Filling out an NCAA men’s basketball tournament bracket can be tricky, unpredictable and sometimes agonizing.
It’s a lot of fun, though, when done correctly. And by correctly, I mean to your preferences and no one else’s. Who wants to follow some ESPN expert’s picks and watch as his bracket gets blown up by Friday night?
Someone recently told me he followed my advice a couple of years ago and had the worst picks in his pool. I apologized profusely (even the best have a bad bracket now and then) but started to think: why wouldn’t you do your own homework? Why wouldn’t you follow your gut?
One of my favorite activities is watching as the bracket is revealed on Selection Sunday and blowing through my picks as quickly as possible to see where that leads. And then I sit down and do my research, study the matchups and make more educated picks with a second bracket.
That’s just me, though. Everybody has his or her preferences. If you’re completely clueless and don’t want to just pick the prettiest uniforms or best mascots (how many people have finished second to this person?), here are some tips I have come up with to help you with your choices.
Don’t pick just chalk
Show of hands: Who has Kentucky, Wisconsin, Villanova and Duke in their Final Four? That took a lot of thought, didn’t it?
While a top seed is a good predictor for the winning the championship—six of the last eight teams to cut down the final nets were No. 1s—it hasn’t been a foolproof indicator of a Final Four path.
Only one top seed made the Final Four last year (Florida). That was also the case in 2013 (Louisville) and ’12 (Kentucky). None of the four top seeds advanced to the 2011 national semifinals.
The last time two top seeds made the Final Four was 2009. The last time all four top seeds made the national semis was ’08. Still like UK, Wisky, ‘Nova and the Dukies?
AVOID rash judgments
The popular opinion, at least among national media types, is that Virginia, the No. 2 seed in the East, has regressed over the last couple of weeks.
It’s hard to argue based on recent results—the Cavaliers have lost two of their last three—and an uncertain rotation with swingman Justin Anderson still trying to get up to speed after missing eight games because of a fractured finger and an appendectomy.
But bet against U.Va. at your own risk. Early March results aren’t the best indication of NCAA tournament success.
Some recent examples of this are last year’s champion Connecticut, which had lost two of four heading into the NCAAs, and 2013 Final Four participant Michigan, which had dropped six of 12 entering the Big Dance.
VCU may also be an unpopular team that could make some waves in the tournament. The Rams suffered a couple of close losses during a three-game skid a couple of weeks ago, but they bounced back with five straight wins and their first Atlantic 10 Tournament championship.
The Rams are the poster child of sleeper teams that made a deep tournament run. They entered the 2011 NCAA tournament with five losses in eight games and made the Final Four.
Keep that in mind when picking VCU’s games this year, and don’t undersell Virginia, especially if Anderson can return to form.
First-round upset picks are a must
Is there anything more exhilarating than watching a Cinderella team you picked hit the last-second 3-pointer to win?
Well, yeah—how about two or three of your upset picks coming true?
Since 2011, when the field was expanded to 68, there have been 30 second-round upsets involving double-digit seeds.. (Technically, the play-in games are considered the first round now).
In the last four NCAA tournaments, nine 12 seeds have beaten 5s, eight 11 seeds have beaten 4s and five 10 seeds have toppled 7s. A 10, 11 and 12 seed has won at least one game in each of the last seven tournaments.
No. 14 and 15 seeds can be dangerous, too. No. 14 Mercer beat Duke last year. And who can forget 15s Florida Gulf Coast, Lehigh and Norfolk State pulling off colossal upsets in recent years?
But don’t go crazy
I’ve been guilty of getting a little overzealous with the upset picks.
While there have been at least six second-round upsets involving double-digit seeds the last seven years, that’s still an unfavorable percentage. To be exact, that’s 52 upsets in a possible 196 games (28 percent).
And if you hit on a second-round upset, don’t count on that team advancing past the round of 32. Only 13 double-digit seeds have made it to the Sweet 16 in the last four tournaments. Two of those made it to the Elite Eight (Dayton last year, VCU in 2011). And one, the Rams, made it to the Final Four.
It takes guts to pick a double-digit seed to make it far, but it’s a risk worth taking if you’re trying to be perfect. Good luck with that, by the way.
Go with what you know
My last tip is to look at trends to learn which teams advance most often.
Harvard and Stephen F. Austin are good upset picks based on recent results. The Crimson is looking for its third straight second-round upset. Stephen F. Austin plays a suffocating brand of defense that led to an upset of VCU last year.
Georgetown is back in the NCAAs after missing out last year, but the Hoyas don’t have the best résumé in the Big Dance. They have lost to a double-digit seed in each of their last four NCAA tournaments.
If you’re not convinced about Duke, you may not want to pick the Blue Devils to go far. They are feast or famine in the tournament, with two second-round exits mixed in with trips to the Elite Eight and Sweet 16 the last four years.
And lastly, do your homework on Michigan State and Wisconsin. These teams are perennial threats to make the Final Four. Both have tough roads to get to Indianapolis, but don’t be surprised if either (or both) make a long run.