March Madness Bracket 2014: How You Can Start Winning Your Pool Today

Brian PedersenFeatured ColumnistMarch 11, 2014

March Madness Bracket 2014: How You Can Start Winning Your Pool Today

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    There are a handful of sporting events that transcend the world of fandom, turning even the most indifferent of followers into diehards.

    March Madness is one of those, but only in a certain aspect: the bracket pool.

    Everyone and their grandmother seems to fill out a bracket or 12, whether it be as part of an office or club pool or through one of the many online contests that will pit your picks up against possibly millions of other guessing hopefuls.

    Heck, who wouldn't want to have Warren Buffett give us $1 billion

    But with so many teams, so many games and so many possible outcomes, how does one go about putting together that pool-winning bracket?

    Here's some tips to get you started in advance of Sunday's announcement of the 68-team NCAA tournament field.

Don't Play Favorites

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    A good portion of the people who fill out a bracket are already college basketball fans, and through that interest in the sport they've acquired a certain level of knowledge based on the games they've watched. This concept is increased exponentially for entrants who are fans of a certain school, because in many cases they've followed that team very closely throughout the course of the season.

    To those who have a favorite team, here's a piece of cold, hard reality: your team is probably not going to win it all.

    Sorry, Kansas State fans, the Wildcats won't be cutting down the nets in Arlington, Texas, in early April. Same goes for you, loyal Harvard alumni.

    Sure, there are exceptions, and if "your team" is seeded high, then the likelihood is much better for them to make a deep run. But thinking the SMU Mustangs are going to take the title because you went to every home game and saw how good they looked is not enough to justify advancing them through six rounds of play.

    Moving your favorite a round or two beyond normal expectations is one thing, but going beyond that is bracket suicide.

Data Mining

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    Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

    There are going to be 68 teams in this tournament, and each of them has a particular thing they're good at. It might be three-point shooting. Maybe it's field-goal percentage defense. A strong rebounding margin is a sign of a team with the skills to make a run.

    The data is out there. You just have to look through it and see what stands out.

    If a team averaging 85 points per game (who happens to allow nearly as many) is matched up against a slower-tempo opponent who keeps the scores in the 60s, something's gotta give. Check to see how each team has fared in such situations before, and use that as a guideline for picking a winner in this matchup.

    It might sound mind-numbing to pore through stats to find a team with an edge, but it's what (most of) the experts on television do. And while they don't get them all right, they do pretty well.

Heat Check

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    Bill Boyce/Associated Press

    It's easy to just compare teams' records and make your picks based on that, but those wins and losses are very hard to compare if the level of opposition isn't similar.

    It's the debate that currently rages on regarding 34-0 Wichita State, which didn't play in a tough conference and only faced a handful of tough foes in the nonconference portion of its schedule. Despite the Shockers' perfect record, they could end up being considered an underdog against some opponents as the tournament moves on.

    How, then, do you better compare the performances of Team A and Team B? Check out who's been hotter.

    Every automatic qualifier from a mid- or low-major conference is going to be coming into the NCAA tournament on some sort of a winning streak by virtue of having won their league's postseason tourney. But did they just get hot in the past week, or has this been going on for a while?

    And for the 36 teams that get in as at-large berths, how have they looked down the stretch? Did they back their way into the tournament by virtue of a great start but have looked less than stellar of late (such as Syracuse, Pittsburgh and several Big Ten teams)? Or did that loss suffered in the conference tournament cool a significant hot streak?

    The teams that go the farthest in the Big Dance are the ones playing their best basketball in February and March.

Injury Awareness

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    Ed Zurga/Getty Images

    Health is a key factor at this time of the season, especially when it comes to teams who recently lost a star player or those who are just getting back someone who's missed significant time due to injury.

    Kansas center Joel Embiid has been ruled out for the Big 12 tournament, and coach Bill Self said via a prepared statement that it was a "longshot" he would be available for the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. The tourney's selection committee is going to factor this information into how it seeds the Jayhawks, so why shouldn't you use that to determine how far they'll make it?

