Tips, tools, and other anecdotes on how to build the best March Madness bracket possible
Leave it to a man with more money than the rest of the free world to get casual fans spontaneously excited about a sporting event they would otherwise have no business caring about. It was in late January that the world’s richest Creighton Blue Jays fan, billionaire Warren Buffett, announced he would take part in a stunning joint venture with Quicken Loans (who are led by Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert). In a process that predates the internet, fans of all shapes, sizes, collegiate allegiances, and fluctuating levels of interest have submitted their predictions for the endless labyrinth that is the NCAA basketball tournament since it expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Many predictors have won their pools merely by getting half of the picks wrong and being the one with the least damage on their sheet.
Now the Billion Dollar Bracket that will debut this year has the potential to be the sports fan’s version of a lottery ticket. Buffett and Gilbert are playing it by the numbers with the chance that no one will get all of the winners and losers right, an assumption that is more than safe if you look at the data. The chances of building a perfect bracket, according to one researcher, is 9.2 quintillion to one. I do not know what that number actually is, but I would bet that it is pretty sizable and that it is realistically impossible to pull it off. However, just like putting your numbers into the Powerball at the gas station around the corner, the unlikely nature of a perfect bracket will not stop me from submitting a bracket along with the millions of groups that will sprout out for different wagers over the next few days.
I am not here to judge your sheet of integrity depending on how many different scenarios you submit to the challenge, whether it be one or twenty. My goal, as a die-hard college basketball fan and tournament historian, is to merely help you along with some guidelines of what may work best for you and your bracket(s) so that you have that epic victory to flaunt off at the office for months to come. Just like the manic unpredictability of the NCAA Tournament itself, some of these rules may even contradict each other. It is also possible that one outweighs the other based on how you like to pick teams, whether it be which coach has the funniest facial gestures, which mascot is the coolest, or which school has the hottest cheerleaders. No matter what, every bracket has to be written down all the way until the end, and there will be a winner in the reality of college basketball along with the lesser confines of your workspace.
Without further ado, with the Tournament about to get underway, here is my manifesto for some tips you can use that could potentially help you not only build a better bracket, but build the best bracket. Slap the floor, get in your stance, and let’s play!
(Let me preface with some talk about the First Four, which are the four games that occur in Dayton, OH. Some bracket challenges have differing rules regarding whether or not the glorified play-in games should count against your picks. The ones on Yahoo and ESPN I have partaken in have not done that in years past, and two of the First Four games are worthless fights among low majors to see which 16 seed will eventually lose to the 1 seed. But there are the 11 seed matchups that can entice thought, and remember that VCU started their miracle run to the Final Four in 2011 by getting invited to the First Four. They beat USC in Dayton, and the Cinderella story had just written its first chapter. South Florida won in 2012, then got to the second round by beating Temple. This past year, it was La Salle who marched to the Sweet Sixteen after beating Boise State in the First Four. What I am saying is that although picking the winners of the First Four may not go against your record for certain brackets, there is a pretty good chance that one of those 11-seeded First Four winners will upset the 6 seed, so do not take a battle-tested team lightly, even if you get a mulligan.
Okay, so maybe it is a bit facetious to have an article titled “Perfect Bracket 101” and give you a rude awakening debunking perfect brackets right from the get-go. The truth is that, as you saw from the unthinkable odds I mentioned earlier, chasing a perfect bracket is a step in the wrong direction. If you try to meticulously obsess over picks to the point that you are convinced that you have the golden ticket, you have already lost. The key to any bracket from the very beginning is to have fun with it. If you concern yourself with certain schools you like or dislike and take it out on them by eliminating them early, you are likely to do pretty poorly. Leave your convictions and biases at the door and, like the Nike motto says, just do it.
If you think a 1-seed might go down in the Round of 32, give it a shot because there is a pretty good chance that by the time we get to that round, half of your competition is already kaput from doing all the wrong things. The key to winning the bracket challenge, according to most analysts, is to think with your head, but I have always taken the stance that thinking outside of the box and taking liberties in the later rounds is just as safe as the upset specials every analyst on TV and the internet will tell you to do this week. Because, hell, what is the fun in doing a bracket if you simply pick what everyone else likes? Be different at certain points, even if it means you will probably be wrong. Don’t chase a ghost like a perfect bracket when a winnable one is right within your reach.
