Four, so ride the power conference schools to Atlanta.

Absolute 6: The Calipari factor.

The exception to Absolute 5 this year is Memphis, which will represent Conference USA in the Peach City.

Coach John Calipari is one of those guys who never stops talking, especially when he gets the chance to promote his players and program.

This year, however, Calipari has been suspiciously quiet, as if he knows he has something good to show the country and doesn't want to jinx himself.

If Calipari is quiet, something's brewing ... like a trip to the Final Four.

Absolute 7: Experience.

I love this Texas team ... to reach the Final Four in 2008. The Longhorns will breeze over New Mexico and win a close one over USC. With a week in the national spotlight before taking on North Carolina, the Texas freshmen will wilt.

On the other side of the argument, there is nothing the NCAA Tournament can throw at Florida that the Gators haven't already experienced.

Absolute 8: Home cooking.

Before heading to Atlanta, UCLA must travel only to Sacramento and San Jose. So much for the pitfalls of being a No. 2 seed, because no other team in the field will come close to playing four games in its home region or state.

Only two other teams — North Carolina (opening in Winston-Salem) and Louisville (in Lexington, Ky.) — get to play the opening rounds in their home states. From there, the Tar Heels must go to New Jersey and the Cardinals to San Antonio.

If home cooking is important early, it means everything in the Final Four, where the crowd size magnifies the dome-court advantage.

UCLA will make it to Atlanta but won't be made to feel welcome. North Carolina, Florida and Memphis will bask in the Southern hospitality.

Absolute 9: When it comes to the NCAA Tournament, there are no absolutes.

So where is that dart board?

To comment or see Brian VanderBeek's complete bracket in PDF format, click on the link with this story at Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at 578-2300 or