    Teams might be over- or under-seeded because of injury concerns. Being able to spot those anomalies and identify which schools might be better or worse than their seed could mean the difference between having most of your Sweet 16 qualifiers still alive or having your bracket wrecked by the first Sunday.

Don't Get Too Upset

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    Michael Perez/Associated Press

    Each team in the NCAA tournament is given a seed based on how the selection committee rated their performance throughout the season and the quality of the schedule they faced. The lower the seed, the better a team is perceived to be.

    But as anyone who's given in to March's madness before knows, seeding often doesn't matter. Upsets can, and will, happen.

    The important thing to remember, though, is that upsets are considered the exception, not the rule.

    A few facts to relay:

    • Since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, no No. 1 seed has ever lost to a No. 16 seed. There have been a few close calls, but none of those 16s have ever pulled off the ultimate shocker.
    • A No. 15 seed has beat a No. 2 seed seven times (including twice in 2012 and once last year), but Florida Gulf Coast in 2013 was the only one to ever make it to the Sweet 16.
    • The odds are even worse for No. 14 seeds making the Sweet 16, as only two of the 17 that knocked off a No. 3 seed have then won their next game.
    • The No. 12 seed is the unofficial "upset special" seed of the tournament, with 41 of them knocking off a No. 5 seed all-time. Only in 1988, 2000 and 2007 has this not happened, while three times (2002, 2009, 2013) a trio of No. 12 seeds has pulled off the upset.
    • A No. 12 seed has made the Sweet 16 on 20 occasions, but nearly half the time that's because it faced a No. 13 seed (itself having upset a No. 4) to get there. And only one has then moved on to the Elite Eight.

    Upsets are going to happen. It's one of the most exciting parts of the tournament and what keeps it fresh year after year, knowing that in a one-and-done scenario anything can happen.

    Just don't go overboard with the upsets. While anything is possible, everything is not probable.

Location, Location, Location

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    Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

    The NCAA tournament is played at 14 different sites, with 12 of the locales chosen for their geography in order to have subregionals and regionals located in the east, south, midwest and west parts of the country.

    No team is allowed to play on its official home court (other than Dayton, if it were to be placed in one of the "First Four" games that are annually held in the Flyers' arena), but the selection committee will often put the highest-seeded teams into subregional "pods" that keep them relatively close to home. That could mean having Syracuse playing in nearby Buffalo, Duke and North Carolina in Raleigh and Wisconsin in Milwaukee.

    This is meant to be a reward for the top teams, but it's also a way to cut down on travel and increase the likelihood of fans traveling to see the games.

    Occasionally, though, a higher-seeded team can find itself in a hostile environment when it's shipped far from home and ends up facing a lower-seeded opponent that's coming from a much shorter distance.

    Last season No. 5 UNLV had to face No. 12 California in San Jose, a mere 45 miles from Cal's Berkeley campus, and the Runnin' Rebels lost. The same venue saw No. 5 Oklahoma State matched up against No. 12 Oregon, with plenty of Ducks fans making the eight-hour drive down the coast to catch the upset.

    Remember, it's mostly about who you play, but where you face off can play just as much of a factor.

One Is a Lonely Number

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Earning a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament is a badge of honor for college basketball teams. It means the body of work throughout the season was solid enough to warrant being considered one of the four best heading into the tourney.

    It's something that every team strives for, even if in seasons like this one there doesn't seem to be anyone willing to step up and grab the final No. 1 seed.

    But other than a guaranteed (at least to this point) win in the opening game of the tournament, being a No. 1 seed gets you nothing else. In fact, the pressures associated with being a top seed often outweigh the perceived benefits.

    No. 1 seeds have been knocked off in the second (now third) round 15 times since 1985, most recently when Gonzaga fell to Wichita State last season. And only once, in 2008, have all four No. 1s advanced to the Final Four.

    There have only been six title games pitting No. 1 seeds, the last being in 2008 when Kansas beat Memphis. On three occasions (most recently in 2011), no No. 1 seed has made the final.

    Being on top is great, but staying on top isn't a given.