When the men's Final Four tips off Saturday evening in Dallas, it's a safe assumption that most of America's NCAA Tournament brackets will have long been busted to smithereens. Especially with top-seeded Florida being joined by the unlikely trio of second seed Wisconsin, seventh seed Connecticut and eighth seed Kentucky.
Just don't expect Ringgold, Ga., electrician Robert Mule to feel anyone else's bracket pain.
Of the more than 11 million online entries to ESPN's Bracket Challenge, the 29-year-old Mule (pronounced Moo-LAY) is tied for ninth, his 1,080 points just 40 behind the overall co-leaders' 1,120.
"If Florida beats Kentucky in the title game, I think I'm going to win it," he said, knowing the point totals for each victory increase to 160 for the semis and 320 for the title game. "I've looked at the other brackets and no one ahead of me has the Gators beating Kentucky on Monday night."
Brackets have become as much a part of March Madness as sneakers and jump shots. Almost everyone fills one out -- be it in a free online contest like the ESPN game or in office pools that make the NCAA tournament the most wagered-on event in all of sports, the Super Bowl included.
And as many different sheets as there are, there are even more combinations -- 9,223,372,036,854,775,808 (that's 9 quintrillion, which is a 9 with 18 zeroes behind it) different possibilities in a 64-team field. To cover every possible outcome, it would take every man, woman and child on the planet filling out a bracket every second for the next 42 years. If you stacked all the possible brackets on normal typing paper it could circle the globe 21 million times.
Mule's bracket is not perfect, but it's better than almost all the rest. Indeed, of those nine players who are ahead of Mule or tied with him, no one else has that predicted outcome. Two have Florida beating Wisconsin. Three have Kentucky winning it all. Three have Connecticut -- which faces the Gators in the semifinals -- on top. One picks Wisconsin, which faces UK in the other semi.
But before anyone plans on hitting up Mule for a loan from the giant winnings he's certain to receive with a Florida championship, the contest's fine print is a must-read.
According to ESPN's website, "Sponsor will award one (1) grand prize to a randomly-selected entrant who is among the top 1 percent of eligible point scorers in the promotion. ... the grand prize is one $10,000 Best Buy gift card."
In other words, though Mule is guaranteed to finish among that top 1 percent, he may win nothing despite having the winning bracket. For comparison's sake, consider that the top 20 finishers in the Quicken Loans Billion Dollar Bracket Challenge will receive $100,000 each, though the $1 billion for a perfect bracket was off the board after the opening round.
"Unfortunately, I didn't fill out this same bracket for the Quicken Loans contest," said Mule, who's never before finished better than in the hundreds of thousands in the ESPN contest.
"You can fill out 10 brackets for the ESPN contest, but just one for Quicken Loans. I had Florida winning it all in that bracket, too, but I had Virginia and New Mexico going further."
For the record, of his nine other ESPN brackets, the best one is in the 4,000s. Among Mule's four brackets that didn't have Florida as champ, two had Iowa State, one Michigan State and one Wichita State.
Not that he picked Florida solely because the Gators -- winners of 30 straight -- were the pre-tournament favorites.
"I'm a pretty big Florida fan," said Mule, whose contestant name on the ESPN challenge is actually datgatorchomp. "I'm not as much of a basketball fan as I am a football fan, but Florida's always my team. Go Gators."
Yet his decisions to pick Tennessee and Kentucky to go deep into the tournament were based far more on performance than passion.
"Florida played both Tennessee and Kentucky three times, and the games were closer every time," said Mule, who graduated from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School in 2003. "You could see both UT and UK getting better, much better in every one of those games. And look at Kentucky, they're playing lights out right now."
However the weekend ends, Mule's best bracket long ago turned out the lights on several more famous entrants, including President Barack Obama, who picked Michigan State to win it all and whose 670 total points currently stands 2,887,201th. Nor is ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi much ahead of Obama, his 680 points good for 2,358,257th best.
Yet both of those scores are nearly three times better than the bracket of Atlanta Hawks forward and former Florida Gator Al Horford, who may have helped the Gators to back-to-back NCAA titles in 2006 and 2007, but is stuck with the 6,957,646th best bracket to date, despite picking his alma mater to deliver UF coach Billy Donovan his third title in nine years. Should that happen, Donovan would stand second among active coaches in championships won, trailing only Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski's four crowns.
So is Mule nervous?
"No," he laughed over the phone. "I'm just planning on sitting back and relaxing and watching Florida win, which I know they will."
And should his bracket finish No. 1 but fail to secure him the $10,000 grand prize?
"It would be tough," Mule said. "I guess the best I could do at that point was to take a screen shot on my phone of my winning score, just to prove it happened."
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com.