Making Sense of All the March Madness: How to Ace Your NCAA Tournament Bracket

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Houston vs. Michigan: Jordan Poole shot beats the buzzer for the win! - Sputnik International, 1920, 17.03.2022
If you are not a big college hoops fan, or even a sports fan, filling out a bracket can be intimidating. There are 64 teams and only one champion. Who are the players that matter, the coaches that can’t fail and the teams that stand a chance at winning?
The NCAA Tournament, known as March Madness, is upon us once again. Bracketology is running rampant and whiteboards in offices around the country are being commandeered for pools. People who would never dream of throwing down twenty dollars at a sportsbook are gleefully filling out their brackets with dreams of taking their co worker’s money.
In 2017, the FBI estimated that $2.4 billion were gambled on the NCAA bracket illegally. While that number has likely dropped as more states legalize sports betting, there’s likely still an unfathomable amount of money being thrown around among friends, family and coworkers on the NCAA tournament.
In this file photo basketball player/actor LeBron James arrives at the Warner Bros Pictures world premiere of Space Jam: A New Legacy at the Regal LA Live in Los Angeles, California, July 12, 2021. - New Warner Bros. release Space Jam: A New Legacy rocketed to the top of the North American box office over the weekend, taking in an estimated $31.6 million in the best showing of a family film since Covid first hammered the industry. The live action/animated movie -- a sequel nearly 25 years after the original Space Jam with Michael Jordan -- has NBA superstar LeBron James teaming up with Bugs Bunny and other Looney Tunes characters in a high-stakes basketball game against a rogue artificial-intelligence entity threatening his son. - Sputnik International, 1920, 21.02.2022
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You won’t pick a perfect bracket. No one does. In 2014, Warren Buffet hosted a billion dollar challenge, promising $1 billion for anyone who managed to pick a perfect bracket. No one did.
That doesn’t mean filling out a bracket is fruitless. The point isn’t to be perfect, just better than everyone else in your pool.
There are a few tried and true methods to fill out a competent bracket. Don’t listen to that one coworker who says they pick based on mascots and “always win their pool.” That person is either a liar or sleeps with a horseshoe under their mattress. Likely the first.

Understanding the Bracket

First, some background. Starting on Tuesday and ending on Wednesday night, the “First Four” games are being played. These games decide the last few teams to get into the tournament. But don’t worry about missing them, because most pools start when the final field of 64 is set.
Once that is done, the real fun begins. There are four sections of the bracket based on regionality. Each section has 16 teams, ranked 1-16, with the best team taking the No. 1 seed and the worst taking the No. 16 seed.
No. 1 plays No. 16, No. 2 plays No. 15, No. 3 plays No. 14 and so on, until the numbers meet in the middle with No. 8 playing No. 9. To be clear, that means there are four “No. 1 seeds” and four “No. 16 seeds” in the totality of the bracket, one for each region.
After the first round, the field is narrowed to 32 teams in the second round. The field is trimmed further in the third round, known as the “Sweet 16,” and then again in the “Elite Eight” before the winners of each region of the bracket meet in the “Final Four.” Finally, the last two teams meet in the NCAA tournament championship game.
When it comes to your bracket, the first round is the most important. While it isn’t impossible to come back after a bad first round, especially if other players in your pool also struggle, it can be a long road.
Points are rewarded for every game a bracket calls correctly. But if you call a game incorrectly and that team goes far in the tournament, you won’t win any points for any of their other games.
Head coach Mike Krzyzewski of the Duke Blue Devils reacts following a play during the first half of their second round game against the Louisville Cardinals in the ACC Men's Basketball Tournament at Greensboro Coliseum on March 10, 2021 in Greensboro, North Carolina.  - Sputnik International, 1920, 02.06.2021
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There is no erasing a pick once the tournament starts. If you pick the 16th seeded Texas Southern to upset No.1 seed Kansas, and then Kansas wins the whole thing, that is an entire string of games you’ll miss out on simply because you picked against Kansas in the first round.

Who to Pick

Speaking of 16 seeds, don’t pick any of them, they have only upset a top seed team once since the tournament expanded in 1985. They are 1-143. In other words, don’t count on it happening this year.
That takes care of four games. It is probably best to cross off any 15th seeded teams as well, they are only 9-135 in the history of the tournament. Now, we have eight of the 32 first-round games set, but what about the rest?
There are a few strategies even a non-sports fan can follow. It might be tempting to just pick all the favorites, also known as “going chalk,” but that tends not to work out the way you might expect.
There are always upsets in the NCAA tournament. Not a No. 16 beating a No. 1 sized upset, but there are always a few surprises. In 32 of the last 36 competitions, a No. 12 has upset a No. 5 seed in the first round. It is a weird anomaly, but history shows it’ll likely happen again, the question is figuring out who will do it this year.

Know the Players

Basketball, perhaps more than any other team sport, can be taken over by one player. There are only five players from each team on the court at any one time, so a transcendent player can flip the game if he gets hot.
It’s not a bad idea to familiarize yourself with the top 25 players in the tournament and when a game isn’t a mismatch, go with the team that has the best player on the court.
Going back to the No. 12 vs No. 5 anomaly mentioned above, the 12th seeded UAB has the highly touted Jordan Walker who averaged over 20 points per game on the season, while Houston has struggled against top tier teams.
Does that mean UAB is a lock? No, they are an 8.5 point underdog, but if Walker gets hot and Houston’s offense struggles, the game is primed for an upset.

Coaching Matters

Top-tier college basketball programs, in particular, have a lot of turnover. Most of the best players leave for the NBA after just one year in college. So it isn’t a bad idea to look at the coaches, they are often the only consistent factor year after year.
Mike Krzyzewski has been the head coach of the Duke Blue Devils since 1980, and has announced that this will be his last year. What are the chances that Duke players will play just that little bit harder? It is important to look at the coaches of teams, just like the players.
It may sound redundant, but that really is the best strategy. Look at the players, look at the coaches and look at the historical patterns.
As for the later rounds in the tournament, it’s more of the same. Keep picking teams based on coaches and rosters. Just don’t let yourself fall in love with any Cinderella stories you picked in the first round. Since 1985, only two No. 12 teams have made it to the Elite Eight and none have it to the Final Four.
Alternatively, you could just copy Sportline’s computer simulation. It beat 92% of brackets picked at in two of the past three years, and correctly picked three of the Final Four teams last year. But its predictions are hidden behind a paywall and letting a robot pick your bracket isn’t any fun and goes against the spirit of office pools.
It is a lot more fun to research and make your own picks. And if you win, you can tell everyone that secret insight that led you to glory, called luck.
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