The week of the NCAA basketball tournament is finally upon us, and you’re probably scrambling to fill out a bracket superior to your peers.
Don’t worry: we want to see your bracket demolish Dave from Accounting, too. His gloating about picking Villanova last year has gone far enough, am I right?
First, you’ll need to bring some sanity to March madness. We’ve laid out a few steps for what to do and what not to do as you finish up your picks before the first round begins on Thursday.
Follow these instructions, and you’ll be in the best position to see your winning picks win and your losing picks, you know, not win.
Do: Believe in the ACC—To a Point
This season’s hype around the strength of the ACC is absolutely warranted.
The conference has five legitimate Final Four contenders (UNC, Duke, Louisville, Florida State, and Notre Dame), more bids than any other conference (9—the Big East and Big 10 have the next most at 7), and the advantage of presenting a postseason-worthy billing in the majority of its games this year. So yeah, you won’t go wrong putting an emphasis on the teams that have emerged from that fray.
Be careful not to fall in love with labels, though. Not all ACC teams are created equal. Virginia, for example, plays a plodding defensive style that may work well against one team while the quick ball movement and long-distance range of Notre Dame will be an entirely different sort of match-up.
Don’t be afraid to put a healthy dose of ACC teams in your Sweet 16, but be cautious beyond that point. Just because the league has plenty of solid squads, it doesn’t mean they’ll all mow down other conferences’ elite—not at all.
Don’t: Pick Every 12-Seed to Win
If you’ve been around the NCAA bracket game for any amount of time, you know the famous trick of picking 12-seeds over 5-seeds. It’s one of the most popular upset picks in every bracket. In fact, 12-seeds win about one-third of these matchups.
Yet, it would be a mistake to cast a wide net and pick all 12-seeds simply because you feel sure at least one will win. It’s highly improbable that all four 12-seeds will be victors.
But do pick one or two. Only once in the past 16 years did the 12-seeds fail to send at least one of their kind on to the Round of 32.
Do: Trust the Eye Test
Advanced stats are wonderful, and expert advice can go a long way, but someone else’s advice is always secondhand. The greatest advantage you could possibly give yourself for filling out a successful bracket is to watch as many teams as you can yourself.
Of course, it’s easy to watch a team once on an abnormally hot-shooting or lackadaisical night and assume you have a good hold on their identity. You can mislead yourself that way.
Yet, there are very important things you can learn by watching teams with your own eyes:
- Who’s their go-to man? What is his skill set?
- What is the team’s greatest strength?
- Do they have shooters? Do they have an inside presence?
- How deep do they effectively go into their bench?
- How do the offensive and defensive units play together? Is there common miscommunication?
The answers to these questions can all be filed away for later, to be pulled out as you envision a match-up between that team and another. If you’ve watched the other team, too, then BOOM! You can fit the two puzzle pieces together and have a better guess at what picture will emerge.
Of course, at this point it’s too late to make it a point to watch dozens of teams. The point here is that you should place the most confidence (or doubt) in teams you have watched throughout the current season.
Don’t: Pick Florida Gulf Coast as Your Champion
Yeah, yeah, I know. Dunk City.
It’s a cool story that still has a little traction. Or maybe your cousin goes there or something. Here’s a little tough love: that’s not a good enough reason to choose a 14-seed to win the national championship. As your guide, I refuse to let you intentionally destroy your bracket like that.
Of course, Florida Gulf Coast is just a representation of all those other double-digit seeds you may be tempted to take a wild stab at choosing for a champion. Just please don’t do it. There are many, many stories of teams like that going to the Sweet 16, but the end of the tournament belongs to the big dogs, whether we like it or not.
Do: Pay Attention to Game Sites
You don’t think playing in Orlando is an edge for Florida and Florida State? Oh, it is.
Think about it: you’re a young team playing in the biggest tournament of your life. If you win a few games, you’ll have to travel to unfamiliar spots all around the country, completely out of your element. But during your first two games, you get to play close to home, somewhere you’ve probably visited many times. On top of that, you’re going to have plenty of fans to rattle your opponent, who is not close home (excluding FL Gulf Coast).
Again, though, don’t swing too far in one direction. (Are you getting the theme of avoiding extremes yet?)
Location doesn’t guarantee anything—it only helps. If you were 60% sure South Carolina would win their first game, bump that up to 70% since they’re playing in Greenville.
Don’t: Overestimate the Value of Research
A healthy amount of research to understand unfamiliar teams and to get helpful statistics is great. But in the end, if you haven’t seen a team play or paid attention to them at all until tournament time, you’re really just guessing in the end.
Case in point: My wife knows next to nothing about college basketball, while I’ve been following it extensively all my life. This hasn’t stopped her from winning our bracket pool with friends the last two years and counting.
So much of bracket success is chance. The simple truth is that no one is sure of most things. Embrace that reality, and free yourself up to take best guesses.
Do: Be (Mostly) Boring
I think it hurts our sense of originality when we look down at our filled-out brackets and realize we’ve put only 1-seeds and 2-seeds in the Elite Eight. We all want to be the one who called the crazy runs of the Butlers and George Masons of the world.
Unless you have some shady insider knowledge about some 14-seed sleeping giant, though, you probably shouldn’t pick them to go terribly far. That’s one of the easiest ways to blow up an entire portion of your bracket (though there are many more).
It’s OK to boring and roll with high seeds to make deep runs. Most of them probably will. Take a deep breath, steel yourself, and repeat after me: “I will make the safe pick.”
Don’t: Be a Year-of-the-16-Seeder
Step 1: Find all four number one seeds on your bracket.
Step 2: Gently place a finger over the name of their opponent.
Step 3: Ignore your finger and choose the 1-seed to move on.
While so much of bracket success comes down to chance, you can put yourself in the best position to succeed. The key to the art of filling out a bracket is knowing when to get fancy and when to go out in your safe, comfy pajamas.
Good luck, friends. This is a wide open year. It’s gonna be a lot of fun to watch, as always!
By Ryan Drawdy
March 12, 2017