Tips to Help You Win Your NCAA Bracket

There are several secrets your friends may not know

Let the Madness begin! The 2013 NCAA men’s basketball tournament has arrived, and with it comes the great gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands as millions of bracket analyzers pore over their sheets in an effort to cut down their own proverbial nets after a pool victory. (Click here for a printable bracket, courtesy of NBC Sports.)

There are no sure things in life, and especially during March Madness. But there are some basic tips you can consider before marking up that bracket in ink. Here are 10 of them designed to at least keep you in the running past the opening day:

DON’T BE STUPID: There is the inevitable temptation to select a team that comes into the tournament hot. Seasonal momentum is overrated. There could be any number of reasons why a team struggles toward the end of the regular season, or makes a less-than-impressive showing in its conference tournament—injuries, officiating, scheduling, cold shooting, bad matchups, etc.

It’s more important to take a look at a team’s overall season—the peaks and valleys, the quality wins, road performances—and determine whether the team you’re picking to advance deep in the NCAA tournament has the overall strength to do so, and isn’t just teasing the public. Since it’s a crapshoot anyway, you want to put your support behind teams—typically teams among seeds 1-4—that have earned respect all season long.

THE NUMBER 12: After you get past the top four, there’s five. And for whatever reason, No. 12 seeds have had No. 5s’ number. There have been 38 instances in which a No. 12 seed has defeated a No. 5 seed in the first round; last year it occurred twice, by South Florida (over Temple) and VCU (over Wichita State).

Of course, there are four No. 12 seeds, so which ones exactly? Again, strength of schedule and overall performance—especially on the road—are key factors in choosing upsets. Experience counts, too, although in this wacky one-and-done era of college hoops, it doesn’t count for as much as it once did.

TALENT RULES: There are reasons why you rarely see a double-digit seed in the Final Four, the foremost of which is talent. The top programs like Duke, Kansas, Indiana, Louisville, Michigan State, et al., manage to amass the best players, and at this time of year they tend to outclass lesser assemblages.

Naturally, talent alone isn’t enough. There have been plenty of programs over the years that put together a McDonald’s all-star team on their rosters, then watched as it fizzled. Chemistry and coaching are essential elements. But it all works in unison: The top schools tend to get the top coaches, who are adept at maximizing their teams’ gifts. So given a choice between a plucky double-digit seed overachiever and a smooth-running high-level machine at a major school, the latter will prevail more often than not.

ELITE EIGHT: By the time you’ve filled out your bracket up until the Elite Eight, you will have weeded out all the pretenders. Percentage wise, most of the remaining teams will be higher seeds. Therefore, forget the seeds at this point. What is more important is how the remaining eight match up with each other. And for that you’re going to have to use good old hardwood reasoning, factoring in such ingredients as scoring rankings, defensive rankings, depth and performances on the road. It’s still all guesswork, but it’s educated guesswork, so choose wisely by taking the strongest overall contenders for your Final Four.

CAN’T GO WRONG WITH NO. 1: Usually. It’s extremely rare when all four No. 1 seeds reach the Final Four. It happened once, in 2008—UCLA, Kansas, Memphis and North Carolina.
But No. 1 seeds individually have the highest percentage chance to advance, and the highest chance to win it all. So if you want a perfect bracket, you’re going to have to assume that a non-No. 1 or two is likely to barge into the Final Four. So it’s up to your gut to decide which ones. Just keep in mind that, if you’re playing the odds, the highest seeds continue to be the best bets.

SENTIMENT: Don’t pick your alma mater; chances are it isn’t nearly as good as you think it is. Don’t pick a team because your spouse likes the uniforms, or because of regional bias, or because you think one school is overexposed, or you hate the coach for some reason. Sentiment has no place in the cold, cruel world of filling out NCAA tournament brackets. Imagine that you bet your house on the outcome—and for some, that’s not so farfetched a notion—and you have to perform this bracket task with cold, calculating efficiency. There is no other way.

SECOND SEED BLUES: There is often a considerable dropoff in quality between a No. 1 seed and a No. 2 seed. Generally this is because No. 1 seeds are programs with long histories of success that have accomplished yet another outstanding campaign, whereas sometimes a No. 2 seed is a middle-of-the-road program having an unusually strong season.

What happens is that No. 2 team has a deer-in-the-headlights moment, usually in the second round of the tournament. A spunky, feisty, lower-seeded team recognizes vulnerability and strikes, bouncing that No. 2 out. Take a good look at the four No. 2 seeds, identify the weakest one, and declare it an upset victim.

BEWARE OF AUTOMATIC BIDS: Scrutinize the team that gained an automatic bid by winning its conference tournament. That team deserves kudos, but it doesn’t deserve your long-standing love.

Many times a program that had an uninspired regular season manages to turn it on and prevail in a conference tourney to gain the automatic bid. Then, after the euphoria of qualifying for March Madness has evaporated and the harsh reality of NCAA tournament competition arrives, that team wilts and disappears.

SWEET SIXTEEN DOUBLE DIGITS: Often a double-digit seed will earn the Sweet Sixteen, so it’s the wise bracket boss who makes that shrewd pick. Obviously the question is: Which one?

Again, don’t choose by momentum or school colors. For instance, last year VCU was No. 12 and upset No. 5 Wichita State to gain the Sweet Sixteen; the year before VCU was seeded 11th and made the Final Four. In that case, putting your faith in head coach Shaka Smart had some basis in reason. If you’re going to gamble on a double-digit seed—and that gamble can often pay off—make sure you have plenty of evidence to make that case.

ABOVE ALL, KEEP THIS IN MIND: There are no great teams in this 2013 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. There are several capable of making a run at the title. And everything is relative, so even though the so-called elite isn’t as strong as in years past, the rest of the field is middling to match it.

That’s why you should be prepared for the fact that this year’s bracket may not follow form. The overall strategy should be to play the percentages, leaving a little room for instinctive judgments so that you’re not playing complete chalk and will therefore have a somewhat unique bracket that will put you ahead of the competition. Just prepare yourself for the fact that this year’s event may be more volatile than usual.

C’mon, share a secret with us: What strategies do you use when putting together your bracket? Tell us in the comments.

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