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Bracket Smack

Whether it's a bracket pool for your office, family pool for fun or bragging rights among your buddies, here are tips that will give you a better shot at victory.

John Tranchina
February 28, 2018

Once reserved for just stat freaks and die-hard basketball fans, the phenomenon of March Madness bracket pools has gradually become a time-honored tradition for millions of people every year. The truth is, you don’t have to know a lot about college basketball to accurately predict how the annual NCAA tournament will play out. In fact, as many so-called experts will tell you, sometimes too much knowledge is a detriment. It’s easy to overthink it and often, that’s not necessary.

College basketball’s championship derby is an entertaining blast — complete with thrilling upsets and buzzer beaters — but it’s increasingly become a pressurized, almost compulsory endeavor, as hardcore fans and newcomers crunch data, consult athletic friends, and cluelessly guess to select the winners of a tournament that concludes April 2 at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

Each year, about 50 million people take part in online, office and “friendly” pools, filling out brackets and predicting how NCAA men’s basketball teams will fare with cash or bragging rights on the line. There’s no basketball spectacle quite like it, and no shared event that brings a workplace closer together, other than free doughnuts.

The NCAA Tournament comes around every year, which is great for those of us who believe it to be the greatest postseason event in sports — the first two days of which are particularly dramatic and exciting. But the reliability of this annual phenomenon comes with a downside — your boss knows that at best you’re going to slack off more than usual during these two days, and at worst you’ll be calling in “sick” at some point.

Never mind that you’ve entered for the last 10 years, have had your bracket obliterated after the first weekend every time, and sworn you would never again waste time and effort on such a fool’s errand. This is your year, because you’ve learned from your mistakes and will do things differently this time around.

Not sure about how to fill out a bracket for your pool? Fear not. Even the most respected college basketball experts can have a hard time figuring out which teams are destined for the Final Four.

Luckily, years of trial and error have provided a rough blueprint for bracket success. With a combination of mathematics, a general understanding of bracket etiquette and a bit of research into tournaments past, even a novice has a chance at dancing their way into the Final Four alongside their Cinderella pick.

Here are some things to consider that can help you do better in your pool this year.


Pick some upsets
The first point is, when you’re dealing with the middle seeds, especially the 8-9 and 7-10 games, even the 6-11 seeds, there’s not a whole lot separating those pretty good, mid-range squads.

There are always upsets in the early rounds, with double-digit seed teams advancing to the Sweet 16 almost every year. Last year, 11 seed Xavier played Cinderella, reaching the Elite Eight.

But don’t go crazy picking a 16 seed to upset a 1 seed. That is almost a virtual certainty not to happen. It’s also extremely rare for a 15 seed to defeat a 2, or for a 14 to beat 3. You really can’t risk picking that, because everyone else in your pool will pick the 2 or 3 to win and if they do, and especially if they go deep in the tournament like many will likely predict, you will lose valuable points. If one of those monumental upsets does happen, don’t worry too much, because everyone else will also have picked it wrong, and it won’t cost you much lost ground.

And when deciding between the top four seeds in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight rounds, don’t just pick the top seeds.

If you look back, every year, 2, 3 and 4 seeds (or higher) have reached the Final Four. Last year, it was 7 seed South Carolina and 3 seed Oregon. Only once (2008) have all four top seeds made the Final Four in the same year. Still, count on at least one, probably two, 1 seeds getting that far. Plus, what’s the fun in just picking all No. 1s? That’s like going to England and eating frozen fishsticks.


Pick Power 5 conference teams over mid-majors
It used to be that the general rule was to pick the teams from the elite, so-called Power 5 Conferences (which includes the Big East in basketball, even though that makes six) whenever they faced a team from one of the mid-major conferences, because they were used to facing better competition.

The last several years, though, that really hasn’t been as true, as top talent further spreads out across the college basketball landscape. Of course, one prime example is Gonzaga, which plays in the West Coast Conference and reached the national championship game last year after spending much of the season as the No. 1-ranked team.

Still, all that said, the savvy bracketeer would be more inclined to favor teams from the better conferences like the Big 12, SEC, ACC, Big 10 and Pac-12, as well as the Big East.


Don't get caught up in conference tournament results
It isn’t necessarily true that teams that win their conference tournament go on to enjoy success in the NCAA tourney, while the reverse is also accurate. If a high-level team loses early in its conference, it doesn’t mean they won’t advance far in the NCAA.

So, don’t put too much stock in how certain teams do the week before the Big Dance. Last season, Kansas lost in the Big 12 quarterfinals, but was still a 1 seed and reached the Elite Eight. Iowa State ended up winning the Big 12 title, but the 5 seed lost in the NCAA second round.

Likewise, Duke defeated North Carolina in the ACC semifinals and won the tournament, earning a 2 seed for the NCAAs, but wound up losing in the second round, while North Carolina, of course, went on to win the national championship.

South Carolina lost in the SEC quarterfinals, but advanced to the NCAA Final Four as a 7 seed. The list of examples goes on and on.


Don't fall in love with teams on winning streaks
Like the previous point, the hottest team doesn’t always carry it through the NCAA tournament, and any team can put it all together at the right moment.

For example, Villanova entered last year’s tournament as a 1 seed on a 12-1 hot streak, including a Big East Conference title, but the defending national champions were upset in the second round by Florida.

Florida, on the other hand, had gone 1-3 in its previous four games, including a disappointing loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC quarterfinals. They still earned a 4 seed, but were a team many picked to get upset early. Instead, they wound up knocking off Villanova and advanced to the Elite Eight.


Just one bracket
And one bracket only. Many would-be March Madness gurus decide to fill out multiple brackets in the vain hope of improving their odds at putting together a winner. Don’t be that guy or gal. In addition to drawing the ire of everyone you know, you’ll have spent hours hedging your bets with no guarantee of success. Do your research, make your picks once and hope for the best.


Avoid the U
Sure, it’s fun to believe and pick your alma mater to improbably win game after game, but it doesn’t pay to let loyalty cloud your judgment. Do your bracket a tough but necessary favor and eliminate the school that handed you a diploma when your head tells your heart to get its act together. While you’re at it, do the same for the hometown favorite. Because everyone around you is more likely to give Homeboy U the benefit of the doubt, you’ll get an edge by bouncing them early if they choke and ruin everyone else’s bracket but your own. If you are in an office full of Duke graduates, don’t go with the Blue Devils to win it all. If they do, you will have lots of company. And that means, for your bracket to come out on top, you will have to nail the early-round-games.


Throw some darts
Maybe throwing darts at the team names will help. Or have your 2-year-old pick the teams based on the logos they like best. That may end up being just as effective as studying the lineups, figuring out who is injured, and which team does best against a pressure defense.


Have fun
Don’t get discouraged. The key to winning any NCAA Tournament pool is not to have success early in the tournament, but to pick teams that last until the end. One or two teams can win it for you, even if your first two rounds seem to go horribly wrong.


With  bragging rights on the line, it’s easy to forget that March Madness is, first and foremost, a sporting event. Don’t let your obsession with crafting the perfect bracket interfere with your ability to enjoy the games.