NCAA Bracket 2015: The Secret Formula for Picking a Winner

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMarch 16, 2015

NCAA Bracket 2015: The Secret Formula for Picking a Winner

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    USA TODAY Sports

    If you follow this simple six-ingredient formula to picking games in the NCAA tournament, you will win your bracket pool.

    That's not a pie-in-the-sky proposition. It's a stone-cold guarantee. Granted, one of the ingredients is completely out of your control, but you can totally use the other five to help influence the sixth a little bit.

    Joking aside, these are helpful, practical tips to follow when filling out your bracket. Whether this is your first time ever filling out a bracket or your 14th time filling one out today, here are a few important things to remember this week.

    On your mark. Get set. Research!

Ingredient No. 1: Do Your Own Research; Do It Well

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    We've all been there.

    Midway through the first half in a No. 6 vs. No. 11 game that's well on its way to a blowout, CBS/TBS/TNT/truTV flashes up a graphic showing that the No. 11 seed ranks third in the nation in two-point field-goal defense and the No. 6 seed never relies much on three-point shooting.

    "Well, if I had known that before the game, I would have picked this upset," we exclaim to our spouses who just want to watch anything else for a change.

    Who told you not to know that?

    Particularly in the round of 64, when we know for certain whom each team will be facing, why would you not take the time to do some research into each matchup?

    Sure, it's time-consuming to look through nuggets of information like steal percentage, points per possession and effective height, but these are the things that can help you pinpoint a big upset or avoid making your projected national champion a team with little hope of making it to the Sweet 16.

    That next episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt can wait. Dig into the numbers. Because if you don't, you'll have the entire second weekend of the tournament to stream TV shows while sitting in front of a campfire fueled by paper brackets and broken dreams.

Ingredient No. 2: Consider Betting Lines in Your Research

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    This is anything but an endorsement to bet on the games, but the people setting those lines in sportsbooks know what they're doing.

    Unless you're in some weird-but-awesome bracket pool where you pick each round after the preceding one ends, this only helps you out in the round of 64. But don't roll your eyes and blow off those first games, because they are the foundation for everything that follows.

    That's more than 50 percent of the games in the tournament with which Las Vegas is helping you a little bit.

    Maybe three of the No. 3 seeds are favored by 15-point margins while the fourth No. 3 seed is only favored by six points. Or, more likely, there are a couple of No. 10-12 seeds who are either favored or nearly favored to pull off an upset.

    In addition to spotting the lines that initially stick out like a sore thumb, it's not a bad idea to check back a couple of times before the start of play to see how much certain lines have moved since you last looked.

    What you do with that information is up to you. It could either help reinforce your confidence in a pick you already made, or perhaps it leads you to reconsider a game you were on the fence about in the first place. Either way, it's helpful data to have.

Ingredient No. 3: Be an Active but Selective Listener

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    It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a combination of many sources to fill out a flawless bracket.

    Do you know what's great about the nature of the selection committee? Ten intelligent people come together to form one bracket that might not even remotely resemble the bracket that each one would create on his or her own.

    The "eye test" can be deceiving, but having 10 sets of eyes makes it less deceptive.

    So, if it takes 10 sets of eyes and opinions to build the bracket, shouldn't you try to use as much "expert analysis" as you can to fill out your bracket?

    There's certainly a limit here. It's impossible to listen to everything that everybody says about every team, and following the masses is a great way to ensure you finish neither first nor last in your bracket pool.

    But the main point is that you don't want to simply ignore what others are saying, because different people see different teams in various ways. Maybe ESPN's Jay Bilas has some great insight on a couple of teams that you hadn't considered. Perhaps CBS's Seth Davis has a very compelling reason why one team is destined for the Elite Eight.

    Don't follow any one analyst into an abyss, because the analysts don't get them all right. However, they wouldn't be where they are today if they got them all wrong.

    You just have to figure out what information is worth absorbing.

Ingredient No. 4: Ignore Three-Point Percentages

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    Creighton led the nation in three-point percentage last season. In each of the two games the Bluejays played against Villanova during the regular season, they shot an absurd 60.0 percent from beyond the three-point arc. As a result, they had one of the most efficient offenses of the past decade.

