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Welcome to BracketRacket.
Think of it as one-stop shopping on game days for all your NCAA tournament needs. We'll have interviews with celebrity alums drawn from sports, entertainment and politics, plus "bracket-buster" picks, photos, news, gossip, stats, notes and quotes from around the tourney sites — all of it bundled into a quick read that will give diehard fans and officer-poolers alike plenty of material to sound smart during the day ahead. Look for it Thursday through Sunday mornings on the first two tournament weekends. So without further ado:
WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT?
Actress/Kentucky alum Ashley Judd can play tough. In "Twisted," she plays a San Francisco cop whose father was a serial killer and whose former lovers — as one movie promo put it — "start dying around her at a furious pace." In her new ABC show, "Missing," Judd plays a suburban single mom and flower-shop owner who just happened to be a ruthless CIA agent a few years back. Man, do those skills ever come in handy when she crosses the pond to chase the murky kidnappers who took her son — in wedge sandals.
But Judd is a bundle of nerves once March rolls in, even with the pre-tournament favorite in her corner. The last time she revealed her brackets in public, for USA Today, she called it "one of the most vulnerable things I've ever done in my life." So now she fills out two, one based on the "experts" opinions and in the second, "I go with what I want."
We suspect both end with her beloved Wildcats hoisting their eighth national championship trophy. Only UCLA, with 11 to Kentucky's seven, has more.
Judd is worried about a speed-bump in the second round against UConn or Iowa State, but after that, "we definitely have the added benefit of playing in Louisville (an hour's drive from the Lexington campus) and it will be all blue. Then I think we've got a really nice path to the championship game."
She's picking North Carolina to be waiting at the Final Four in New Orleans — for all the good that will do the Tar Heels.
"It's a blue-chip matchup, it's a battle of the titans," Judd continued, channeling some inner Dickie V. "Even the legends of both programs show up in the gym when we play on the big stage. We beat them earlier this year at Rupp Arena, we beat them last year on our way to the Final Four and I think we can beat them in the 2012 championship game."
PAINT-BY-NUMBERS ROAD MAP TO FINAL FOUR?
Could it be a coincidence that President Barack Obama's Final Four — Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio State and North Carolina — all happen to come from so-called "swing states" a few months out from the 2012 elections?
In his annual "Barack-etology" picks for ESPN, the smooth-shooting southpaw reveals he's big on momentum, swayed by great guard play and he loves Michigan State coach Tom Izzo — who doesn't? But he's got Vanderbilt rolling over Harvard, where he played plenty of pickup games in law school before putting a court in at the White House, and he likes North Carolina — which swung from the red column in 2004 to blue in 2008 by 0.32 percentage points — to win it all.
Sounds reasonable. But just wait until Ashley Judd sees it.
For those doing last-minute brackets, AP college basketball writer Jim O'Connell counsels another late look at New Mexico State. The Aggies are a 13 seed with a decent tournament pedigree, but they've only made one Final Four appearance and they're matched against college basketball royalty in No. 4 Indiana. New Mexico State is going to need some more movie-caliber magic from Western Athletic Conference tournament MVP Wendell McKines to have any hope of staging its own version of "Hoosiers."
But the music has to stop for one of them. And on paper, they're dead even. But the loss of Indiana guard Verdell Jones, who tore the ACL in his right knee in the Big Ten tournament, should give the Aggies the nod.
Blame travel agents and a hangover for O'Connell's two other potential bracket-busters.
No. 7 Gonzaga had to fly more than 2,000 miles to get to the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh; the Zags' opponents, No. 10 West Virginia, made a two-hour bus ride from campus, with enough fans in tow for a genuine Mountaineer-style after-party.
And while Obama has written off his alma mater, 12th-seeded Harvard plays good defense, and if the Crimson catch a No. 5 Vandy team still reveling in last weekend's upset of Kentucky, the Harvard Coop (pronounced co-op) might celebrate by halving the price on John Henry Wigmore's light-hearted legal read, "A Kaleidoscope of Justice Containing Authentic Accounts of Trial Scenes from all Times and Climes." Or maybe not.
WHAT NOT TO WEAR:
In basketball fashion, to paraphrase Heidi Klum, one day you're in and the next day you're dressing like Baylor, Cincinnati and Louisville. All three teams broke out their new "adiZero" uniforms for last weekend's conference tournaments, testing the limits of the color-decoder on TV sets across the land. Baylor's players looked like overgrown highlighters in neon-yellow duds, while Louisville's shade of red was better suited for tomatoes than Cardinals. And what's with the goofy shorts? It's as if designers couldn't choose between military camouflage or "Jersey Shore" animal print, so they gave up and tried both.
Who do they think they are, Oregon?
Look, it's fine for schools to push the fashion envelope chasing the hip-and-edgy 18-34 demographic. Heck, Marquette's "Bumblebee" jerseys caused such a ruckus in the 1970s they were banned by the NCAA. Michigan's Fab Five were considered renegades when they showed up with shaved heads and long, baggy shorts and black socks. Twenty years earlier, the same people were complaining about long hair and short shorts.
But sometimes a bad look is just that. Witness Kentucky. You don't see the Wildcats trying to resurrect the denim outfits they got talked into wearing back in the day, do you?
When figure skating costumes look sedate in comparison, it's time to go back to the drawing board.
STAT OF THE DAY
If you like momentum, STATS LLC says look to the minnows. Belmont and Montana enter the tournament with the longest-active winning streaks at 14 games apiece. There are 13 teams entering March Madness on a streak of at least six straight wins, but none of them is from the big six power conferences. The last time that happened was 1997. In fact, Missouri and Florida State are the only schools from those leagues to enter first-round games with a streak of five.
QUOTE OF THE DAY
"Pulchritudinous." What Harvard freshman Wesley Saunders wrote on a dry-erase board to stump his teammates while playing "Hangman" in the locker room before the team's first practice prior to their first NCAA tournament game in 66 years. The game-within-a-game was reported by CBSSports.com's Dennis Dodd, who also recounted Saunders' victory speech.
"Characterized by, or having great physical beauty," Saunders crowed, "such as myself."