The Comprehensive NCAA Tournament Bracket Survival Guide

Dan LevyNational Lead WriterMarch 13, 2012

The Comprehensive NCAA Tournament Bracket Survival Guide

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    Shortly after the NCAA tournament bracket was released, the Internet was flooded with just how difficult picking a completely correct bracket would be. The odds of getting every game right is reportedly 9,223,372,036,854,775,808:1 (something north of 9.2 quintillion combinations.) I'm no math wizard, but I thought the result was simply calculating 63 factorial, putting the total number of possible brackets somewhere around 1.983 x 10^87

    Whatever the math, there are certainly a lot of bracket options. How do you know which will win your pool? The truth is, you don't, so just have fun.

    Before we get too far into this, if you clicked on this article to see what an expert thinks about the 2012 NCAA tournament bracket to help you fill out your own bracket, this isn't that.

    Moreover, if you need an expert to help you pick your bracket because you haven't been paying as much attention to college basketball as you did when you were younger and, perhaps, didn't have two kids and a wife who constantly hog the TV when you're trying to watch the conference tournaments to get a quick primer on who's hot going into the NCAAs…join the freaking club.

    The real truth about the bracket is that the experts are guessing just as much as you and I are. Seth Davis of CBS Sports, the chap lucky enough to have his smiling face on the tournament selection show set year after year, picked two No. 14 seeds to upset No. 3 seeds in the tourney. When called out for it later on CBS's Hardcore Brackets show on TruTV, Davis quipped, "what, it's just television. Someone's got to say something."

    Folks, that is picking brackets in a nutshell. Someone's got to say something.

    That "something" doesn't even have to be right, because the fun of the NCAA tournament—the reason it's called March Madness—is in the tournament's ability to relegate smart, learned analysts into the bracket-busted populace like me and you with one clang off an unfriendly rim.

    I'm not trying to suggest that analysts aren't extremely knowledgeable when filling out their bracket—ESPN's Doug Gottlieb gave a detailed explanation on Sunday night why he thinks No. 13 seed Montana will beat No. 4 seed Wisconsin that nearly has me convinced. I'm more trying to point out that that once the ball is tossed, all bracket bets are out of our hands.

    It's the tournament the fans love, not just the bracket. The bracket is a means to an end. Please remember that.

    With that caveat, we offer a list of simple rules for filling out your NCAA tournament bracket—a March Madness survival guide of sorts.

Do Not Put a Lot of Money on Your Bracket

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    Ten years ago, it may have been hard to find a free tournament pool. Nowadays, most websites or online communities offer a free bracket challenge to get readers interacting with one another. Our first guide to bracket survival is to simply make it about the brackets, not about making any money.

    Most high-profile sites offer prizes for the top brackets in the country without any buy-in, so if you think you've got this bracket business down to a science, try your luck with as little risk as possible.

    If you decide to put a little juice on the bracket with friends or co-workers, our suggestion would be to keep the cost low. Anything more than $20 per bracket seems completely unnecessary and probably full of so-called experts that could preclude your bracket from doing as well as you might in a low-stakes or free pool.

    Think to limit your paid brackets to $10 per entry and no more than $100 total, giving you enough rope to enter up to 10 different contests, or some contests more than once, which leads to our next survival suggestion.

Diversify Your Interests

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    People who fill out just one bracket are megalomaniacs.

    The brackets aren't about you, and they certainly aren't about you bragging about your one bracket being right.

    The brackets are about you finding a way to win the challenge of getting the most games correct. If you play the stock market, do you put all your money into one stock, or do you spread your money around to mitigate potential devastating losses?

    Why would the bracket be any different? If ESPN or Yahoo! or CBS or wherever your group has its bracket challenge allows you up to five unique brackets, you should fill out five unique brackets. 

    Each year, I comb through the bracket and pick my one true bracket that I announce officially and use as my bracket of bragging rights. The other brackets I fill out are just for fun, with the idea that more options give me greater odds to win.

    If you pay to enter a bracket challenge, it certainly helps to diversify your interests and throw a second (or even third) bracket into the mix that includes a few of the upsets you were too nervous to pick with your first bracket. 

    If you enter a $10 bracket and there are 100 participants with the overall winner taking half the pot, you have a 1:100 chance of taking home $500. If you enter two brackets in the tournament, you have a 1:50 chance of taking home the $500.