THE “SHARON” THEORY
I titled this one based on a pretty hilarious NCAA-themed Coke Zero commercial (narrated by funnyman H. Jon Benjamin) that debuted last year. In the ad, two co-workers huddle at their cubicle debating their tournament sheets. One bails when the boss man pops up, only to have the winner of the office pool for the last seven years to creepily appear in taunting fashion: The melancholy Sharon. Benjamin hilariously calls it Sharon’s “reign of terror” over the work force that a woman with seemingly little to no interest in college basketball keeps winning the damn thing over and over while the other employees huddle endlessly in vain attempting to take the trophy away from her. It is never said exactly, but you can imply based on her plain Jane appearance that Sharon represents a prevalent occurrence. A person not as firmly committed to the goings-on of college basketball is sometimes more likely to do well than those who over think it, especially the ones who obsess over disastrous freshman point guards.
The message in the commercial, and in this bullet point, is the same: Don’t outsmart yourself. You could do this either by convincing yourself that a top seed will not get to the Final Four or by riding the coattails of a team with an elite scorer like Jabari Parker or Doug McDermott. I am not trying to say that picking Duke or Creighton will cost you this year, but am merely stating examples of why it is okay to relax that brain of yours and just pick the teams that you prefer in that particular match-up. Sure, it is healthy for some to exercise all those stat-gathering skills (like I do way too much) to try to figure out who will survive and advance in this crazy gauntlet. That is why the ditzy blonde or the non-caring custodian or guy over there who what’s his name again wins more often than people think. Thinking too long and too hard over your picks may be the one thing that ends with you staring into an abyss of failure, wondering how Sharon won the pool again. The lesson in a nutshell: Provoking thought about your bracket is okay, but don’t geek out too much.
ISOLATE, THEN EVALUATE
As much as people cannot wait to talk about how much they cannot stand Duke’s winning ways and self-absorption, Hall of Fame head coach Mike Krzyzewski said something long ago that I have always taken into account as the most important thread of advice in this puzzle of a tournament. Coach K is renowned for telling all of his players from Jay Bilas back in 1986 to Jabari Parker this week the same mantra when it comes to preparing for the NCAA Tournament. That message is to forget the macro and focus on the micro when it comes to your competition. The NCAA Tournament, in essence, starts as a four-team tournament and if you win your region three times in a row, you win it all. Krzyzewski tells all of his players not to worry about who are the top seeds in the other regions or how close the games might be or how dangerous they could be because those teams are going to knock each other out. The key to this motivational speech is to make his players focus on the now: All you have to do is beat the team in front of you and the winner of the other match-up two days later.
I have always felt that the best way to determine the tournament is to think like the players and coaches do, since they are, you know, the ones who are actually involved in the games and all. Those players and coaches do not worry about the national slate as much when they are in Buffalo or Orlando or San Antonio getting ready to play their next opponent, and neither should you. I break down every separate four-team elimination format region in the tournament from the first round onwards. There are 16 of these regions in the first two rounds and 22 altogether, which means that if you have a pretty high success rate in the first two rounds (which makes up more than two-thirds of the regions), then you will probably be in the hunt. Certain teams are great no matter where you send them, so location in neutral-site games should not be an obsessive detail in your case, but isolating the regions gives you a better idea of which teams might be in for some trouble. If you think a lower-seeded mid major might do well with the three other teams that might be in their way, then you might accurately pick the Cinderella team of the NCAA Tournament. Remember that a big victory starts with plenty of smaller victories, so although over thinking things can be dangerous, it is my M.O. to focus on each individual region regardless of the 68 other teams and take it one win at a time. I promise you this will not take as long as you would think.
STYLES MAKE FIGHTS
I will never forget being at work staring at my computer screen on ESPN’s Gamecast in despair when I saw the final score in the first round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament: Norfolk State 86, Missouri 84. I had gone on the Place To Be Podcast March Madness Preview going bananas about how much I loved Missouri’s guard-heavy, three ball-hurling style of play and how they would win the national title with a small ball lineup. Missouri was a 2 seed and had just breezed to the Big XII Tournament title while I got more and more excited that I picked the right horse to ride on. Then they went to Omaha for their first round game against 15-seeded Norfolk State out of the lowly MEAC, and my bracket immediately crumpled in my hands. Mizzou alum and PTBN contributor Todd Gessling and I were appalled by what we saw but, as time went by, I realized that I was so deep in the forest that I did not see the trees, and in Missouri’s case, it was the lack of trees.
While they had phenomenal guards like Kim English, the Pressey brothers, Mike Dixon, and Marcus Denmon to create an exciting brand of basketball, the Tigers only had one bigger player in Ricardo Ratliffe, and he was a finesse center even for college. Norfolk State’s Kyle O’Quinn was not only the MEAC Player of the Year but he wound up getting picked in the second round of the NBA Draft by the Orlando Magic. O’Quinn was the main reason behind Missouri’s shocking loss, piling in 26 and 14 rebounds while dominating the paint on both sides of the court the entire day. It taught me for good a key component to what makes the tournament so much fun: It is just as important to notice a team’s weaknesses and what an opponent can do to exploit them than it is to blindly glorify their qualities. This occurs often when a great player at a smaller school like C.J. McCollum at Lehigh takes down a top team like 2-seeded Duke, which is exactly what happened in 2012 (That happened the same night Missouri lost to O’Quinn’s Norfolk State team).