    Until the tournament, that is.

    In the round of 32 against Baylor, Doug McDermott and company made just five of 24 shots from three-point range (20.8 percent) and were summarily dismissed by Baylor in a 30-point rout. In fact, it was the Bears who couldn't miss from downtown, sinking 61.1 percent of their 18 three-point attempts.

    Florida's Michael Frazier II was one of the most lethal three-point shooters in the country in 2013-14, making 44.5 percent of his 265 attemptsthe only player to attempt that many shots from downtown while making that high a percentage of them.

    Naturally, in the Final Four, he made just one of three three-point attempts as the Gators fell to Connecticut.

    J.J. Redick was one of the best three-point shooters in college history, but he shot just 33.9 percent from beyond the arc in 14 career NCAA tournament games.

    The moral of the story is that three-point shooting is hopelessly unreliable in the NCAA tournament.

    Feel free to note that Gonzaga, Indiana and Utah all shot better than 40 percent from beyond the arc during the regular season, but if your decision hinges on the likelihood that a team will get hot from the three-point range, you've already lost.

Ingredient No. 5: Respect the History

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    For as wildly unpredictable as the NCAA tournament is, there are a lot of predictable trends that have developed over the years.

    All four No. 1 seeds will advance to the round of 32. We know this because no No. 16 seed has ever pulled off that upset, and with the carnage that took place during minor conference tournaments, this won't be the year that streak ends.

    At least one No. 12 seed has beaten a No. 5 seed in 24 of the past 26 tournaments. In fact, three No. 12 seeds pulled off upsets last March.

    More often than not, at least one No. 13 seed knocks off a No. 4 seed. It didn't happen in last year's tournament, but there have never been consecutive tournaments in which all four No. 4 seeds survived their first game.

    Here's a newer trend for you: In the four seasons since the field expanded to 68 teams, introducing the "First Four" games, one of the two winners from the at-large pairings has gone on to win at least one more game. In three of those four tournaments, that "Last Four In" team even advanced to the Sweet 16including the year VCU went from First Four to Final Four.

    Certain teams (Georgetown, Gonzaga, etc.) and conferences (Mountain West, etc.) always seem to let us down, while the likes of Michigan State and Louisville almost always seem to reach the Sweet 16.

    There are a bunch of trends like these out there. Reid Cherner of USA Today posted a pretty solid list of bracket tips based on years past, and knowing the past can help in your efforts to predict the future.

    One non-trend to note: Winning the conference tournament means nothing. In 2008, all four teams that reached the Final Four won their respective conference tournaments. In 2009, none of the Final Four teams were conference-tournament winners. You're more than welcome to ride Arizona deep into the tournament and pick Duke to lose early, but make sure your sole rationale isn't because of one game they played a few days ago.

Ingredient No. 6: Get Extremely Lucky

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    USA TODAY Sports

    You're going to want a ton of this ingredient, because we all know that dumb luck is at least 95 percent of the bracket-picking game.

    It's very possible you could have done enough research to come to the conclusion that Mercer had a realistic shot at beating Duke last season. However, no amount of research could have possibly told you that Stanford and Dayton would meet in the Sweet 16. And if you seriously had a No. 7 seed and a No. 8 seed competing for the national championship, then you ignored every trend in the book.

    That's why they call it March Madness.

    Despite all the trends and commentary in the world, completely unpredictable things happen every year. Think about it. If you could travel back in time to any given Selection Sunday and present the actual bracket to a friend as if it's your guess at what will happen, that friend would ask why you're showing him your coin-flip bracket.

    Do the research. Pay attention to the past and what people (and Vegas) are saying about the present. Ignore three-point percentages at all costs.

    But what you really want to do is get as lucky as you possibly can. Because like the amount of love that goes into mom's secret cookie recipe, the most important and most incalculable ingredient in the secret formula for picking a bracket is luck.

    Anyone who tells you otherwise is truly mad.

    Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.


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