Conference tournaments are underway, which means we are mere days away from the unveiling of the bracket for the 2017 NCAA Tournament. For the next three days from that moment there will be a frenzy as everyone - from the most hardcore of college basketball fans to those who barely know it exists 49 weeks a year to those who couldn't tell you what shape a basketball is - scramble to fill out their branckets and gain riches and bragging rights by winning their pool.
There is a lot of really dumb money that pours into most pools. You have a choice to make - you can either be as dumb as the rest or you can follow these three tips that will greatly improve your chances of winding up a winner. It's up to you:
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1. Pick your top teams before you look at the bracket.
The worst thing you can do is go into the bracket without having done some homework first. When you are making decisions based on matchups on the bracket then you are vulnerable to whatever your biases are, and you can wind up backing teams you don't necessarily like the best.
Instead, figure out which teams you like most before you see the bracket. Then you can evaluate their path to see if it suits the team and if you still like them. This will allow you to effectively determine whether the best teams have a draw that will let them shine. It also allows you to more effectively spot top seeds that you don't give much of a chance to.
If you haven't done this homework then you could easily be blinded by a top seeding and overcompensate for that instead of actually evaluating them based on what you expect from them. By taking this approach you are effectively taking control of your selections instead of letting the bracket dictate and control your picks for you. Also, with this approach you are more likely to have a different approach from most people than you will if you just make your picks like most people do.
2. Don't fall in love with the top seeds.
The top seeds in the tournament are the best teams in the nation, but the gap between them and the rest is not large, and it's far from uncommon to see these top seeds to fall. They don't even necessarily have to play badly to lose. Sometimes it's because they weren't deserving of their seed. Other times it just because they ran into another good opponent and fell short - anything can happen in single-elimination tournaments.
Last year North Carolina was the only top seed to make the Final Four, and they lost in the finals. There have been 32 tournaments played since the field expanded to 64 teams (and now beyond that). In that time, 2008 was the only tournament in which all four No. 1 teams have advanced to the Final Four. Twice as often - in 2006 and 2011 - the Final Four has entirely lacked a top seed.
So, when you are making your pick you have to have tremendous respect for the top seeds but not so much that you are afraid to pick against them if the matchup warrants it. Remember, though, not to pick that upset in the first round - at some point a No. 16 will likely win a game, but in 128 tries it hasn't happened so far, so betting on it now is a terrible idea.
3. Upsets aren't for winners.
When everyone talks about the tournament they always talk about the big upsets and the Cinderella teams. That's what makes the memories. Mostly, though, the tournament is a pretty straightforward affair - the better team wins much more often than not.
Picking big upsets is a way to get bragging rights if you are right, but when you almost certainly are not then you are in real trouble. Look at the No. 15 seeds against the No. 2 in the first round, for example. Last year Middle Tennessee stunned Michigan State in the first round before falling to eventual Final Four team Syracuse next time out. Impressive, and fun for anyone but Spartans fans, but that was just the eighth time in 128 of those matchups that the underdogs have won. That means that 94 percent of the time the higher seed wins these matchups. Picking against a 94 percent outcome is not a particularly good idea.
And then there is just a practical consideration. If you pick a No. 15 to win and you are right then you get a small number of points for that win and then likely not much else because it is very unlikely that that team wins again. In the far-more-likely event that the higher seed wins, by not picking them you are forgoing not only those first-round points but also all the other points that the No. 2 might gain with other wins - points that most of your competitors will be getting, putting you in a disadvantage. So, your likely gain is small, and your likelihood of that gain is low, while the likelihood of falling behind others is high.
It's just not worth the risk of picking upsets here - and the same goes for the No. 14 and No. 13 teams. It's only once you get to the 5-12 matchup that things start to get interesting.
Think of it this way - winners of pools aren't those who score points in the first round. They are the ones who get the most Elite Eight teams right, and that just isn't likely to be a low seed. Forego dreams of short-term glory to increase your shot at a win really worth bragging about.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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