Don't Be Afraid of Chalk

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    In 2008, four No. 1 seeds made the Final Four for the first time since the brackets were expanded (I'm fairly certain the first time ever). If you picked a bracket of chalk that year—chalk is what we call picking the better seed in every matchup—you probably had a great shot at winning your bracket challenge. 

    People have a tendency to avoid picking chalk for two very ridiculous reasons.

    First, people avoid chalk because of the idea that upsets always happen in the bracket. While that is usually true—last year's Final Four featured a No. 3, No. 4, No. 8 and No. 11 seed—most years have at least one top seed make it to the Final Four.

    Since 1979, a No. 1 seed has made the Final Four in 30 of 33 seasons. Of those 30 tournaments, two No. 1 seeds have advanced to the Final Four 19 times. That's where the drop-off comes, as three or four top seeds have only made the Final Four in the same season four times since 1979, including 2008 when all four top seeds advanced.

    The safe bet would be to pick at least two top seeds to advance to the Final Four. Figuring out which two is hard, so don't be afraid to pick all four.

    That logic, however, leads to the second reason people hate to pick chalk: It's boring. 

    The question you need to ask is if you're picking your brackets to brag about being right when a random upset happens or if you're picking your brackets to win something. If a boring bracket is a winning bracket, do you really care that you didn't take stupid risks?

If You Pick Upsets, Pick 'Smart' Upsets

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    As much as we can talk about picking chalk, we all know some upsets will sneak into our brackets. Don't be stupid about your bracket. Seth Davis thinks that two No. 14 seeds will win first-round games against their respective No. 3 seeds. What he didn't tell viewers is just how crazy that bracket would be from a historical perspective.

    The No. 14 seed beats the No. 3 just 15 percent of the time. Since 1993, the No. 14 seeds are 9-76 in the tournament, following a run of seven straight years in the late '80s and early '90s that saw a No. 14 seed win at least one game.

    Most importantly, two No. 14 seeds have won a game in the same tournament just twice since 1985, once in 1986 and once in 1995.

    The probability of two No. 14 seeds pulling off upsets in the same tournament is extremely prohibitive for you to pick both in your bracket. Could it happen? It's March Madness! Of course it can happen. I almost hope it DOES happen, but it probably won't, and Davis knows that. 

    The biggest key to picking your bracket upsets is to leave enough outs so your bracket is not totally screwed. If you aren't sure about the Wisconsin game against Montana, pick the winner of the Vanderbilt and Harvard game to advance to the Sweet 16. That way, if you are wrong on the first game, you've limited your mistake by knocking out the team you weren't sure on in the second (third) round.

    Davis might believe that No. 6 seeds San Diego State would beat Georgetown or UNLV would beat Baylor anyway, so picking the No. 3 seeds to lose to No. 14 seeds in the first round won't kill his bracket if he ends up being wrong.

    The truth is, there is a great chance we will see a double-digit seed get to the second week of the tournament. Unless you have a great feeling about one team in particular, it doesn't make much sense to pick a No. 13 seed to win over a No. 4 and a No. 1 seed just because "upsets happen."

Follow the Best Upsets by Seed, Historically

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    The committee knows what it's doing when these matchups are created.

    For years we've been conditioned to look at the five-12 matchups as the best games for trendy upsets. Since 1985, the five-12 game has resulted in an upset around 33 percent of the time, the same percentage as the six-11 game. The seven-10 matchups have resulted in a win for the No. 10 seed 40 percent of the time while the eight-nine toss-up game has actually favored the No. 9 seeds in 53 percent of all games. 

    That said, two No. 11 seeds have gone to the Final Four in the last six years while neither a No. 10 nor a No. 12 seed has ever made it past the Regional Finals. Last season, three of the four No. 6 seeds lost in the first round, compared to just one of the five, No. 7 and No. 8 seeds.

    If you follow last year's trend, pick a few No. 11 seeds in the first (second) round.

    (This does bring up an interesting aside: I wish there was a way to pick what round each team will lose, independent of who beats them. If I know in my heart that Georgetown will lose in the second round, and I pick them losing to San Diego State but if they lose to NC State, I don't get any points in my bracket for that. 

    We ride the winners, without looking at where the losers end their runs. I wish we could figure out a way to make a bracket that rewards getting the round in which a team is eliminated instead of rewarding only wins.)

