You’re staring at an unfilled or scratched-out bracket, one day before your sheet is due. You’ve scoured the web for all the do’s and don’t’s in completing your bracket, but the information is either way over your head or conflicting with what you’ve read elsewhere. You’re deaf to college basketball, competing in a pool interspersed with hoops junkies, lucky guessers and self-proclaimed experts. The truth is, you’re none of them. You want the upper-hand, but don’t have the knowledge or reference points to cobble together a winning bracket.
Which brings you here, to the nexus of bracket champs and repeat pool winners, where sports-averse Grandma Betty is reared into a college hoops fortune teller. Forget any handicaps and disadvantages you think are impeding you from the big prize. Consider this primer the great equalizer of bracketology empowering you, the three-week-per-year fan, to outdo your family, friends and overconfident coworkers. Follow the tips detailed below and even those of you who haven’t watched a complete game all season can look like basketball savants by the end of the month.
Don’t obsess over match-ups deep into your bracket. Odds are, late-round match-ups won’t materialize the way you drew them up. Some picks will will hit, others will fall through, effectively rendering head-to-head analysis irrelevant. As a rule of thumb, ignore match-ups from the Elite Eight and beyond. You’re better off advancing teams that are the safest bets to make deep runs, irrespective of whether they match up well with your projected opponent. If your bracket shows Louisville playing Gonzaga in the Final Four, for example, don’t automatically move the Cardinals into the title game just because they match up well with the Bulldogs (Louisville’s pressure D would wreak havoc on Gonzaga’s slower, younger backcourt). Bear in mind Gonzaga has a much more favorable path to Atlanta and is more likely to make the Final Four in the first place. What good does in-depth match-up handicapping do if said match-up doesn’t come to fruition?
Value the No. 1’s. College hoops may be more open than ever before, but there have been just two occasions where no top seed has reached the Final Four. Don’t get too chalky though. Only four times in the 28-year history of the modern bracket have three No. 1 seeds made the Final Four. The 2008 tournament was the only one in which all four No. 1’s survived their regions.
Be different. Don’t become the Jackson Polloc of bracketeers, but make a conscious effort to differentiate your bracket. Cookie cutter submissions never win pools. Neither do brackets that mimic mainstream trends.
Submit your bracket at the latest possible moment. Injury news and last-minute roster shake-ups — like the first-half suspension James Madison’s Rayshawn Goins just received for disorderly conduct and obstruction of justice — can happen at any time. Teams often release the news as close to game-time as possible so as to mitigate the advantage their opponents gain in preparation. Don’t be in a rush to submit your bracket, even if you raced to fill it out. You don’t get bonus points for time efficiency, and your pool organizer won’t be as impressed as you think he is. In most pools, brackets aren’t due until noon ET on Thursday. Take advantage of the time. If you’re looking for an upset from a First Four team, wait until the field of 64 is set on Wednesday night before making your picks. Wednesday’s La Salle – Boise State game may give you pause about advancing Kansas State into the round of 32.
Avoid Louisville. Remember the aforesaid rule about differentiating your bracket. Apply it here. The tournament’s No. 1 overall seed is the winner in more than 50-percent of ESPN bracket submissions as of Tuesday night. Your wisest tactical move is picking a champion other than Louisville, not because the Cardinals can’t win it all, but because it will be harder for you to win your bracket if they do. When the field is wide open, as it is this year, go against the grain (all bets are off when a team like 2012 Kentucky or 2009 North Carolina is in play). This tournament doesn’t have a standout favorite like last year’s Kentucky, which deserved better than even odds versus the field (yes, it was that good). The current college landscape is diluted at the top, though many pundits are hankering to recreate a worthy imitation of the defending champs. Indiana’s turn as the artificial “team to beat” was fleeting. So too was Duke’s. Sure Louisville can buck the trend? Bracket analysts and media lemmings have fallen in love with Rick Pitino’s Cardinals — the newest flavor of the week owed largely to a second-half Syracuse meltdown in the championship game of the Big East Tournament. Only this flavor doesn’t taste so satisfying and isn’t likely to last. Your task is pinpointing (projecting) the most popular flavor on the first week of April. And judging by the revolving door at No. 1 for the first 20 weeks of the season, it probably won’t be the ‘Ville.
