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Russell Pleasant holds the secret to deciphering the madness. Mark this down for next year. The 46-year-old from Bellevue, somewhat of a national celebrity by now, has this tip for the millions of NCAA bracket code breakers looking for a Cinderella:
"Why not George Mason?" Pleasant says.
Thanks to George Mason's improbable run to the Final Four, Pleasant is on the verge of winning $10,000 in an ESPN.com NCAA "Tournament Challenge."
Of the 3 million brackets ESPN received, only four correctly picked all of the Final Four teams. Of the four ESPN finalists, Pleasant stands alone at the top, at least for now. Of a possible 1,680 points, Pleasant has 1,660. He's missed about five games in the whole tournament.
"I guess I'm like everybody else," Pleasant said. "I really want to jump on the bandwagon with the Cinderella, but I also want to win."
Pleasant's chances of winning most likely rest on George Mason's losing to Florida on Saturday in the national semifinals.
Pleasant chose Florida to beat UCLA in the national title game. But George Mason was the shocker of his bracket when he completed it two weeks ago. He figured his chances of winning a pool increased if he picked an obscure team.
Luck played a part. Pleasant temporarily confused George Mason with George Washington when selecting his winners. When he noticed the mix-up, he decided to leave his picks alone.
And he remembered that Creighton had played George Mason back in November; the Jays won by 20. That didn't deter Pleasant from selecting the Patriots.
"I've been looking at a lot of teams throughout the year and putting it in the back of my mind," Pleasant said.
George Mason, a No. 11 seed, had never even won an NCAA tournament game before beating Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut. The Patriots, of Fairfax, Va., barely made the field of 65. Put it this way: They weren't exactly on Dick Vitale's radar screen.
Prognosticating the NCAA Tournament , like trimming the family Christmas tree or lighting Fourth of July sparklers in the backyard, has become a national tradition. But the intoxicating part of March Madness lies in its inability to be predicted. Buzzer beaters are the norm; no school, no matter the tradition, is safe from heartbreak.
Connecticut and Duke and Kansas and Villanova were the popular names when amateur and professional analysts picked their Final Fours two weeks ago. None of them lasted as long as George Mason.
Pleasant, a software test engineer at CSG Systems Inc., grew up a Husker fan in Omaha and always followed college basketball closely. He entered his first office pool a year ago. He didn't win. This time around, he decided to enter the ESPN pool.
He knew he was doing well in the pool when he arrived at the office Monday. He didn't expect to sit alone in first place, though.
"Right when I pulled it up on the screen, my phone rang," Pleasant said.
The New York Times, ABC News and ESPN are just a few who dialed his number. He's scheduled to shoot the breeze with Woody Paige this morning on ESPN's "Cold Pizza." Pleasant's five kids may even see him on "Good Morning, America" this week.
If Pleasant wins, he'll use the money to pay a few bills. And he might just buy a George Mason T-shirt.
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