The Secret Formula for Picking a Winning NCAA Bracket

Jonathan WassermanNBA Lead WriterMarch 17, 2014

The Secret Formula for Picking a Winning NCAA Bracket

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    Everyone has his or her own formula for picking the perfect NCAA tournament bracket, but I follow a set of fairly simple rules and guidelines that have allowed me to take down a few office pools in my day. 

    Unfortunately for the lazy bracket busters, these rules might require some research and a little bit of homework. But if you've got the time, you might want to think about using them to gain an edge on Martha from accounting who's likely picking winners based on names and mascots.

Check in with Vegas for Round of 64

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    Las Vegas usually comes out with the round-of-64 odds the day after the bracket is released. 

    Check those odds.

    While bettors have to worry about point spreads, bracket busters are just looking for winners. The spreads essentially tell you who Vegas believes will win. 

    And Vegas has a smart bunch of dudes who determine those lines. 

    Last year, alarms should have sounded when Vegas made No. 11 Minnesota a three-point favorite over No. 6 UCLA despite the difference in seeds. And Vegas was right, as Minnesota went on to smoke UCLA by 20. 

    Vegas also made No. 10 Iowa State a one-point favorite over No. 7 Notre Dame last year. Iowa State took this matchup by 18 points.

    Again, any time you see a lower seed favored over a higher one, it should immediately set off an alarm. 

    Obviously, this only works for the first set of games, since you'll have to submit your bracket before Vegas can set the odds for future matchups. But if you're looking for a few upsets in the round of 64, you might want to check to see what Vegas thinks first.

Dig Deeper into Individual Matchups

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    There isn't one specific stat to look for when trying to decide which team to pick in a given matchup. But based on the strengths and weaknesses of each squad, certain stats might be helpful in determining who has the edge. 

    You just have to know what the right stats are. 

    Start by searching for weaknesses in the favored team, and see if its opponent has the strengths to counter or cause some trouble. 

    One upset game that sticks out in my mind as a perfect example happened in 2011, when Morehead State upset Louisville in the first round. Louisville had been vulnerable on the glass all year—it was ranked No. 247 in the country in keeping opponents off the offensive boards, per KenPom.com's advanced stats (subscription required).

    Morehead State had Kenneth Faried, the nation's leading rebounder. His team was No. 3 in the country in offensive rebounding percentage. 

    And Faried destroyed Louisville's interior, as he grabbed 17 boards in the No. 13-over-No. 4 upset win. 

    Sometimes, if you dig deep enough, you can find certain tells within the matchup. It takes time, but if you've got it, it could improve your chances of making the right call.

Avoid the Mountain West Conference

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    This conference disappoints every year, and I've promised myself not to get burned by it again. 

    Last year, No. 3 New Mexico lost to No. 14 Harvard and No. 5 UNLV lost to No. 12 California in the round of 64. Boise State, a supposed sleeper team, lost its play-in game, while San Diego State lost to Florida Gulf Coast and Colorado State lost to Louisville in the round of 32. 

    Mountain West teams are now 6-30 against power-conference competition in the NCAA tournament. And no team from this conference has ever made the Elite Eight. 

    After New Mexico dropped the ball against Harvard last year, that was enough for me. Friends don't let friends pick Mountain West teams in the Dance, so spread the word.

Know When to Fold Your Top Seeds

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    Since 2010, only three No. 1 seeds have reached the Final Four. That's a pretty wild trend if you ask me. 

    And this year, there's even more parity then ever before. 

    Don't be the guy who thinks he's smart by resisting the urge to pick the upsets—because they're going to happen.

    After being eliminated by a double-digit seed four times since 2008, No. 2 Georgetown faced No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast in the 2013 tournament, a team that beat another No. 2 seed in Miami earlier in the season. Looking back, this information might have been useful prior to filling out your bracket. 

    Georgetown, a team that plays at a slow pace, got manhandled by Florida Gulf Coast, whose uptempo style caught the Hoyas off guard. 

    No. 1 and No. 2 seeds will be going down this year. You don't necessarily have to pick where it's going to happen, but if you can spot the sucker, don't be afraid to knock it out early.

Know the Trends

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    Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

    I'm one of those guys who believes in trends. If a pattern has developed, I'll typically follow it. 

    A No. 12 seed has beaten a No. 5 seed in 12 of the last 13 years.

    A No. 4 seed has gone down to a No. 13 seed in six straight years. 

    We've now gone two years in a row where a No. 15 seed has won in the first round, with Norfolk State upsetting Missouri and Lehigh taking out Duke in 2012, and Florida Gulf Coast knocking off Georgetown in 2013. 

    Don't be the rebellious bracket buster who tries to start a new trend. Go with the ones that continue to grow and repeat. 

    For what it's worth, I plan on having two No. 12 seeds, a No. 13 and a No. 15 in the round of 32.

Ride the Hot Teams

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    Can't decide who to take in one of those toss-up games? Go with the hotter team. 

    Last season, after winning the Pac-12 tournament, No. 12 Oregon went on to defeat No. 5 Oklahoma State, a team that had just lost to Kansas State on Friday of the Big 12 tournament. 

    After winning the SEC tournament last year, No. 12 Mississippi went on to beat No. 5 Wisconsin after it lost an ugly game to Ohio State in which the Badgers only scored 43 points.

    This strategy isn't foolproof, but I've seen enough evidence over the years to suggest that teams playing well entering the tournament are the ones who tend to last longer in it. 

    We've recently seen Duke (2010), Connecticut (2011) and Louisville (2013) run the conference tournament and NCAA tournament tables. 

    Either way, if you're stuck in a coin-toss game, common sense says to pick the team that has more momentum. 

     

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