By Matt Straub
Everybody has a system. My mother has one where she mixes team mascots and intimidating colors. Others I know go by Vegas odds. I spend way too much time going over who beat who, when and who’s playing well now.
The method will change from person to person, but many of us are going to throw our hats in the ring and enter an NCAA Tournament pool, which means filling out the bracket. The bracket is the most interactive, inviting and compelling thing in all of sports. It is also the great equalizer, giving mom a chance to beat the guy who watches Pac-12 games at midnight on the east coast.
If your preferred way of choosing the Final Four is by deciding Tigers are tougher than Blue Jays, you’re on your own. If you’re trying to use some skill and serious thought, however, I have a few tips to help you sort through the endless information now available from all the amateur bracket makers out there these days.
Be judicious, but not shy: There are going to be a few upsets in the first two days of the tournament. You can all but guarantee it. There won’t be 10 of them, however. Pick your spots, but don’t go crazy. Don’t pick all four No. 1 seeds to reach San Antonio, but don’t pick a 16 over a 1. Do find a team or two in each region to take a shot with in the first round. Typically only one region, maybe two, holds form in the first round. And often times at least one region’s seed list will get blown to pieces. I personally have at least one upset in three regions this year: South Dakota State, Loyola-Chicago, Providence (not a big upset) and St. Bonaventure, who I took for a reason we’ll get to in a second. That might be too many, but you have to take some chances.
Follow trends: The 12 over 5 thing is real. In 28 of the last 32 years, at least one 12 has beaten a five. That’s not a trend, that’s a near-certainty. I have South Dakota State, but I wouldn’t be mad at you if you took any one of the 12s. I took St. Bonaventure because one of the teams from the First Four usually wins at least one game in the main draw. Also remember, having all four one-seeds make the Final Four is even more rare than all the fives winning in the first round. Someone is a lock to go down. Pick wisely. There are also more year-specific trends. For example, this year Las Vegas doesn’t have any lower-seeded teams as favorites (as of Sunday night), which is a rarity. So it could be a chalk-heavy first round. At the team level, Oklahoma doesn’t win away from home this year. Kentucky and Kansas are on fire at the right time. Don’t be afraid to ride the hot hands or run from the cold ones.
Pick your favorite team: If your alma mater is in the dance, pick them to win in the first round at least. I don’t care if you went to Radford and you’re in the play-in game. If you grew up rooting for a team in your region like I did, and your team is playing, unlike mine, pick them. While we all want to win money, this month should be about having fun above all else. You don’t want to root against your team, so pick it no matter what.
Stick to your system: My biggest problem is overthinking. I’ve already changed one of my Final Four picks twice, and I’m vacillating on a couple first-round games already. If there’s a great piece of advice which comes your way, or there’s a big injury, feel free to change a pick between now and Thursday. If not, stick with your gut. There was a reason the team you picked jumped out at you. Don’t talk yourself out of it without a great reason.
Since I got on my high horse and told you how to fill out a bracket, I feel compelled to close with my Final Four. I’ll take Arizona over North Carolina in one semifinal, and Villanova over Kansas in the other. Villanova wins it all. Last year I got the champion right, so let’s see if my system can do better early this year. Whatever happens to your bracket or your teams, enjoy the best three weeks in all of sports.