NCAA Brackets 2018: Do's and Don'ts for Making Your Men's Tourney Picks
There are an endless number of ways to fill out an NCAA tournament bracket, as you've no doubt learned over the years observing an endless string of mascot-pickers, chalkers, homers, contrarians, nerds and people who just copy whatever you do.
It there was a foolproof way to pick an NCAA tournament bracket, it wouldn't be any fun, and nobody would bother. Fortunately, there isn't. But there are a few things you might think of as "good policy." There are steps you can take to help yourself avoid stupid mistakes, and there are some things about some teams in the tournament this year you might want to be aware of, if you haven't been paying close attention to the college basketball season.
It has been a strange year in college basketball, in that while Virginia, Villanova and Xavier have glistening records and have dominated all year, there is a general sense that the teams at the top of college basketball are more beatable than in years past.
As usual, chaos is anticipated.
But you can rise above it by following these tips.
Do: Look Up Some Basic Stats
You might (correctly) identify the NCAA tournament as a crapshoot in which even the most sophisticated research can be rendered irrelevant by a single bounce of the ball. For this reason, you may be tempted to fly through your bracket making educated guesses.
This is not a bad strategy, so long as the guesses are actually educated.
There is no need to try turning yourself into Ken Pomeroy to do this. If nothing else, just browse through the conference statistics for all the teams you're evaluating. You'll be amazed how quickly the cold truth about certain teams is revealed, and you'll gain insight into specific matchups. Take West Virginia, for example. It's a tough, veteran team with a popular coach (Bob Huggins) that runs a press and devours offensive rebounds. The Mountaineers are the fifth seed in the East Regional, and because of their recent history, you may be tempted to make them a sleeper Final Four pick. You may well still want to do that after you find out West Virginia was last in the Big 12 in field-goal percentage and seventh in three-point percentage, but then again you might not.
On the flip side, look at Purdue, which appears headed for about a second seed. The Boilermakers are known for their incredible size on the block and their excellent defense. But did you know they led the Big Ten both in three-pointers made and three-point percentage?
Face it, you don't have the time to do in-depth research on every team in the tournament—or even half of them. So just browse the stats and keep things in mind that stick out and will help you avoid making stupid mistakes.
Don't: Assume Kansas Is an Early Out
The Jayhawks have a reputation for losing NCAA tournament games they're expected to win, and there are a handful of anecdotal examples to point to. But that reputation starts to fall apart under closer scrutiny.
In the 11 seasons since a first-round loss to Bradley, Kansas has played in eight Sweet 16s, six Elite Eights, two Final Fours and two national championship games, winning one (2008). Kansas was upset by VCU in 2011, but you might not remember that being an Elite Eight game. A second-round loss to Northern Iowa the year before holds up as one of the most devastating in school history, but the second-round losses to Stanford and Wichita State in 2014 and 2015 were not particularly big upsets.
Compared to other blue bloods, Kansas underperforms as a No. 1 seed, but it overperforms as a No. 2, as Sporting News' Bill Bender noted. That hardly makes for any sort of guarantee.
If you're looking to bet against Kansas, the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Regional, you may be better off slotting the Jayhawks for an Elite Eight loss. Kansas has played in seven Elite Eight games since Bill Self took over the program in 2003 and only made it to the Final Four twice. It's a trend that has followed Self his whole career, beginning when his 2000 Tulsa team made an Elite Eight run, followed by his 2001 Illinois team that did the same.
Be especially wary of the Jayhawks advancing if you have them facing a veteran mid-major school in the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight. The Jayhawks sometimes tighten up in those situations.
Do: Consider Creighton
The Bluejays are seeded No. 8 in the South Regional, but they finished third in the Big East, and their leading scorer is senior guard Marcus Foster, a Kansas State transfer who averages 20 points per game.
Creighton beat Villanova on Feb. 24, Seton Hall in January, UCLA in November. Granted, the Blue Jays also lost to Villanova and Seton Hall this year, took a 17-point loss at Gonzaga, a 22-point loss at Xavier and a 23-point loss at Butler, among others. There are reasons this team isn't a top seed.
But there are some things to like.
As usual, the Bluejays are a sound offensive team that finished second in the Big East in field-goal percentage, assist-to-turnover ratio and defensive rebounds, and they were one of three Big East teams that made at least 10 threes per game.
Defensively, Creighton is not a disruptive team, and for that reason it would be a surprise to see it make a deep run. But with a veteran scorer like Foster, it isn’t hard to imagine Creighton beating No. 9 seed Kansas State in its opener and then giving hell to Virginia, the overall No. 1 seed, in the second round.
Don't: Pay Attention to Seeding Between 5 and 13
It used to be that you could pretty much count on a 12th seed to beat a fifth seed, and if you weren't picking that to happen in at least one regional, you were a fool. It's still good advice, but you should expand it to more of a conceptual level.
