The 2013 NCAA Tournament promises to be one of the difficult to predict in recent memory. College basketball has been extremely turbulent atop the rankings in 2012-13, and the parity will likely be even further reflected in the single-elimination format of March Madness.
Sticking with favorites is usually the right call, but for those in office pools this year, there are several tips you need to follow in order to come out on top.
At least one double-digit seed has advanced to the Sweet 16 or further since 2008, and that trend is likely to continue given all the volatility this season. With the bracket having not been released yet, it is difficult to project exactly which team is the favorite to emerge as this year's Cinderella.
As difficult as it is to nail these predictions, here are several guidelines to help in the process of filling out a bracket.
The coach is key
This is such a vague statement, especially with how tight the competition promises to be this March. While that should give more free rein to pick underdogs than usual, selecting the bigger name program is usually the smart choice.
Coaching has a lot to do with it. Ask Tom Izzo at Michigan State, who has guided a variety of Spartan teams to six Final Fours—sometimes as perennial favorites, but sometimes as a counted-out squad.
However, if there is a somewhat shaky higher seed from a power conference with a coach that doesn't have much NCAA Tournament success, it is worth betting against that team.
Even in tight matchups between power conference teams, choosing the coach that you feel is better will likely net a win.
As Izzo and other great coaches have proven over the years, it doesn't really matter how a team is trending heading into the tournament—because the best ones get their teams peaking at just the right time.
Just think back to 2006 when Iowa was a trendy pick because they won the Big Ten conference tournament. The Hawkeyes lost to No. 14 seed Northwestern State in the first round.
The argument could be made that Connecticut won in 2011 as the No. 9 seed after winning the Big East tournament, but think of who the coach was. It was Jim Calhoun, who had gotten it done before, beating Duke to win it all back in 1999.
Three-point shooting and dominant scorers are X-factors
That's especially the case if the mid-major upstart is an exceptional three-point shooting squad. It can be such an equalizer, as Stephen Curry showed in carrying Davidson to the 2008 Elite Eight.
Speaking of players like Curry, teams that have one unquestioned go-to scorer in that mold can easily take over a game and key an upset. Having the ability to defer to one guy in crunch time that can get it done makes those situations not as difficult, and puts a great deal of pressure on the favorites.
Ironically, the run Davidson made ended with a bricked three-pointer that wasn't shot by Curry.
As for players in this year's tournament, look for Ian Clark of Belmont and Lamont Jones of Iona as solid candidates to take their teams deeper than many may expect.
It is worth noting, though, that some teams may be too fatally flawed to pick based on one big-time scorer. There needs to be at least somewhat balanced production from the supporting cast. Both Clark and Jones have that.
The Ohio State Buckeyes are a good example of a big-name team that doesn't have good balance. Deshaun Thomas averages nearly 20 points per game, but only one other teammate averages in double-figures.
Meanwhile, Georgetown's Otto Porter Jr. has been playing lights out lately and has keyed the Hoyas to a Top Five ranking in the AP poll.
Do your homework—but not too much
There are only so many things to read before psyching yourself out of a pick. Trusting gut instincts can't be emphasized enough, because it is so hard to predict to begin with.
Let's face it, there are annual success stories of individuals picking teams based on colors or mascots and winning their pools. That's a bit too understated on the research, though.
Doing a last-minute survey of all the teams' stats to get a feel for how much they score, how well they shoot and how well they defend will only take you so far. Consulting a consistent follower of college basketball is the best route to go.
The understanding with that strategy is that the friend has kept up with most or all of the tournament's teams and has been able to look beyond box scores against quality opponents to truly know how they'll stack up when everything is on the line.
With the grand exception of Kentucky's sensational title-winning team last year, the more experienced squads tend to win out in March.
For the most part, stick to the favorites, go with your instincts and rely on expert friends for the inside information. That's a foolproof plan to claim victory in your office pool and to gain a little bit of respect from your colleagues due to the unpredictable nature of March Madness.