Bracket Tips from A Perennial Bracket Failure

When I’m asked what my favorite time of the year is, the answer that immediately springs to mind isn’t summer or Christmastime, as it probably is for most people. Instead, it’s March Madness.

In preparation for the Big Dance, I eat up more college basketball footage than anyone else in my pool, do more research in the days leading up to it than I have for any history paper, and ask my Lucky 8 ball more questions than any other sane person would even consider doing.

The results the last three years? 10th out of 22 in 2009, 16th out of 21 in 2010, and 19th/22nd out of 28 last time around.

Clearly, something’s not working, but I’d at least like to think that I’ve learned from my past mistakes. So then, for people in my same position, below are some words of (admittedly unproven) wisdom:

1. I’m gonna be honest with you: you’re probably not going to pick the right upsets.

A little dose of reality here was pretty helpful for me, and here’s hoping it is for you, too.

As Sports Illustrated’s Luke Winn puts it, sometimes there’s just no way of knowing that a team is poised to shock the nation. VCU? Ranked an entirely unimpressive 52nd in the year-end Ken Pomeroy efficiency rankings, finished fourth in the CAA, and only had two wins over tournament teams before the play-in game. Even if you were a VCU alum, you probably weren’t picking them to make the Sweet Sixteen, let alone the Final Four [ed. note: Definitely still bitter about this]

So try to keep a level head with regards to upsets: a realistic perspective can go a long way in helping you enjoy the whole experience a lot more.

2. Try anyway, though.

Honestly, if you’re going to be boring with your picks, you kill about 90% of the fun associated with March Madness. Like cool, you called all four No. 1 seeds going to the Final Four in 2008? Guess what? You’re not a college basketball expert; you’re just a miserable person to be around.

Upsets and random bandwagoning are far and away what drive the tourney’s excitement. The thought that a team like George Mason in 2006 could come from absolutely nowhere to make it to Indy keeps the hopes of fans across the country alive and, on a more sentimental level, helps us to believe that anything really just might be possible. Like I said above, chances are you’re not going to find that one Cinderella team, but it’s definitely worth a shot.

Besides my less rational indicators (like team colors or cool names), my advice for picking sleepers is to look for teams that have at least one truly standout talent. Teams full of future pros like Kentucky and UNC are usually the best candidates to take home the title, but if you’re just looking for a giant killer that can make a run, one star is often all it takes. Look at 2008 Davidson with Stephen Curry, for example, or 2010 Butler with Gordon Hayward. If a mid-major’s got a legit NBA talent as its centerpiece, make sure to give them some serious thought.

This year, I’m riding Murray State guard Isaiah Canaan, who’s averaged over 19 ppg for his 30-1 team. Racers to the Elite Eight, baby!

3. That being said, let’s not get too crazy. VCU to the Final Four again? Long Beach State to the Elite Eight? Dare I say it: Long Island University-Brooklyn all the way?!

While I suppose those kinds of runs might be possible in theory, please, for the love of Jack the Bulldog (and his torn ACL), don’t pick them.

My gut reaction this year: UConn’s winning again. Then I thought about the consequences of that, namely that it would necessitate Kentucky (this year’s prohibitive favorite) going out in the round of 32. Sure, there’s a nice payoff there if I’m right—mainly in bragging points—but if Kentucky does go on to win it all, I am first of all going to look incredibly stupid, plus my accountant father will be ashamed that I would actually put money on such a thing. [ed. note: Not that the Hoya endorses gambling on March Madness. That would be illegal. Or something.]

If you’re doing an ESPN.com bracket, by all means, feel free to make it as chock-full of double-digit seeds as your little heart desires. But if you’re doing a pool with your friends, think twice before you deal championship-caliber teams an early exit. You might miss out on a Northern Iowa-nipping-Kansas Upset of the Century, but you also avoid potentially looking like a n00b, which is a fate that far outweighs the alternative, in my opinion.

4. Lastly, don’t do multiple brackets. As I alluded to above, I tried out this method last year, with pretty dissatisfying results to show for it. I figured I’d hedge my bets and give myself a better shot, but instead I only ended up watching miserably as about half of my upsets occurred in each of my brackets.

Splitting up my picks only made me frustrated that I hadn’t put them all in one, both because I could have picked all the upsets with the right combination of them and because I now had blown 20 bucks instead of just 10. More importantly, I just had no idea who I should be rooting for most of the time, and my usual fervor suffered accordingly. I’ve learned my lesson this time around: only one bracket for me, and if I’m wrong on that, I’ll gladly go down with the ship.

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