Any team seeded Nos. 5-13 is approximately as good as every other team seeded 5-13, so you shouldn't let the seeding be your guide (at least in the first weekend).
Last year, five double-digit seeds won first-round games. The year before that it was 10. The year before that it was five.
First-round victories by double-digit seeds have become so common they barely qualify as interesting anymore. Just don't expect those teams to make it much further. In the last 30 years, just 14 double-digit seeds have reached the Elite Eight.
Don't get caught up in seeding or get yourself caught trying to use your bracket to will a Cinderella run into existence. Instead, focus on how the teams match up with each other.
Once you get to the 3/14 and 2/15 games, you'll want to think long and hard before picking the underdog. And remember, of course, that a No. 16 seed has never won an NCAA tournament game.
Do: Have a Strategy
It goes without saying that to win a bracket pool, your bracket will need to be different from the rest. So using chicanery and manipulation, attempt to gain intel as to the intentions of your opponents and adjust accordingly.
Let's say most of the people in your pool go chalk and have roughly the same Final Four—all No. 1 and No. 2 seeds. Maybe some have a third seed in there somewhere. Now, you could follow suit, but what fun would that be?
In this situation, it's good if you have a highly educated bet about a Final Four contender that is just outside the mainstream. A team like fourth-seeded Arizona, perhaps, which fell on some hard times late in the year because of some unusual circumstances linking it to the FBI investigation, but remains an excellent team with perhaps the tournament's most talented player, Deandre Ayton.
Failing that sort of a hunch, look into the popular Final Four picks and single out the weakest ones for elimination on the second weekend.
Don't: Talk Yourself into Kentucky
Oh, it's going to be tempting. It's going to be so very tempting, when you look down at your bracket and you see, on that No. 5 line in the South Regional, SEC tournament champion Kentucky of all teams, to get visions of bracket heroism dancing in your head.
Yeah, you'll tell yourself, it's been a rougher season for the Wildcats, but, man, they're super-talented, and, look, they're young, but now it's March, and they're not so young anymore. And they have a tendency to do this, you know. These John Calipari teams, man, you just never know…
Don't do this to yourself.
Kentucky is 7-9 against the RPI top 50. It lost its first four games of February, and it was eighth in three-point shooting in the SEC (34.7 percent) this year.
This team is seeded this way because it has some significant flaws that aren't going to evaporate overnight. Be wary.
Do: Observe the Irony of Joining a Bracket Pool While the FBI Investigates CBB
The FBI is dead set on cleaning up the sport of college basketball, going after agents, runners, coaches and anybody else involved in paying players under the table. Meanwhile, tens of millions of Americans are setting up college basketball gambling pools, and those who do so are almost certainly in violation of federal law but practically never prosecuted.
As Forbes' Marc Edelman detailed, the Interstate Wire Act of 1961 forbids using wire communication—telephone or internet—to place wagers. The 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act makes it illegal for a private person to run a pool based on a competitive game involving professional or amateur athletes. Then there are all the state laws to deal with.
An NCAA bracket pool is about as good an example of a "victimless crime" as can be found in this fair land, so this should not be interpreted as a call for the FBI to shut it all down. But we would be remiss to overlook the irony.
Don't: Put 4 (Or Even 3) No. 1 Seeds in the Final Four
For one thing, that's a chalk bracket, which is unbearably weak. But for another, it's not a good idea, strategically. Only once (2008) have all four No. 1 seeds made the Final Four, and just seven times since 1985 have two No. 1 seeds met in the national championship game, according to NCAA.com's Daniel Wilco.
And this crop of No. 1 seeds is not regarded as being particularly strong relative to previous seasons.
While you don't want to send all four of your No. 1 seeds to the Final Four, you probably do want to have your national champion be a No. 1 seed. No. 1 seeds have won 20 national championships since 1985, against five titles for No. 2 seeds and four for No. 3 seeds. That only leaves four other championships, which were taken by seeds 4, 6, 7 and 8.
The first two weekends of the tournament are about chaos. Expect to lose one or two of your No. 1 seeds before the Final Four, and then ride whoever's left the rest of the way.
Do: Advance Your Team One Round Further Than You Really Think It’ll Get
One old rule of thumb is to make sure you never find yourself in the dreadful position of putting your favorite team's interests against your own interests when it comes to things like brackets.
If you have a school in the NCAA tournament, that's difficult to do. Unless you think your team is going to win the national title, you're going to have to put it down for an L somewhere in that bracket. The head will defeat the heart, and that's going to sting.
But you can make a compromise. Don't send your boys all the way to April, but put 'em down for at least one upset. Because if that hits, it's double the joy, but if it misses? Probably didn't kill your bracket.
Let your heart win for once. It'll thank you.