This might go slightly against my point that over-analyzing matchups can doom you at times, but if you see something in a team’s averages or the opposition that convinces you of an upset, then going for the team with the more advantageous style between the two would be the smartest thing. I also saw this happen to John Calipari’s first year at Kentucky when he had an awesome squad that included John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, and Eric Bledsoe. They dominated all three of their other tourney opponents before they played West Virginia. Bob Huggins’ team had all the attributes Kentucky either did not have or could not handle that day: Grit, defensive wingspan, togetherness, and experience. West Virginia beat Kentucky convincingly and went on the Final Four. You hear it all the time in boxing and MMA that styles make fights, and in the case of college basketball, that motto rings very true and comes up often when one loss against a well-equipped or tactically prepared team can end your season.
MOMENTUM MAY BE MOMENTARY
One of my favorite punch lines was in the movie “Zoolander” when Owen Wilson’s Hansel wins some random award at a ceremony and the mascara-donning evil guru Mugatu says to his assistant, “That Hansel is so hot right now.” That funny quote pops into my head sometimes when I see talking heads fawn over a team that has hit their stride come tournament time or if a player gets on a roll. Sometimes players like Danny Manning for Kansas in 1988 or Kemba Walker for UConn in 2011 are able to pull a rabbit out of their hat over and over all the way to the national title. But most of the time, out of the hundreds of schools over the years that are complimented for peaking at the right time or winning their conference tournament, it could all be smoke and mirrors. This happened back in 2012 when Florida State had beaten North Carolina in the regular season and then beat Duke and UNC in the conference tournament. The Seminoles got a 3 seed and seemed destined to go to the Sweet Sixteen. What we forgot, though, was that Florida State was a terrible offensive team who struggled against speedy teams. They barely held on against Saint Bonaventure in the first round before stumbling in the second round against Cincinnati.
Just because a team may not look the part or is passing with flying colors on their last impression before the tournament does not necessarily mean that the end is nigh. Let’s take an even more recent example in last year’s Michigan Wolverines. Trey Burke may have won the Wooden Award at seasons’ end, but going into the tournament, his team was not exactly clicking. They lost their last game of the regular season at home to Indiana not too long after a road loss to a terrible Penn State team. In the Big Ten Tournament, then lost badly to Wisconsin in the quarterfinals. Even Ken Pomeroy was down on the Maize and Blue because of their poor defensive efficiency numbers and turnover rate. But whatever motivation John Beilein needed to give his players certainly came to life when the actual tournament started as they blazed through South Dakota State and VCU. Then they pulled off a major upset by beating Kansas in overtime before taking out Florida in the Elite Eight and Syracuse in the Final Four.
The only time that momentum is ever mentioned in the NCAA Tournament are when teams actually get on run during the tournament itself, not leading up to it. The teams that can get hot in a hurry and have a player or game plan cunning enough to win four or six games in a row are the ones you have to watch. It could come down to one guy like Steph Curry at Davidson in 2008 or historically accurate three-point shooting like VCU had back in 2011. Being momentous can be a double-edged sword for teams that think they are playing at their very best going into a game. Just ask Houston in 1983, who wound up on the wrong side of perhaps the greatest moment in tournament history. And just like a team’s chances, moments can be fleeting or unexpected.
DON’T GET LOST IN THE CONFERENCE FOG
Certainly, it is evident that teams are either much better or not as strong since their last non-conference games around Christmas time. Conference play for all schools is invigorating for fans of rivalries, familiar settings, and tight finishes in the race for the regular season and tournament championships. However, the team I always picture when I think about the true importance of conference play in accordance with the NCAA Tournament is Kansas. Some Kansas teams have been better than others over the years including some who have, frankly, been overrated to an embarrassing degree. That has occurred often because the Jayhawks have won 10 regular season Big XII championships in a row. There have been some pretty awesome teams along the way, from the national championship squad in 2008 to the beloved scrappy squad that got to the title game in 2012. But let’s be honest: When you think of Bill Self’s teams who dominate conference play, the first thing you normally think of is disappointment.
