As the high school sports calendar hits a lull, so too will I take a break as I focus on another passion of mine: the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Selection Sunday is upon us, the dawn before the greatest three weekends on the national sports landscape.
Like millions of Americans who love, casually observe, or have no clue when it comes to all things college basketball, I too will participate in that annual rite of passage: filling out the bracket. Over many years I’ve experienced highs, such as 2013 when I won the pool. My entry beat out nearly three hundred others as I correctly picked Louisville to down Michigan for the national championship. Just last year I was relegated to also-ran by the tournament’s second day as my team to go all the way, Michigan State, was bounced in the first round.
Before I go any further, some contests allow you to enter multiple brackets. Do what you want, but I like to enter my one bracket of integrity each year. That way I can say this is what I really think and own my picks. There is a verse in the Bible which states “A double minded man is unstable in all his ways.” I’m sure James didn’t envision the NCAA bracket when he wrote this but the concept applies.
Over the next few days as I complete my one bracket of integrity, hopefully I will have learned and avoid some of the pitfalls of past tournaments. As the benevolent columnist I am, I will share some of these secrets with you, so that you too may achieve success with your bracket. Now you may simply base your picks on which mascot you like, who has the best color scheme, or you have a fondness for their campus location. If this is you, sorry you can stop reading. I can’t help you..
If you, like me, follow college basketball the following formula will help as you prepare for the noon deadline on Thursday. Of course, I’m not going to give you the teams that may fit these criteria, lest you may be competing with me. Many will seem to be common sense but yet in the heat of making these picks sometimes common sense goes out the window. If you play close attention to college basketball, these suggestions will help you filter out what is really important from the past four months. Keep in mind the pointers I’m about to give are for entertainment purposes only.
1. Don’t over analyze. It seems simple enough but when picking each game ask yourself: On a neutral court, right now which team is better? Pick that team.
2. Don’t listen to talking heads prior to completing the bracket. Dick Vitale, Jay Bilas, Seth Greenberg, and the like will cause you to break rule #1. Listening to Bill Walton is okay. Bill is more likely to discuss renewable energy sources, break into a long-winded soliloquy about the Grateful Dead, or play the glockenspiel, than provide meaningful basketball analysis.
3. Advance the top four seeds in the first round. Everyone wants to appear to be the smart guy of the group by correctly picking that 14 over 3. For every one of those picks you get right, you likely will have three times as many you whiff on. Most bracket pools have weighted rounds anyway so the reward vs. risk when picking a major first round upset is minimal. Very few thirteen seeds and below advance to the next weekend. Look, a top four seed is likely to fall Thursday or Friday. I have no idea who that team or teams might be. More than likely neither do you. You aren’t picking the perfect bracket so play it safe on these.
4. Speaking of upsets, go with a 12 over 5. Since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, every tournament except four have featured at least one 12 seed beating a 5. Why is this? Five seeds typically are slightly above average power conference teams while the twelves are generally champions of a high mid-major conference. These teams have had to win pressure games leading up to the tournament while the fives have generally had their tickets punched long before Selection Sunday. In recent years, a twelve has also been one of the last at-large teams from a power conference. With 68 teams now in the field these teams can build a little momentum by winning that First Four game in Dayton.
5. Don’t fall in love with a great coach. Yes, coaching is a factor in the tournament but players ultimately win games. While there are many outstanding coaches in the game today, there are few transcendent coaches who can significantly make up for a lack of talent.
6. Ignore the early season. In today’s college basketball landscape, with talented freshmen playing a major role, it often takes time for a team to gel. The selection committee supposedly seeds based on a team’s overall body of work. When it comes to choosing winners, look at February forward as a more reliable barometer of a team’s projected success.
7. Put little stock in home wins. Virtually everyone knocks off a quality team at home during the course of the season. This is especially true during conference play as the season gets long come late January. Don’t be put off by a team with a bad loss on the road during this portion of the season.
8. Take a good defensive team that can score over a great defensive team that can’t.
The next few tips are when the teams appear to be fairly even in talent:
9. Take the team from the power conference. These teams are more battle tested. A team from a power conference has won every national championship since at least the time I was born. I’m not so young anymore if that helps.
10. Ask yourself: Which team has the best guard play? College basketball more than ever is dictated by great guards over size.
11. Location matters, particularly teams in the Pacific Time Zone often struggle when they head east. Think Wichita State beating Arizona in the first round last year in Providence, Rhode Island.
12. When deciding which teams can make a deep run, go with teams that can win in multiple ways. Teams that are great defensively but go stretches without scoring are a red flag to me. Same with teams that really struggle against zones or may have a difficult time when they can’t run up and down the floor. The most versatile teams are the ones that tend to cut down the nets following six games.
13. Who has the best alpha dog? Which team has a player or players who can put a team on their back and carry them to victory?
14. Get lucky. Despite the best preparation for filling out your bracket there is no accounting for the buzzer beating shots, spectacular plays, and all that is March Madness. Hey, if we could correctly pick every game, why would we watch? When winning the contest I entered in 2013, Michigan’s Trey Burke needed to make a long three-pointer to end regulation against Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen. If he doesn’t’ make that shot, I don’t even sniff the top of the standings.
Then again, maybe the one who picks their bracket based on mascots, color schemes, or location is on to something.