There are three things that need to be mentioned before I begin to list off my rules for making bracket selections:
1. I am not particularly adept at picking a bracket that will win anything. I have finished dead last in bracket contests that I organized. I have chosen teams to reach the Final Four who have subsequently lost their first game in the tournament. I have also had successes, but I have absolutely had failures.
2. No one is actually good at this. It is a crapshoot. It is 98% luck. Without going as far to say that your dog could beat you, anyone who can grasp the general concept of seeding can pick based on any set of criteria and create a winning bracket.
3. Bracket success comes not from money, but from pride. Did you choose the champion? How were your Final Four picks? Did you stick your neck out and nail an upset or a Cinderella run? These are the questions that matter. I don’t care if the arbitrary amount of assigned points adds up to an office pool win. I care if you can watch “One Shining Moment” after the title game and be proud of your bracket. If you never crumple it up and throw it towards a trash can, you have succeeded.
#1: If you disagree with the above and are primarily concerned with winning your pool, pick the chalk.
If you’re most concerned with bringing home bacon, stick to the highest seeds and best bets. Consult Las Vegas’ favorites and choose them to advance. Make your upset picks subtle and not earth-shattering.
The odds are in your favor. People who place their eggs into the basket of one or two heavy favorites may lose all of their hopes in one game. You may be hurt by upsets when you pick chalk, but if you play safe enough, your bracket will be somewhat bulletproof. You will be in the mix, unless chaos reigns more than usual.
Which I hope it does because this is the no-fun, buttoned-up way to play. On to the fun stuff.
#2: Your Final Four’s seeds should add up to more than 7.5.
Historically, this is going to happen. We haven’t had a Final Four seed sum under 7.5 since 2009. It’s only happened 4 times since 2000.
I’m not advocating leaving the #1 seeds at home (especially not this year), but shoot for an outlier or two.
#3: A double-digit seed will make the Sweet Sixteen. Find them.
Since 1985, only twice has a double-digit seed failed to advance to the second week. On average 2.26 Cinderellas sneak through. It’s one thing to spot the team that will win once. It’s next level to spot the second upset.
#4: Pick at least one #10 seed, one #11 seed, one #12 seed, and one #13+ seed to win their first round game.
You should never use the phrases “my upset” or “the one upset I picked”. No, you should be picking much, much more than one. The 12s have become the trendy pick that everyone looks for, but there’s always gold in the even higher seeds. Look for teams that play a distinct style, have the size to keep up, or are filled with senior leadership to tussle with the big boys.
#5: Geography and game times are very important.
Just as NFL fans (and gamblers) have known for years, flying from the West Coast to the East Coast can be a burden on the body. The other way isn’t especially easier either. Be very wary of teams travelling far, particularly if they are playing early in the afternoon or late at night.
Not to mention, home town crowds can swing a game. If the higher seed isn’t exceptionally close to home, the entire building may be cheering for a fiesty underdog by about the second half 12 minute media timeout. For example, when Florida Gulf Coast topped Georgetown, that Philadelphia crowd (presumably with some of Nova Nation attendance) was quick to turn on the Hoyas.
When picking an upset, ask yourself, “If the lower seed hits a three with 10 minutes left to take the lead, how much of the crowd will be behind them?”. Kentucky playing in Lexington won’t lose a single fan. Duke playing in Houston or Wisconsin/Villanova out West can’t count on the same fate.
#6 : Your head is smarter than your heart, but who cares?
I pick Gonzaga, my favorite team, to reach their best case scenario every year. When they were a #1 seed in 2013, I picked them to win it all. When they lost early, I didn’t even care about my bracket. The years I don’t pick them to win the title, I hate the part of me that justifies the loss by saying “Well, it is better for my bracket.”
If you’re a fan of a team that can win the whole tournament, pick them to win the whole tournament. This is a superior way to live your life.
#7 : Pick a unique champion.
Speaking of champions, this is the one place picking the favorite hurts your chances at winning a pool. If you do and they do win, your first five rounds have to be better than everyone else who picked them. Go more obscure, though still realistic with your champ and your bracket is invigorated.
This year, this is a tough task. At the end of the day though, would you rather want to beat out all the Kentucky believers or take your chances on Virgina, Wisconsin, Villanova, Duke, Arizona, or Gonzaga beating the Cats? THAT’S RIGHT I SAID GONZAGA.
#8: Rooting for chaos is more important than rooting for your bracket.
Unless large sums of money are involved, this is always true. If a top seed is on the ropes, unless that team is YOUR team, you have to chose rooting for the upset. I don’t care if you picked them to win it all or you have their top scorer in the Palestra Back Fantasy Shootout (Still plenty of time to sign up!), March is supposed to have madness. It’s the madness that makes it great. Wait, I think I just stumbled into a Tom Hanks quote.
#9. If a game is truly stumping you, ask yourself these 5 questions:
Who is the best player in this game?
Who has the better coach?
Who has better guards?
Who has better big men?
Who is playing closer to home?
Whichever side wins that best out of five should be your pick.
#10. You get one bracket. That’s it.
None of this “Oh I picked them to make the Final Four in my friend’s bracket, but in my office one I picked someone else.”
It doesn’t matter how many pools you enter, if you pick Virginia to win it all, that’s what you’re eating for dinner. This is not a buffet. Now eat your Virginia and go straight to bed.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and writer at PalestraBack.com. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.
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