Value Gonzaga. On that same line of thinking, cherish the 1-seed devalued most by your peers. Hello, Gonzaga. Lots of small-conference bigots are going in with their minds made up about the West Region, parroting the mentality “anyone but Gonzaga.” Their ignorance is your opportunity to make major in-roads in your bracket. Consider the Bulldogs the most valuable stock on the March market. Their purchase price is at a disproportionate low, yet their credentials are worthy of legitimate Final Four consideration. Ohio State is the runaway favorite in the West, if only because of a discriminatory bias against the Zags, who play in the shallow West Coast Conference. Prisoners of the moment have swallowed up Ohio State in light of the team’s eight-game winning streak to close out the season, highlighted by a road win at Indiana and impressive Big Ten tournament run to capture the conference crown. Forget them. Think of the potential reward here by going chalk when few else will. If Gonzaga makes a Final Four, as its seeding dictates it should, you’re sitting pretty, collecting points the elitists in your pool pompously passed up. The West Region, by virtue of being the weakest in the field, will naturally yield the most bombastic and ambitious upset picks. Go conservative in this region and the upside is enormous. Gonzaga is a No. 1 seed masquerading as an overlooked tournament sleeper. The Dawgs represent the best opportunity in the pool to get upset value out of a de facto favorite. While your peers zig, you’d be best to zag.
Buck Bucknell. The Bison has become a popular dark horse in the tournament since the school’s 14-over-3 upset of Kansas in 2005. Avoid getting ensnared in the groundswell. Labeled as a potential giant killer during the team’s last NCAA tournament appearance in 2011, Bucknell lost by 29 to eventual champ UConn — a team that hadn’t won by a margin that large since an early December game against UMBC. Mike Muscala is college basketball’s most underrated star, but you don’t beat Butler (Bucknell’s opening round opponent) by playing one-on-one hero ball. Brad Stevens will be ready for this challenge.
No Luck of the Irish. Notre Dame has advanced past the first weekend only once in its past 11 tournament appearances, and Mike Brey has had several teams way better than this one. If you fill out 10 brackets, nine should have Iowa State moving on to the round of 32.
Small schools with big game. If you paid any attention to last year’s tournament, you learned not to take any early-round game for granted. While we don’t advise picking a 16 over a 1 and recommend erring on the side of caution in all 15 vs. 2 pairings (Lehigh and Norfolk State were extreme anomalies), below are the strongest of the low seeds capable of pulling off major upsets.
No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast. The Eagles know what it takes to beat a No. 2. They have the practical experience to prove it. Florida Gulf Coast slayed second-seeded Miami by double figures early in the season. Buyer beware: Miami played that game without starting shooting guard Durand Scott and this was months before the eye of these Hurricanes hit college basketball. all else being equal, Georgetown, of the four No. 2 seeds, is most vulnerable to an early-round upset . The Hoyas play a plodding, defensive-oriented style predicated upon limiting possessions — an underdog’s dream. Fewer possessions = less margin for error and greater likelihood of the better team slipping up.
No. 15 Iona. The Gaels are much better than the unassuming 20-13 record portends. Iona has lost 11 of its 13 games either in overtime or by 5 points or fewer in regulation. Of Iona’s 33 games this season, 25 have been decided by single digits, 22 by seven points or fewer. Call ‘em the Cardiac Gaels. The talent is present to pull off a major upset, but poor late-game execution — which is partly attributable to variances in luck — has depressed the perceptive value of the team. Iona’s offense, which averages 81 points per game, can score on anyone, though the team will have its hands full against one of the nation’s premiere defenses (Ohio State). Momo Jones and Sean Armand are good enough to play anywhere, Columbus included. Will Iona’s defense be up to par though? The Gaels rank 255th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency.
No. 14 Davidson. Speaking of high-powered offenses, few teams run a crisper, more succinct attack than Bob McKillop’s bunch. Led by a pair of starts — Jake Cohen and De’Mon Brooks — and interlaced by Nik Cochran, the Wildcats, operating at full capacity, have the weapons to unseat any top-seeded team in the field. These Cats are experienced (all five starters are upperclassmen, three are seniors), move without the ball exceptionally well and are willing distributors in one in a system all about synergy. McKillop has won before with less star volume (Stephen Curry is it). Just imagine what he can do with a more complete roster. Davidson didn’t rack up any marquee wins in the non-conference, but the North Carolina-based school did challenge Gonzaga, Duke and New Mexico. Marquette, the most over-seeded team in the field, is a step-down from competition, and could be the team by which Davidson gets over the hump.
Quell the 8/9 temptation. You’ll be tempted to pick an No. 8 or 9 over a No. 1 in the round of 32, but tread carefully. While at least one No. 1 seed is more likely than not to trip up during the first week, the added task of accurately identifying its assailant makes the risk outweigh the reward. No. 8 Colorado State and No. 8 Pittsburgh are sexy upset specials in the round of 32, but there’s no telling if the Rams and Panthers will even get their cracks at No. 1 seeds. They have to survive their opening round opponents — No. 9 Missouri and No. 9 Wichita State, respectively — first.
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