March 16, 2011 -- If you are looking for a daring NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament bracket full of upsets and bold picks, turn your attention away from the one filled out by President Obama.
For the third straight year, Obama filled out an NCAA bracket for ESPN, displaying his extensive hoops knowledge while at the same time opting for a rather cautious bracket that has all four top seeds advancing to the Final Four.
Like last year, when the president filled out his NCAA bracket just days before the final vote on his health care reform bill, this year's March Madness comes with breaking news out of Japan, in the wake of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident, and continuing unrest in the Middle East.
The president acknowledged "incredible changes all around the world" and urged Americans who are filling out their brackets online to also take a few minutes and do some good.
"This is a great tradition, we have fun every year doing it -- but while you're doing it, if you're on your laptop, et cetera, go to…usaid.gov, usaid.gov, and that's going to list a whole range of charities where you can potentially contribute to help the people who have been devastated in Japan," the president told ESPN's Andy Katz. "I think that would be a great gesture as you're filling out your brackets."
"And since I know everybody is going to be optimistic about winning their pool, they'll have a little extra money they can help out some people who are really going through a tough time," he said.
Then it was time for hoops, and Obama stuck with the safe picks. His projected Final Four is comprised of all of the no. 1 seeds: Ohio State, Duke, Kansas and Pittsburgh.
"It's never happened," he said. "I've never picked all number one seeds."
Obama admitted that his attention has certainly been elsewhere.
"Although I haven't had a chance to focus on a lot of games recently, I'm hoping that I can make some progress," he said.
He went with a familiar championship pick, selecting Kansas to win to win it all, just as he did last year. (the Jayhawks fell short in 2010)
"I'm picking Kansas, just because I think they're deeper," he said. "I think that Kansas has more firepower [than Ohio State]."
Obama Picks No. 1 Seeds in the Final Four
The president said last year that the Kansas pick was motivated by the influence of Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius,the former governor of Kansas, and a desire to see her happy during the health care battle.
"Kathleen Sebelius, my Secretary of Health and Human Services, is a big Jayhawks fan. She insisted that Kansas is coming through for me," he said this year.
Personal connections were also at play with Obama's pick of Duke for the Final Four. His personal aide, Reggie Love, was a member of Duke's 2001 national championship team. Last year the president picked against Duke and he said this week he wouldn't make the same mistake this year.
"Reggie is looking over my shoulder," he said. "Last year, I did not pick Duke and Coach K gave me a hard time."
Despite the obvious distractions that have kept him from watching many game, the president still displayed a broad knowledge of the tournament's top players and key match-ups.
On BYU scoring sensation Jimmer Fredette: "Unbelievable. Best scorer obviously in the country," the president said.
But he sounded less optimistic about the Cougars' chances in the tournament.
"Great talent, but they've lost their inside presence. They lost, what, a couple of their last four or five games," he said. "So even though if they're at full speed I think they would pull this out and Jimmer would obviously be a great asset in a tight game, I think Florida is going to end up winning this one."
On Ohio State star freshman Jared Sullinger: "Ohio State looks terrific. That young guy in the middle knows how to play," he said.
On Connecticut's Kemba Walker: "The guy plays like a pro already. He's got presence on the court," he said. "It wasn't just his scoring -- he got big rebounds, big steals, made his free throws at the end of tough games."
Obama Picks Against GOP Favorites
With the 2012 presidential election looming on the horizon, some of the president's choices appeared to conflict with the hopes of his GOP counterparts.
Katz pointed out that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is a big Louisville fan, and Obama predicted the Cardinals will lose in the Sweet Sixteen to Kansas.
"[Politics] has nothing to do with it," the president said.
Obama also picked against 6-seed Xavier, the alma mater of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, predicting them suffer and upset in the first round to 11th-seeded Marquette.
Obama's personal love of basketball is well documented, and he frequently plays weekend pick-up games with friends, staff and even his daughters and their friends.
Last year the president needed 12 stitches on his upper lip after he was inadvertently hit while playing basketball with friends and family at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C.
For his birthday last year, the president invited an all-star group of athletes to play a pickup game with him, including current and former NBA stars LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Derek Fisher, Chris Paul, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Chauncey Billups, Grant Hill, Derrick Rose and Bill Russell.