Get the Final Four Right

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    Most pools weigh the later games heavier than the first and second rounds, so you should spend less time focusing on the five-12 upsets and more time focused on who you think will get to the Final Four.

    We get so enamored by Cinderella that we sometimes lose focus on the big picture of getting the National championship game right. If you get the Final Four, title game and champion right, no matter how many other mistakes you made along the way, you will have a great shot at winning your bracket. 

    As mentioned, at least two top seeds traditionally make the NCAA Final Four each year. Since 1979, a No. 3 seed has been the best seed in the Final Four just once, with the No. 2 seed being the best seed two other times. The No. 1 seeds are on the top line for a reason.

    Never, since the tournament expanded, has the Final Four taken place without at least one team on the top three lines. You already know that a No. 1 seed has made the Final Four 30 of the last 33 years. Now you know that a No. 2 seed has made the Final Four in 23 of those seasons. A No. 3 seed has made the Final Four in 13 of those years and a No. 4 seed has made the Final Four in 10 of the last 33 tournaments.

    Moreover, when you look at the average seeding of the Final Four teams, the number works out to higher than 4.0 just four times. Last season's average seeding was 6.5 (No. 3, No. 4, No. 8, No. 11) while in 2006—the last time before 2010 when a No. 1 seed did not make the Final Four—the average was 5.0.

    Two No. 8 seeds made the Final Four in 2000, moving the average seeding to 5.5, while the average in 1980 was 5.25, the first time a No. 1 seed did not make the Final Four.

    In 20 of the last 33 seasons, the average seeding of the Final Four participants has been 2.75 or better, including nine tournaments with the average Final Four seeding of 1.75 or better.

    Chalk may be boring, but it's usually pretty accurate when predicting the Final Four.

Avoid the Trendy Pick (When It's Wrong)

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    When it comes to the Final Four, unless it's a No. 1 or No. 2 seed, try to avoid the trendy picks. If you want to win the bracket, you need to get the Final Four right, so if you pick an outlier in the field, try to make sure it's not the same outlier everybody else is picking too.

    If the hot team this year is Florida State, it might make sense to avoid that team unless you really think they will get to the Final Four past Ohio State and Syracuse. (Note: I am not saying you shouldn't pick Florida State as they are a very good team with a very real chance to make a deep run. I'm just saying you won't reap the rewards of picking a No. 3 seed as you might with Baylor, Marquette or Georgetown should one of those teams make it to the Final Four.)

    Picking the trendy team only works if you get it right. If you miss on the trend, your bracket is in just as bad a shape as everyone else who picked that team. If you pick another team and the trendy team doesn't make it as far as people are expecting, your bracket is way ahead of the trend.

Riding the Power Conferences

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    So much has rightfully been made about the mid-major conferences getting more respect in the NCAA tournament. In the last two seasons, three different mid-major clubs have made it all the way to the Final Four.

    Historically speaking, however, it's the power conferences that win the NCAA tournament and it's often the power conferences that send more than one participant to the Final Four.

    In the last five seasons, just one conference—the Big East in 2009—sent two teams to the Final Four in the same season. Prior to 2007, however, two teams from the same power conference made the Final Four for eight-straight seasons and, in total, two teams from the same power conference have reached the Final Four in 19 of the last 33 tournaments.

    Interestingly, getting two teams into the Final Four hasn't given those conferences a great result in winning the tournament. In just nine of the 19 seasons since 1979 that had two teams from the same conference reach the Final Four did one of those teams cut down the nets. 

    If you pick two teams from a conference to make the Final Four, you should not feel obligated to pick one to win the title.

Understanding the Sleeper Rule

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    Do not listen to analysts who say Marquette is their sleeper pick. 

    Marquette is a No. 3 seed, has been ranked all season, placed in the Top 10 for a large part of the year. Marquette has an RPI of nine and a strength of schedule of 17, meaning there's a better chance the Golden Eagles should be considered under-seeded than a sleeper pick.

    To be a sleeper pick, a team needs to be a legitimate surprise to win its second-round game and a total surprise to go deeper than the Sweet 16. A No. 3 seed should always win its first two games, so there is nothing "sleeper" about No. 3-seeded Marquette.

    The highest seed a sleeper should be is a hotly debated subject. Some brackets that actually use a sleeper pick as a tie-breaker suggest a sleeper should come from the bottom half of the field, meaning a sleeper cannot be higher than a No. 9 seed (or a team that should not be favored to win any of its tournament games).

