2021 NCAA Tournament Bracket Advice and Tips
Welcome back, March Madness.
I remember exactly where I was last year when the tournament was officially canceled. It left me with an empty feeling, and March television just wasn’t the same without college basketball on from noon until midnight.
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This year, the tournament is being held at campuses in Indiana, which marks the first time in the history of the tournament that one state is hosting the entirety of the tournament. As an avid basketball fan, the location of the tournament doesn’t matter to me as long as the tournament happens and runs smoothly. As a bettor, the location is vital. Because as you will read about a bit later, these are kids we are talking about, and travel matters when handicapping the NCAA.
We’ve been filling out brackets since what seems like the beginning of time, and nobody has yet come out with a method to do the unthinkable, which is fill out a perfect bracket. The odds of doing so are 1 in 9.2 quintillion. That’s a nine with 18 zeros behind it. I’m not here to tell you that I have figured out a method that will help you defy the impossible odds, I’m here to help you understand what you should be looking out for when entering any March Madness bracket contest this season.
Let's take a look at some of the factors you should consider while filling out your bracket.
If you’re thinking of playing it safe this year and penciling in all No. 1 seeds to reach the Final Four, you will likely be disappointed when your bracket is busted around the Sweet 16. Only one time in NCAA tournament history have all four No. 1 seeds made it to the Final Four (2008).
Knowing that tidbit alone will save you the ridicule of having the chalkiest bracket the “zoom” office has seen. I know how frustrating it can be to hear about Todd in HR who has a near-perfect bracket because he picked teams based on which mascot would win in a fight or the color of their jersey, but luck plays a major role in any type of gambling. However, luck can only take you so far. That’s when research and knowledge come into play.
Trends are defined as something that keeps occurring over a period of time. They can be broken, but you should not expect them to be broken. I highly recommend not picking a No. 16 seed to upset a No. 1 seed. Just don’t do it.
In the tournament’s existence, the No.16 seed is 1-135. We all know about the massive upset that sent shockwaves through the sporting world as UMBC knocked off No. 1 Virginia and the game wasn’t even close. I’m telling you right now – that game was a one-off and will not happen again for a very long time. Virginia simply came out flat and could not catch up. Depending on your expectations for your bracket, capturing four free points should be a no-brainer.
Another trend you can think about following is trying to find that “Cinderella” team. This year, you have a few different options. In 2019, at least one 9, 10, 11, 12, and 13, seed won a first-round game. I’m not saying to pick every one of those higher seeds, but there will be a few games that end in an upset.
In 2016, only one out of the four No. 1 seeds made it to the Final Four. To take it one step further, over the last 16 years, top seeds in the tournament have earned 30 Final Four berths. The No. 2 seeds have made 16 Final Four appearances during that span, while the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds have made 10 and six Final Four appearances, respectively. Only once, has there been a tournament that featured all four No.1 seeds in the Final Four (2008)
However, stats and trends can only take you so far. At some point, you will have to look for the next x-factor, and in my opinion, the next factor is Home/Road records.
This year, the away records of teams are going to matter double. Every game will be played in the state of Indiana, which means for the first time in tournament history that March Madness will be held in a single state. The No. 1 seeds will not have the luxury of playing closer to home, but we don’t see those four teams needing home-court advantage to navigate their way through the early rounds.
While we get lost in the game itself and the gambling aspect, what we must remember is that these are kids we are dealing with. College teams are Jekyll-and-Hyde while playing on the road or in the friendly confines of their home gym. You should definitely consider a team’s away record before confidently backing them to move on in your bracket.
Good teams fare well on the road and have what it takes (experience, leadership, scoring) to get the job done in hostile territory. The mid-tier teams tend to buckle under the pressure. I know that most of these games are considered “neutral” for most teams (with the exception of those based in Indiana this season). However, the fact remains that the majority of the teams are traveling, and the travel not only affects the team but the support it receives as well. The further away a game is from home, the less fan support a team may get.
Strength of Schedule
This is a tricky topic to touch on this year just because of the COVID issues that the NCAA had to deal with from the start of the season and onward. In a “normal” year, teams would start out their season by playing a nonconference schedule before they enter into conference play late in the season. This year, COVID screwed that up and the nonconference schedule was very thin and teams that would normally go out of their comfort zone to play bigger schools and see how they stack up.
Heading into March Madness, you would be able to use that nonconference data to see how a team stacks up against teams with different styles from different conferences. This year you must take it with a grain of salt because teams could have been playing without some key players, or in some cases, teams would be playing games after having a week or two off because of COVID issues.
I suggest doing your due diligence on this topic and really look at which teams played which and how they fared in those games. It’s important to remember that while a win is only worth one win in the standings, and some wins are more impressive than others. Be sure to understand if a team has played up to the level of their competition and actually competed well with them, or if they played a very weak nonconference schedule that they sleepwalked through to a near-flawless record. Battled-tested teams are teams I’d be more willing to back than teams who haven’t faced adversity before.
Momentum is one of those things where there is no measurable data to compare it to. If you’ve ever watched a game (in any sport), you can simply just tell when a team is gaining momentum just by the way the game is playing out and the level of play the team has raised itself to. In college basketball, momentum is perhaps one of the biggest influences of a game you can find. We are dealing with kids, after all. And instead of looking at a team's win-loss record, you should look at how a team has performed in its last 10 games to get a better understanding of where they are as a team. Momentum plays a big factor late in the year. And for teams struggling down the stretch and backing into conference tournaments, that should be a red flag for bettors to consider.
On the contrary, a team that has notched several noteworthy wins down the stretch in conference play could possibly be a team to back going forward. However, tread lightly, because not all teams who are on a hot streak match up well with their tournament opponent.
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