Self’s struggles with Kansas in the NCAA Tournament after doing so well year after year in the Big XII teaches me one lesson: While important to building team identity and facing hostile crowds, conference play don’t mean squat when you get to the dance. I cannot count on my hands and toes how many teams have run roughshod over their conference opponents while everyone fell in love with their chances of winning it all, only to fall short of even making the Final Four. Kentucky in 2003 comes to mind when they went unbeaten in SEC play in 2003, only to lose to Dwyane Wade and Marquette in the Elite Eight. Florida also went undefeated in the SEC this season, so does that mean that picking Florida to win it all is a death wish? All teams respond to adversity differently, but when the safety net of playing the same style of play and your home crowd atmosphere is taken away, all bets are off as you get further into the tournament.
I am not saying exactly that non-conference records from November and December have much more merit than conference records do because the challenges (or lack of them, if you are Wichita State) in each team’s respective conference can bring the best out of many players to be ready when the lights get really bright. We just talked about UConn in 2011 and how great Kemba Walker was, but remember that the Huskies that year had a .500 record in Big East play before sparking their title run in the conference tournament. Not every team has a superstar like Kemba to carry them into the shining light, and N.C. State certainly didn’t when Jim Valvano willed them to victory after victory in the ACC tournament before making their miracle run in 1983. In the case of the Wolfpack, being thrown to the conference wolves was a good thing because it toughened them up for any challenge. But don’t read your conference championship press clippings too closely, or you might get bounced early.
THE STONE COLD STUNNER
Last year in our yearly March Madness preview podcast, Justin Rozzero and I took delight in mocking guest Matt Rotella during a conversation about Gonzaga. The Zags were the #1 seed in the West Region and Rotella predicted that the Wichita State Shockers would beat the top seed in the second round. Not only did I not agree with him at the time, but laughed when Rotella said that the Zags might “run into a shockwall.” It has become a sound byte on the intro for later episodes, but at the end of the day, the joke was not on Rotella but on me. Wichita State did beat Gonzaga in convincing fashion to prove his point that they would, in fact, hit the “shockwall.” Maybe that win was not as stunning as a game that had occurred the night before, when Florida Gulf Coast out of the Atlantic Sun Conference mercilessly dispatched Scott Criscuolo’s 2-seeded Georgetown Hoyas in the first round. If Gonzaga’s loss to the Shockers was not a “shockwall” per se, then Dunk City’s win over Georgetown certainly was.
Every tourney that you have to predict has one of those games: The one that NO ONE saw coming. That is why Warren Buffet is a pretty smart man by challenging someone to come up with a perfect bracket and put money on it: The stunner that everyone in college hoops will be talking about for the next year is one that only blindly loyal alumni would take. Whether it be Florida Gulf Coast and Harvard last year, Norfolk State and Lehigh in 2012, or even as far back as Hampton over Iowa State in 2001, there is always that one piece that just doesn’t fit with the rest of the puzzle. I am not imploring you to find that one big, fat upset in the NCAA Tournament as you scour every game up and down the bracket, but just remember: It’s probably going to be one you never thought of. So if you want to take that chance, take it, but the chances of getting it right are about as slim as these lowly seeded teams before tip-off time. And it will stun you when it happens.
IF ALL ELSE FAILS, CHALK IT UP
“Chalk” is a gambling term for betting the favorite, and if a bracket goes “chalk”, then that means that all the higher seeds defeated the lower seeds just as it was constituted before the tournament even started. I have gone back and forth with a friend about this, who is a very firm believer that going chalk is always the safest way to winning your bracket challenge simply because favorites are more likely to go far in most cases in the NCAA Tournament than lower seeds are. That does ring true when you take into account that since 1985 when the field expanded to 64 teams, more than half of the national championship teams have been 1 seeds in their particular region. It is supported even more by the fact that the last two national champions (Kentucky in 2012 and Louisville in 2013) were the #1 overall seeds going into their tournament and fulfilled their promise. Sure, Cinderella’s get to dance for a little while in the tournament, but that carriage turns into a pumpkin pretty damn fast once you get deeper and deeper. The chances of a VCU in 2011 are always there, but that is why they call those miracle runs, because they happen once in a blue moon.
There is a track record historically that does exhibit certain things that are bound to happen when it comes to avoiding chalk. A 12 seed always beats a 5 seed and a 13 seed has beaten a 4 seed in just as many consecutive seasons as the 12-5 upset has. Outside of cherry picking which 12 or 13 seed will be the lucky one this year, if you are really unsure about that match up between the 7 seed and the 10 seed in the first round or the 4 seed and the 5 seed in the second round, the best bet is to simply go with the default and pick the favorite. The chances of the favorite losing are greater later in the tournament than they are early on as the level of play picks up, but in those first two rounds, being predictable is not the worst decision in the world. In fact, it is probably the smartest one.