    That classification isn't really fair in fields as deep as we get today. A true sleeper should come from the seven-11 lines, maybe so far up the bracket as a No. 6 seed. If Murray State, San Diego State or UNLV get to the Elite Eight as a No. 6 seed this year, it's fine to call them a sleeper (though nobody should be sleeping on a one-loss Murray State team). If Cincinnati gets there as a No. 6, it would be less surprising given their recent run in the Big East tournament. 

    In other words, a No. 7 seed can be a sleeper. A No. 6 depends on the team.

Understanding the Cinderella Story

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    A Cinderella is different than a sleeper. A sleeper is a team we were, frankly, "sleeping" on that makes a deep run in the tournament. Sleeper picks are the "oh man, I should have picked that upset" games in the bracket.

    Cinderellas are totally different. First, a Cinderella cannot come from a single-digit ranking, meaning any true Cinderella has to be a No. 10 seed or worse. Second, unlike perhaps 10 years ago, Cinderellas cannot come from power conferences. I repeat: Cinderellas cannot come from power conferences. 

    If Texas or NC State makes a run to the Final Four as a No. 11 seed, that does not mean the team is a Cinderella. It means, most likely, the team was battle tested during the regular season and got hot at the right time. Or, perhaps, the team sneaked into the tournament after under-achieving all year and finally righted the ship. 

    A true Cinderella is a mid-major team who rips through the bracket when nobody saw them coming. VCU was a Cinderella last year. George Mason was a Cinderella in 2006. Butler in 2010 was NOT a Cinderella after making the Final Four as a No. 5 seed. Technically last year's team had more Cinderella qualifications as a No. 8 seed, if not for the Bulldogs' run the year before that made the trek last year seem far less surprising. 

    A Cinderella doesn't have to make the Final Four, either. Certainly the deeper a Cinderella goes, the more memorable the fairy tale will be, but any double-digit seed (really a No. 12 or higher if we are being fair) that makes it to the second weekend should be considered a Cinderella.

    Now, there's one small caveat to the Cinderella concept: Totally busted brackets hurt the story. If Harvard beats Vanderbilt in the five-12 game in the East and Montana beats Wisconsin in the four-13 game, Harvard would be the better seed in the second (third) round. Would Harvard still be considered a Cinderella for making it to the Sweet 16? Sure. But the slipper certainly doesn't fit quite as nicely as a No. 12 knocking off a No. 5 and a No. 4 in the same weekend.

    This happened last year with Richmond. It doesn't make the final 16 any less sweet, but it did make the Cinderella story a little more realistic.

Pick Schools You Like over Schools You Hate

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    If you live near Waco, Texas, go ahead and pick Baylor to make a run to the Elite Eight, passing Duke on the way. Nobody likes Duke, so why would you pick them over a team you root for that has a real shot to win that matchup?

    Some people think it makes sense to pick against the teams you root for, thinking that you win either way—either your team advances or your bracket does. That's defeatist logic.

    You know which teams you want to win some games, and it's nonsensical to pick against your feelings in an effort to advance a bracket you most likely won't win with anyway. I'm not suggesting you should pick West Virginia over Gonzaga, Ohio State and Florida State, but if you are a Mountaineers fan and you think the first-round game is a toss-up, pick the team you want to win.

    The real issue comes when two teams you dislike play each other in the tournament, like a potential second (third) round game between Notre Dame and Duke. No, you cannot pick both teams to lose, so just pick the team you think will likely win the game. Don't get spiteful with your rooting interests.

Don't Stress over Your Bracket

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    Don't stress out.

    This ties back into the first suggestion of not mortgaging your house to try to win a bracket challenge. If you put too much money on the brackets, you become obsessed with winning and forget about all the great basketball we will see over the next three weeks.

    In reality, the best thing that can happen to your bracket is picking Louisville to go to the Final Four and watching them tank in the first round to the likes of Morehead State (like in 2011). Then, you can throw out your bracket and just enjoy the madness with a clear head.

    This is also another reason to diversify your interests. If you lose one bracket on the first day, you still have a few other options to ride into the later games. If you fill out too many brackets, you might even forget which team you picked until the games are over.

    Don't let the madness make you mad. Enjoy basketball first, then worry about your bracket being busted.