If there’s one thing that all people love, it’s filling out March Madness brackets.
Of course, the ironic part is that most people aren’t particularly good at it. In fairness, there’s always a little bit of luck and good fortune involved. But there is a method to the madness, so to speak.
While some people will blindly make picks and hope for the best, there are tricks to the trade that will help increase your chances of making the right picks and earning the honor of winning your office pool.
For the record, we’re not making any guarantees; after all, March Madness offers no guarantees, not even for No. 1 seeds, as Virginia learned a few years ago. However, we would like to share some useful tips for filling out a near-perfect March Madness bracket.
Wait for the First Four
Everybody wants to fill out their bracket as soon as the field of 68 is announced, but it’s usually best to wait.
First of all, this process shouldn’t be rushed, so be advised to take your time and think things through. You should also wait until the play-in games are played and the field is whittled down to 64. Between 2011 and 2018, at least one of the teams that won a game during the First Four won another game, so don’t sleep on those teams.
In fact, VCU went from the First Four to the Final Four in 2011 while LaSalle in 2013, Tennessee in 2014, and Syracuse in 2018 all reached the Sweet 16.
Don’t forget that the teams on the cusp of the tournament are all good enough to win games.
Don’t Make Picks Based on Conference
It can be tempting to make picks based on what team comes from the better conference, but the NCAA Tournament doesn’t work that way.
Look at the two teams in each game, not their conference. We’ve seen years when loaded power conferences that put 10 or 11 teams into the Big Dance had only one or two teams advance to the second weekend.
When in doubt, perhaps this can be a tiebreaker. But for the most part, don’t assume the team from the better conference will advance.
Respect Strength of Schedule
When you’re evaluating teams to find the ones you like the most, don’t forget to consider their strength of schedule. That’s not to say that you should make it the Holy Grail and make every pick based on SOS. But it should be given strong consideration.
A team that went 18-12 during the season but had the No. 1 strength of schedule is a lot better than their record indicates. If a team is in the top 10 in SOS, give them a little more respect than you would otherwise.
Find Out Who’s Hot and Who’s Not
The Selection Committee no longer looks at how a team has performed in their last 10 games. But you should when you’re filling out your bracket.
You shouldn’t overreact too much if a team went out early in their conference tournament because motivation plays a huge role in those situations. But if a team lost seven of 10 games heading into the tournament, there’s probably a good reason why that happened.
Likewise, teams that finished the regular season strong or won their conference tournaments are usually the teams that are peaking at the right time and got better during the course of the season.
Again, this isn’t everything, but it’s something that warrants your attention.
When in Doubt, Go Chalk
We all love March Madness for the upsets and the Cinderella stories. But for the most part, the tournament unfolds most years according to the seed lines.
If we take away the No. 8 seed vs No. 9 seed game, there are usually six to eight upsets according to seed in the first round. The 7 vs 10 and 6 vs 11 matchups have become virtual tossups while one or two No. 12 seeds and one No. 13 seed typically advance.
For seeds 10-13, pick one team (perhaps two teams for Nos. 10 and 11 seeds) and that’s it. Don’t go crazy picking upsets in the First Round. You may get lucky on one, but if you miss on another it won’t matter.
Just because picking chalk is boring doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Unless you feel strongly about a pick, don’t pick upsets for the sake of picking upsets.
History Means Nothing But Coaching Does
Don’t pay too much attention to history when filling out your bracket.
The fact that Arizona went to the Sweet 16 four times between 2013 and 2017 means nothing today. You are making picks about this year’s team, not the history of the program.
That being said, if a coach has been at the same school for a long time, his track record in the tournament means something. Every team in the tournament has quality players; they wouldn’t be in the tournament if they didn’t. But if the talent between two teams is equal, it’s okay to look at what team has the better coach or the coach with the better track record in the Big Dance.
In a close game, coaching does matter.
Look Back Before Looking Forward
When you get to the later rounds, don’t always pick based on the matchup. For instance, if you have a No. 2 seed playing a No. 3 seed in the Sweet 16, look back at what team had the harder path to get to that point. Sometimes you have to think about what team is more likely to get there along with what team you think will win that matchup.
Granted, this means operating under the assumption that you get something wrong. But that does need to be part of the thought process when picking the later rounds.
Focus on the Later Rounds
That’s a great segue into the importance of focusing on the later rounds. Too many people make the mistake of giving all of their time and attention to picking upsets in the first round. The truth is that office pools are won and lost based on who can pick the national champion correctly and who can pick the most Final Four teams correctly.
This means doing your homework on the top seeds to figure out what teams have fatal flaws and what teams have all of the ingredients to make a deep run.
Don’t waste time trying to find a diamond in the rough. Get to know the top 10-15 teams in the country inside and out and then figure out what team has the best chance of winning it all.
Your Champion Should Be a No. 1 Seed
As we mentioned earlier, it’s best to stick to chalk. This is particularly true when it comes to picking your national champion.
From 2007 to 2019, a No. 1 seed won the championship in all but two years. One exception was Kemba Walker’s unbelievable run with UConn in 2011 and the other exception was Villanova winning the title as a No. 2 seed in 2016. Other than that, it’s been all about the No. 1 seeds in recent history.
Don’t try to outthink the room when it comes to your champion, just pick the No. 1 seed you like the best.
Don’t Pick Based on Your Rooting Interests
If you’re serious about winning your office pool, don’t let your emotions get in the way. You have to pick with your head rather than your heart. Be realistic about your favorite team’s chances and don’t pick them to reach the Final Four just because you want them to.
The same is true for the teams you hate. Don’t pick a team you despise to lose in the first round just because that’s what you hope to see. Also, don’t start making plans until the bracket is revealed. You may fancy one team to make a deep run, but the matchups may not make that a good bet.
Above all else, think rationally with every pick and don’t let biases or rooting interests interfere with filling out the best bracket possible.
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