By Mark Felsenthal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Wednesday picked Indiana University to win the NCAA annual men's college basketball tournament, joining in the "March Madness" office pool craze that sweeps America every spring.
The president, an avid sports fan, forecast that Indiana would defeat the widely favored University of Louisville in the championship game.
"I think this is Indiana's year," he said in an interview on ESPN, the sports cable network.
Obama, who began a three day trip to the Middle East on Wednesday, taped the interview on Tuesday.
Millions of Americans are obsessed with the annual National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament, which pits the nation's top teams against one another in 67 games over several weeks.
Betting in office pools is widespread, and celebrities and analysts share and discuss their picks, known as brackets.
The national champion will be crowned on April 8 in Atlanta.
The president was a backup player on a high school basketball team that won a state championship and continues to play in reportedly vigorous games of pickup basketball. He has shown a detailed knowledge of college basketball players, coaches and teams in explaining his picks.
Last year, Obama missed picking the winner, the University of Kentucky, which he predicted would advance to the final but would lose to the University of North Carolina.
However, UNC lost in an earlier round.
In a reflection of the bitter fight between the president and congressional Republicans over spending and taxes, a leading Republican criticized the president for devoting energy to basketball even though the Obama administration has yet to release its budget and unemployment remains high.
"American families want the president to focus on the economy and controlling spending, and it's time for the president to get to work by spending a little less time preparing his brackets and a little more time doing his job of preparing a budget," said Representative Steve Scalise, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the conservative caucus of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
The White House has said its budget submission is expected the week of April 8 and is delayed because of uncertainty over the outcomes of negotiations between the administration and Congress over tax increases and budget cuts that were scheduled for January 1 and March 1.
(Reporting by Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Vicki Allen and Paul Simao)