After a regular season highlighted by the most hyped freshman class in history, the ascent of a superstar senior and the undefeated run of an oft-forgotten mid-major, we've finally reached the most dizzying three weeks on the sports calendar.
The 2014 NCAA tournament gets underway Tuesday with the silly play-in games called the first round before beginning in earnest on Thursday. It's one of the most wonderful times of the year—and I mean that entirely because I'm a bracket-filling degenerate.
Between longstanding pools with friends that began in middle school to office pools to the free ones I fill out after one too many adult beverages at 3 a.m., the mere satisfaction of looking at the bracket combinations is like a drug. A drug that I hope pays me in all the monies offered by rich people offering stupid sums to us schlubs just because they can.
There is also a professional aspect in work. The NCAA tournament is like Christmas for a basketball-obsessive. It's a back-to-back-to-back-to-back series of games—all on national television and available for mobile consumption. With the likes of Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins and other potential high lottery picks, it's also a miniature (if overrated) scouting opportunity to see how these guys handle the spotlight.
At the risk of hyperbole, the NCAA tournament is as close to a perfect sporting event that exists. You know, as long as we ignore the $0.00 being paid to the players as they ignore critical class time to travel across the nation. But, you know, whatever.
Anyway, you came here for bracketstuffs. I have said bracketstuffs. Go ahead and take a gander.
When: March 18-April 7
Where: Various; Final Four at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas
Watch: CBS, Turner Family Networks (truTV, TBS, TNT)
Stream: March Madness Live
|Field (Any Other Team)||30-1|
|San Diego State||40-1|
Don't Even Blink: Put All Four No. 1 Seeds into the Sweet 16
There's an understandable tendency to get cute—especially in years like this. No team truly sticks out as an overwhelming juggernaut, and you could probably talk yourself into all four of the No. 1 seeds losing at a certain point. Plus, three of the last four NCAA tournaments have seen a top seed fall in their second game.
The problem here is, like everything, filling out a good bracket means playing the probabilities. While it's possible that a top seed falters over the weekend—none will lose in the round of 64; let's not get crazy—the process of picking which team is a rabbit hole no one wants to fall into.
Last season, Gonzaga was in a similar place to Wichita State—the vulnerable mid-major whom everyone thinks will be the first No. 1 seed out. The Zags were, of course, ironically losing to the still-undefeated Shockers.
But things rarely work out like this. Maybe some predicted perpetual March disappointment Pittsburgh losing to what at the time looked like a mediocre Butler team in 2011, but Kansas losing to Northern Iowa a year prior? Don't be blasphemous. The only thing worse than not picking the No. 8 or No. 9 seed upset is picking the wrong No. 1 seed to lose and watching every one of their subsequent victories looking like this.
Further, the recent glut of early top-seeded losses is a bit of an anomaly. Before 2010, none had happened in the previous half-decade. The five years prior to that featured another high-frequency period—2000 and 2004 both featured two No. 1 seeds losing their second game—but these things again moved in indecipherable cycles.
When playing the odds, eliminating a No. 1 seed before the second week is a losing battle. Three-quarters of the time you're going to get it wrong, and the super strange thing about top seeds is that they tend to be pretty good. And with most of the people in your bracket pool going chalk, missing on that No. 1 upset special means you're losing out to everyone in your league.
If you don't like a particular No. 1 team, hedge your bets. Take them into the Sweet 16, but knock them off there. Just remember that the Wichita States of last season are the deviants, not the norms.
Don't Be a Basketball Neanderthal: Eliminate "Per Game" From Your Vocabulary
OK. I guess this is more of just a basketball fandom tip in general. Although they are the most pervasive and easy to understand statistics, per-game averages are among the most flawed and outdated numbers fans still cling to. Per-game stats are the rotary phone to advanced metrics' iPhone or Samsung Galaxy.
Of course, the average fan cannot be expected to attend the Sloan Analytics Conference or pay yearly service charges for paywall-protected metrics. Nor do they have access to player-tracking data like Synergy Sports, which is indispensable for people of my ilk.
What we can do, however, is help the common fan move on to slightly more sophisticated stats—ones that can actually be digested without hours of film study. Easily digestible, per-game stats fail to account for the stylistic differences between teams.
You can watch Louisville and Virginia and tell they play two wildly different brands of the sport, with the Cardinals running an attacking, uptempo style and the Cavaliers...the complete opposite. Both have good records, but per-game stats could mislead fans into thinking Virginia is overrated. The Cavaliers rank well outside the top 200 in points per game, making some think their "inability" to score could make them an easy out.
I don't love Virginia as a Final Four team this year, but that assumption would be a misnomer. Normalize offenses on a 100-possession basis, as Ken Pomeroy's great site does, and you see Tony Bennett's squad is actually pretty good offensively. The Cavaliers are still buoyed by their elite defense; it's just not by as much as one would expect.
Pomeroy's website, on which the most basic statistics are free, normalizes the game and puts it in better perspective. If you think Villanova is a little overrated because its been in so many close games this season, Pomeroy's luck factor would say you're probably right.
There are numerous more "nerdy" things we could delve into, but if you want to have the most basic of knowledge bases, it starts here. When you're doing pre-tournament research, don't pull up ESPN or some other major website and sort by per-game stats. Head to KenPom, check out efficiencies and odds are you'll feel more comfortable with your selections.
And you'll get smarter in the process. Yay learning!
No Conference Title? Don't Think They're Winning Big Dance
This may be the one unalienable truth of bracket selections. Only teams with conference titles cut down the nets at the Final Four. It doesn't matter whether it's a regular-season conference title or a tournament championship—either will do. But if they haven't tasted a conference triumph prior to March Madness, history says discard them from your national title consideration.
Over the last decade, no national champion has failed to win either a conference tournament or regular-season title.
Obligatory No. 5 vs. No. 12 Seed Mention
The is one of the oldest pieces of advice in bracket punditry, if such a thing exists. When looking at upsets, the No. 12 over the No. 5 is so reliable it hardly even becomes an upset by Thursday. The theory bore out of old-school seeding methods, when mediocre major-conference teams were often overrated and placed against quietly pretty good mid-majors.
Just do your research, pick one and prepare to be entirely wrong—as it's almost never the "obvious" No. 5 that loses.
Take a Chalk Champion
Seven of the last 10 national champions have been No. 1 seeds. Only one of the three non-No. 1 seeds (Connecticut, 2011) in the past decade have come since 2006. And don't ever, ever, ever, ever take a seed lower than No. 3 to win the national title if you insist on being difficult.
Fill Out as Many Brackets as You Want, But Only Have One "Serious" One
Services across the Internet offer folks opportunities to win cash and prizes for their brackets, and often times said services encourage you to fill out a ridiculous number of variations. That's all fine. You can and should attempt as many of these different competitions as you can, on the off chance you become the lucky sucker to pull it off.
When it comes to office pools or bracket challenges with friends, though, fill out only one "serious" bracket and stick to it. If not, you'll find yourself with competing loyalties throughout the Big Dance and won't have as much fun.
Do Whatever the Hell You Want
It's your bracket. Sure, there are ways you can fill it out and improve your overall chances from a numerical standpoint. But the reality of the situation is we're talking about a crap shoot. No one knows what's going to happen over these next few weeks. There's a reason people are willing to pony up $1 billion for a perfectly filled-out bracket—because it's never happening.
If you have a gut feeling that goes against the advice laid out here, take it. You'll be more mad at yourself for not following your own instincts than some dude you've never met before. This is supposed to be fun.
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