03/10/2011 4:17PM

2011 NCAA men's basketball bracket players face new challenge

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If you’re like most college basketball fans, you have been following all the action in the conference tournaments the past few weeks as March Madness is well under way.

This all leads up to Selection Sunday, March 13, when the NCAA’s field of 68 will be announced. That was a weird sentence to write. I never got used to writing or saying “65-team field” and now this year is the first with 68.

A lot of talk at this time of year revolves around who the four No. 1 seeds will be when the brackets are announced, as well as endless speculation about the teams on the bubble. It changes every day (and seemingly every hour) as the pundits on TV and radio (and in print and on the Internet) tell us which teams they believe are the last four to make the field and which are the four expected to be snubbed.

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What hasn’t been discussed as much – unless I’ve successfully avoided enough of the inane banter – is that the last eight teams to make the field will have to play in first-round games (aka “First Four”) on Tuesday and Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio, to earn their way into the traditional 64-team bracket that commences play on Thursday and Friday with what is now officially being called the second round.

There’s a bigger story looming that I haven’t seen receive any coverage anywhere. You see, in the past, the play-in game on Tuesday determined the last No. 16 seed, which would then be matched with a No. 1 seed. As everyone knows, no No. 16 has knocked off a No. 1 in the history of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, so nearly everyone would just fill out their brackets with the No. 1 seed advancing and not giving it another thought. However, the plan this year is for two of the First Four games to involved teams vying to be sacrificial No. 16 seeds but the other two games will involve those four at-large teams that got in on the bubble with two of them playing to be a No. 11 seed and two battling to be a No. 12 seed.

This will certainly lead to confusion. It will also lead to delays in people filling out their brackets. Let’s say you think one of those potential No. 12 seeds can advance against the No. 5 seed but maybe not the other. That will cause you to delay filling out your bracket. Organizers of office pools throughout the country, who are used to getting a lot of last-minute submissions at work on Thursday morning, will probably have even more of a rush this year with fewer brackets trickling in earlier in the week when people used to just take the “free bingo square” with the No. 1 seed vs. the play-in winner.

My first March Madness prediction: Next Thursday, the big business story of the day will be about all the extra man hours lost at U.S. companies due to this change and its affect on last-minute filling out of brackets.

Vegas a hot-bed of NCAA contests

Longtime readers certainly know I’m a big fan of handicapping contests, whether they be during the football season or those of the horse racing variety. For years, the Las Vegas sports books have mostly ignored March Madness as far as contests are concerned, mostly because the tourists come to town for the big opening weekend but then go back home and don’t return the rest of the tournament. The emphasis has been more on viewing parties, and that continues this year with free parties in ballrooms at the Orleans, the Gold Coast, Sam’s Town, South Point, and the Golden Nugget (as well as private parties for hotel guests, which aren’t advertised).

But this year the locals casinos have stepped up with no fewer than four holding contests:

Station Casinos (Palace, Boulder, Sunset, Texas, Aliante, Red Rock, Green Valley Ranch, and other affiliated Fiesta and Wildfire books): Last Man Standing contest costs $25 per entry; buy four and get a fifth free. Entrants pick one game against the spread each day of the tourney; one loss and you are eliminated. There is a $40,000 guaranteed prize pool, though Stations usually exceeds those. Each entrants picks a national champion before the tourney to be used as a tiebreaker; otherwise multiple perfect entries will split prize pool. Deadline to enter is 9 a.m. Thursday, March 17, with picks due each day by the tip-off of the game used.

Leroy’s (Riviera on the Strip and too many locations to list through Nevada): Three N Out contest costs $25 with a maximum of five per person. Entrants make one pick, either a side or total, each day of the tourney and you stay alive until you have three losses. All entry fees will go into the prize pool with a single champion (meaning one person with less than three losses and everyone else being eliminated) receiving the whole pot. If multiple entries go the entire tourney without three losses, the rules have provisions for splitting the pot with those with fewer entries getting a larger share. See full rules at Leroy’s books for details.

Lucky’s (Plaza, Terrible’s, Fitzgeralds, and other outlets throughout Nevada): Bailout Contest costs $10 per entry; buy three get one free. Contestants pick all tourney games against the spread. First place is $3,000, with $1,500 for second and $500 for third. There is also a $1,000 prize for the best score over the first four days of the tournament, making it appealing for those opening-weekend warriors.

Coast Casinos (Orleans, Gold Coast, Suncoast, Sam’s Town, California, Fremont): Free March Hoopla contest requires players to pick the winners of the tournament games. First prize is $10,000 for the most winners. Must join players’ club to enter and use card to submit picks at kiosks.