Yes, it may be a bit presumptuous of me to give advice on picking a winning NCAA Tournament bracket, because I'll admit my record of recent tournaments isn't the greatest. I tend to avoid top seeds and look for value elsewhere. Unfortunately for me, No. 1 seeds have had a pretty good run recently. But what the hell, I'll take a crack at it anyway. Here are my tips on how to fill out a winning March Madness bracket
Now, we've all heard the stories about the guy who won the March Madness brackets office pool by picking schools from states he'd gotten drunk (or better) in. Or the guy who won the pool by matching mascots in imaginary battles in a land where Bruins fight Spartans, Wildcats scrap with Tigers and Buckeyes (whatever they are) and Jayhawks (ditto) do whatever it is they do. And how about the gal who won the money with her theory of team colors, based on rock-paper-scissors, where blue beats green, green beats red and red beats blue?
Most of us who follow college basketball even marginally can fill out a decent NCAA office-pool bracket in short time. And picking just the top seeds, and sending all the No. 1 seeds to the Final Four, could very well get you in the money. But I like to think that picking a winning bracket takes a bit more thought than that.
Back to School
If you're going to take winning your pool seriously, my first bit of advice would be to do some homework. If you're a casual college basketball fan you've still probably seen many of the top-ranked teams play, as well as those in the home conference of your favorite team. So you might have an idea of how good (or not-so-good) at least some tournament entrants really are.
But what about outfits like Creighton or Long Beach State or Harvard? What do you know about them? What's their experience level? Have they beaten anybody of note? Who did they lose to? Of their losses, how many have been close or tough? Do they make their free-throws? How are they on the boards? Those are good things to know when trying to figure out if a team is capable of pulling a first-round upset, and/or advancing to the second weekend of play.
Beware Taking Too Many Davids
The first round of the tournament always involves at least a handful of upsets. And we all like to be right when most everybody else is wrong. But unless you're involved in a pool with some kind of weighted scoring system, an upset on a six-vs.-11 seed game is worth the same as a No. 1 seed's blowout of a 16.
And even when an underdog pulls off an opening-round surprise, they often have a tough time repeating that feat. So poolies should weigh the benefits of taking more than a few dogs against the possible risks.
Numbers You Should Know
Now, here are some numbers poolies might want to keep in mind.
Last year the higher seeds won 25 of the 32 “first round” games (actually officially referred to as the second round since the play-in games are now considered the first round), which compared to other recent tournaments was a little heavy. In 2010 higher seeds went 22-10 in the first round, and in '09 they went 21-11.
Last year the higher seeds then went 11-5 in the third round They also went 11-5 in 2010. And they went 15-1 in '09.
So I think it’s safe to say higher seeds will win at least two out of every three second-round games, and two out of every three third-round games.
After the first weekend, though, last year's tournament became a bit of an anomaly in that a three seed, a four, an eight and an 11 made the Final Four. Compare that with 2010 when the Final Four consisted of a one, a two and two No. 5s. In '09 it was two ones, a two and a three. And in 2008 all four No. 1 seeds made it to the Final Four.
Since 2000 the Final Four berths break down like this: one seeds have earned 18 berths, two seeds 10 berths, three seeds seven spots and four seeds three spots.
So let's face it; taking ones and twos to go to the Final Four will probably keep you in the running in your pool. After all, they've claimed 28 of the last 48 Final Four berths.
Major Conference Bias
The NCAA and its media partners love to play up the “Cinderella” aspect of the tournament and foster the idea that the “little guys” have just as a good a chance to make the Final Four as the big boys from the major conferences. In actuality, though, the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12 and SEC have combined to account for 30 of the last 40 Final Four berths.
Yes, George Mason, Butler and VCU have each made Final Four appearances in recent seasons. But when they do it's a surprise, and you can't count on surprises to win your Big Dance pool.
A Few Final Points
OK, beyond the obvious, here are a few final tips for you poolies out there.
In picking games that might be considered toss-ups, go with the teams that have been playing the better basketball in recent weeks, and be wary of teams that may have peaked earlier in the season.
Then again, I'm also wary of teams that won their conference tournaments the weekend before the Big Dance. Those teams have typically played three games in three days shortly before the tournament, and while they may be feeling good about themselves, they may also be a bit dogged.
On the other side of that coin, teams that lost in their conference tournaments may enter the NCAA Tournament with a little more rest, and with some hunger and/or anger. And I do subscribe to the theory that a loss late in the season can be a good thing for a good team going forward.
Poolies should also be wary of “chic” or fashionable upset picks. You might like a No.11 to beat a No. 6 in the first round, but if every so-called “expert” and pundit out there jumps on that bandwagon, you might want to hop off. Players watch ESPN, too, and it's almost inevitable some of that blather works its nefarious ways on young heads.
Steer Clear of the Beer – For the Moment
And finally, when trying to pick a winning bracket, I advise you to do it sober. From personal experience I can relate that alcohol tends to lead to hasty decisions. And such decisions rarely pay off on the Tuesday following the National Championship Game. Besides, we can celebrate later, when counting our winnings.
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