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Just about any honest, red-blooded American knows of or has participated in an NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament pool. However, just because people have taken the time to write school names on paper that does not mean that they know how to fill out your NCAA Tournament bracket.
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Heck, even the "experts" on SportsCenter proved this weekend that they don't know how to fill out an NCAA Tournament bracket! Jay Bilas is one of the most respected college basketball minds in the nation, and even he committed the cardinal sin of putting all four No. 1 seeds in the Final Four. Unforgivable, and it's pretty safe to say that he won't be seeing his $20 back for winning the pool.
Filling out a bracket is part science, part art, and all Zen. It can be as simple or as complicated and developed as you would like it to be, and I think there's a lot that you can learn about a person by their approach to filling out an NCAA. You can get a sense of their daring and whimsy. You can get a sense of how the logic portion of their brain works and how they reason. And you can find out if they no squat about the Mid-American Conference.
But while every approach is different, there are definitely some rules and guidelines that one should adhere to or consider as they try to impart Order to The Madness. I've written down six basic, beginner NCAA Tournament bracket tips in this space that will help you win your office pool:
1. Pick the winner first.
Everyone gets hard nipples over being able to predict the "unbelievable" upset in the first round. But filling out your bracket is kind of like playing a par-5 golf hole (or a par-6, if you will): drive for show, putt for dough. You can't win your office pool if you don't pick the winner, because 99 percent of pools are weighted so that you get more points for picking winners later in the tournament. Bragging about that No. 13 beating that No. 4 seed is cute. But I'd rather be the guy running my mouth about how I'm going to spend your $10 after I won the whole NCAA Tournament pool.
So Step 1 in my NCAA Tournament bracket tips is to pick the winner. A No. 1 seed has won 21 of the past 29 tournaments so that's a good place to start. But try to pick a team that a majority of other people won't be backing. For instance, I bet that six of every 10 people in your office are going to pick North Carolina to win it all. Therefore, you can get an edge by being one of the other dudes that has Memphis or UCLA. That way, if your team does win you'll only be competing with a few other brackets. You can also use that same rationale for picking a No. 2 or a No. 3 seed, because if your horse comes in you're nearly guaranteed to cash.
And for chrissakes, if you fill out more than one bracket don't be fool enough to have the same team winning all of them.
2. Don't pick all the favorites.
You may want to have a No. 1 seed as your overall winner, but you really shouldn't have more than two No. 1's making the Final Four. In case you've been in an Afghani cave over the past decade, the NCAA Tournament is the most unpredictable sporting event on the calendar. Nothing goes according to plan. So expecting form to hold and for all the favorites to make it to the final weekend is naive.
At the end of the first weekend, two of the top eight teams (the No. 1's and the No. 2's) are going to be home. It happens every year. You don't have to try to predict which unfortunate souls those will be, but you can insulate yourself by putting some No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, and No. 6 teams in your Elite Eight.
3. Don't get Upset Crazy.
You don't get to brag if you pick every No. 13 seed to beat a No. 4 seed, and then one actually does. It doesn't work that way. You want to mix in a few random winners along the way but you don't want to try to predict the chaos that's about to ensue. That's the whole point of March: it's uncontrollable. It's hubris to think that you can predict every crazy twist and turn, and you're just going to screw your bracket if you try to do so.
This also goes back to what I mentioned before about the scoring in your league. You get more points by picking winners later in the tournament. So picking an upset in the first round really doesn't do much for you. Instead, think about Sweet 16 upsets between more evenly matched teams. Think about a No. 6 beating a No. 2 or a No. 4 picking off a No. 1.
4. Know when to kick Cinderella to the curb.
It's cool to pick a No. 12 to beat a No. 5. It happens all the time. But having that No. 12 seed rally all the way to the Elite Eight is a bit much. The underdogs can have their moment or moments in the opening weekend, but after that size and talent generally win out. Again, if something like this does happen the then it's likely going to blow a lot of people's brackets. As long as your title team doesn't get knocked out you can only do more damage by trying to predict it than you can by trying to avoid it.
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5. Pay attention to W-L records.
This tip is more for people who maybe don't follow that much college basketball outside of their home conference or outside the BCS conferences. But you can tell a lot about a team based on what their record is, regardless of what league they are from. I'm not talking about the difference between a 25-9 team and a 22-10 squad. I'm talking about being able to spot a potential upset based on the fact that a team has an absurd record (like, say, 29-3). Teams with eye-popping records know one thing: winning. Those are teams you want to tab for an upset if they are the lower-seeded club because they clearly find ways to rack up Ws.
6. Trust your first instinct.
In the end, it's your bracket. Do what you want with it. It is supposed to be fun, and keep that in mind while you're inking up your paper. Don't try to outsmart yourself and go with your gut. If you can tab the winner you have a chance to win your bracket. If not, enjoy the ride.
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