Now that the bracket is set and all the hoop-la of conference tournaments is over, we can move onto the madness. I've seen some success in past years in my local bracket pools, and so I'm offering up some tips. If you want to win the SCS.com contest, have a legitimate shot at the local office, or bring home family bragging rights, pay attention!
Tip #1: Pick the bracket backwards
This is my best tip, and so here it is at the front. Instead of filling out the bracket from round to round forward, start by penciling in your national champion and work backwards. The main reason to do this is if you pick your bracket forwards like most people do, then you are comparing teams from the Sweet 16 forward who will more than likely not end up playing each other. For example, you may think Ohio State matches up really well against Florida in the Minneapolis bracket, but what if the Buckeyes fall to a tough second round opponent in Georgetown? All of a sudden Florida has a better matchup and that Ohio State in the Elite 8 pick does not seem as good. In leagues that reward later rounds with more points, this is a plan for success.
Unfortunately tip #1 is hard to work with this year because the parity in college basketball is even more prevalent than usual. All of the 1 seeds seem very vulnerable, and it does not get any better going down the line. There are ten legitimate threats to take down the nets in Indianapolis in April, so starting at the end will be especially hard. It is still the correct thing to do, to make certain your Sweet 16 and beyond picks are not based too much on a matchup which may not exist.
Tip #2: Play the Numbers Game in the Final Four
In the first round and beyond, there are some rules of numbers you should follow. These are natural if you have been picking for a long time, but it is still an important thing to keep in mind. Usually 1 to 2 top seeds make the Final Four, and this year should be no different. Even though you should have a couple low seeds (7+) in the Sweet 16, the Final Four should probably not have any teams seeded lower than 5, as the second weekend usually brings out the best in the top teams.
Tip #3: Play the Numbers Game Early
For the past 5 years, a 12-seed has knocked off a 5-seed every year. This usually happens because the 5 seed line has a couple slumping premier teams, while the 12 seed line usually has a couple of the hottest and most talented mid-major conference tournament champions. This year the 12 seeds are Texas A&M, Kent State, Utah State, and Montana. Not only is this lot unexciting, but the 5 seeds look stronger than usual as a group this season.
Nevertheless, it is probably worth the risk to pick one of these dogs (my money is on Kent State personally), and try to get lucky. The 11 seeds are much more exciting however, and San Diego State, Southern Illinois, and Wisconsin Milwaukee are dangerous traps in the first round. There are typically 7 to 8 first round upsets, and counting the usual split of 7-10 and 8-9 games, you should try to find 3 to 4 teams seeded 11 or lower to put your hopes on. Although picking the champion and the Final Four is way more critical (and so were the first two tips), the first round is where you set up your positioning for the rest of March and April.
Tip #4: Location is Key
While much will be made of the pod system and how the top four seeds in each bracket usually get placed close to home for the first weekend of games, not all teams could be accommodated (see Illinois and North Carolina for examples). These locations, as well as the regional sites, are critical if one team will have a huge home-court type advantage. This is sometimes irrelevant if a team has a great matchup or plays well in road game conditions, but a bad venue is not good news for teams who struggle on the road. This can take more research than it is worth sometimes, but if you really want to win your pool, the extra effort might catch you a few extra points.
Tip #5: Nobody is an Expert
Over the next few days, you will undoubtedly be bombarded by writers from all the major sports networks, and even your co-workers, about the upset alerts and locks for the Final Four. Every year most of these experts look terrible in the end when they do not anticipate the big upsets. You have to take some risks on your bracket to win because if you don't, somebody else will.
Without fail, someone has entered my pool with a bracket by the straight numbers (8 beats 9, 4 beats 5, so on) every year, but they never have won to this date. You have to risk it all to win it all, and the experts cannot help you that much. Unlike most professional sports, these teams only get one shot at winning and an off-day can mean disaster for anyone from Duke and Connecticut to Hampton and Monmouth. Throw the dice, and maybe you'll guess this year's Bucknell or Wisconsin-Milwaukee (two lower seeded teams making the Sweet 16 last year).
Brief Analysis of the Bracket
Now I will discuss the bracket a little bit and what I see, but I am not an expert as explained above. Air Force should not be in the tournament, and Missouri State and Cincinnati are very dubious missing teams. All that said, this is how each region looks at first glance.
Duke gets a beautiful second round game from either a banged-up George Washington or an underrated UNC-Wilmington. I do not expect the Devils to see trouble until an Atlanta date with Syracuse or LSU, but they might have a rough Saturday. My upset pick here is Southern Illinois, as I'm afraid West Virginia is limping into the big dance and will not make a miracle run for the second straight year. This region looks like it will go to form until four teams reach Atlanta, but then the bloodbath will begin.
Memphis gets shipped out west, and this is bad news for the Tigers. UCLA and Gonzaga will be tough outs for anyone in this region, but there are at least six teams which can reasonably make Final Four runs. The upset special here is Indiana over Gonzaga as the Bulldogs have underachieved in the NCAA recently, and Indiana will continue to rally behind their lame-duck coach Mike Davis. Of course they must escape a tough first game with San Diego State, but I like their chances to get to Oakland for the Sweet 16.
Washington D.C. Region
This region looks like the first round will go almost to form with most high seeds moving onto the second round. If Illinois can escape San Diego this weekend, they have a nice chance against UConn. My upset special in this region is Wichita State over Tennessee. Actually I'll even take Seton Hall over Tennessee. I highly doubt the overrated Volunteers make it to D.C., but even if they do, I believe the North Carolina/Michigan State winner will take care of them.
Finally we get the region with the most potential for upsets and perhaps the hardest region to get to Indy from. For starters, Villanova is much more beatable if Allen Ray is not 100%. Ohio State went cold against Northwestern's Princeton-style of basketball and could have a lot of trouble against Georgetown, who is much more talented than Northwestern and plays the same style. Florida will have to watch the upset bug, as South Alabama, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Oklahoma are all just as good as the South Carolina team that took Florida to the brink of losing the SEC title game. Boston College gets a Thursday noon game in Utah after playing their third tough opponent in three days at the ACC Tournament Sunday, so they could come out too rusty to stick around. This region could have all the top 4 seeds in Minneapolis, or just as likely, we could see Wisconsin (9), Nevada (5), Wisconsin-Milwaukee (11), and Georgetown (7) battling it out next weekend.
Well there's my initial thoughts on the bracket and how you should fill out your bracket. I hope you find the same success I have had using these simple tips for success, and we should all be in for a great March this year. Best of luck to you in your pools and to your favorite team in the Big Dance!