How You Can Prepare Now to Win Your NCAA Men's March Madness Pool

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystFebruary 25, 2020

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski
Duke head coach Mike KrzyzewskiGerry Broome/Associated Press

Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying, "By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail."

While he obviously wasn't referring to a tournament in a sport that wasn't invented until a century after his death, that wisdom does apply to filling out your bracket(s) for the men's NCAA tournament.

Disclaimer: Properly preparing does not guarantee you will put together the winning bracket. There's a good chance you're still going to lose to someone who makes first-round picks based on jersey colors, second-round picks based on theoretical mascot fights, etc.

But you can increase your odds of winning by increasing your knowledge of the national landscape of college basketball in the remaining window between now and Selection Sunday on March 15.

We'll include specific references to teams in the projected 2020 field, but this is advice that applies to any year.


Know Thy Cinderellas

First and foremost, spend some time in these final few weeks familiarizing yourself with the top mid-major teams.

You might already be in the habit of flipping between ESPN and FS1 for four hours on most nights of the week, soaking up a ton of games involving the likes of Duke, Kentucky and Villanova. But have you watched any Northern Iowa or East Tennessee State? How about Utah State and Vermont? Heck, have you even sought out a BYU or Saint Mary's game that wasn't played against Gonzaga?

Unless you have been intentional about it, chances are you haven't watched a single game played by half of the teams in the running for the No. 12 and No. 13 seeds, which is a popular spot for significant first-round upsets. And by the time the bracket is announced, it's too late to apply the proper due diligence in deciding whether you like a particular matchup for the underdog.

Degenerates like myself can put together any number of Cinderella rankings to let you know which small schools are the biggest threats and why, but your eye test might find additional strengths and weaknesses that help you decide between chalk and an upset.

If you don't have time to watch a ton of game tape on teams that might not even make the Big Dance if they falter in their conference tournaments, at least make sure to read up on them here as February rolls into March. You don't need tape to figure out that BYU is lethal from three-point range or that Northern Iowa has a bad habit of losing the turnover battle. Factoids like that can help in a big way.

Just don't go falling in love, though.

Wish I could abide by my own advice on this one, but there's always a mid-major team or two that I end up talking myself into as a Sweet 16 team before we even see the bracketand it rarely ends well. Over the past seven years, my man crushes on the likes of Bucknell's Mike Muscala, Eastern Washington's Tyler Harvey, South Dakota State's Mike Daum and Belmont's Dylan Windler ruined my bracket before the first Thursday was even finished.


Don't Forget About the Nos. 7-9 Seeds

Illinois' Ayo Dosunmu
Illinois' Ayo DosunmuHolly Hart/Associated Press

In addition to the top mid-majors, make sure you're paying some mind to the middling majors.

Over the remaining days until Selection Sunday, you're going to hear a lot of banter about potential No. 1 seeds and the bubble. For the former, that means a ton of information about Baylor, Kansas, Gonzaga, San Diego State, Dayton, Duke and Maryland. For the latter, it'll be a bunch of 13-loss teams who deserve to get in because of ABC and deserve to be left out because of XYZ.

By the end of it, you might unintentionally memorize the best wins and worst losses for all of the No. 1, No. 2, No. 10 and No. 11 seeds, as well as a few of the No. 1 seeds in the NIT.

But there are about 30 teams between those two groups that won't receive as much attention in the final couple of weeksparticularly the ones in the Nos. 7-9 seed range that are neither in the AP Top 25 nor perilously close to the bubble.

We're talking about LSU, Xavier and a handful of Big Ten teams, among others. 

Maybe you watched a fair number of those squads earlier in the season, but how do they look now? Are they heating up and maybe on the verge of toppling a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the second round? Or are they a bit disjointed and all but certain to get bounced by a decent opponent in the first round?

Oregon was the only team seeded lower than No. 5 to reach the Sweet 16 last year, but the 12th-seeded Ducks only surprised those who weren't paying attention. They rode an eight-game winning streak into the tournament, blowing out most of their competition along the way. On the flip side of that coin, Louisville lost eight of its final 12 games, ended up with a No. 7 seed and didn't even come close to beating a Minnesota squad with virtually no bench.

It's not a perfect science, of course. Two years ago, Kansas State lost three of its final five games, got smoked basically any time it faced a quality opponent and then made it to the Elite Eight as a No. 9 seed. Or who can forget Seton Hall going 12-2 down the stretch in 2015-16, winning the Big East tournament and then laying an egg in a 68-52 first-round loss as a No. 6 seed?

Making it a point to bone up on those teams should give you a competitive edge, though, since a lot of people just know the favorites and have a couple of sleepers and/or Cinderella candidates.


You Can't Go Home Again

Oregon's Payton Pritchard
Oregon's Payton PritchardChris Pietsch/Associated Press

Make note of road and neutral-site records/performances.

This is a critical data point for bracketologists and the selection committee, but it often gets lost in the shuffle when it comes to actually filling out a bracket.

All of the good teams protect home court for the most part, but the true title contenders are the ones who can consistently take that show on the road—considering it takes six consecutive neutral-site victories to win the whole shebang.

Virginia was 14-2 away from home before last year's tournament, and one of the two losses was a two-point game at Duke. The year before that, Villanova went 18-3 outside the Wells Fargo Center and was close in all three losses. Even before Connecticut's unexpected run to the 2014 title, it had a bunch of quality wins and close losses away from home.

But instead of focusing on who's best on the road, it's probably more effective to look at which teams are either bad or unproven in those environments.

For instance, 2018-19 Marquette only played one road/neutral game against a NET top-50 team between Thanksgiving and Selection Sunday. It lost that game and then it got obliterated by Murray State in the first round. Similar story for the aforementioned Louisville team that did have a few impressive road wins, but also a couple of embarrassing losses and an overall road/neutral record of 6-9. 

Teams to exercise caution with this year include Texas Tech (1-6 road/neutral vs. Quadrant 1), Oregon (losses at Oregon State and Washington State; close calls at California and Utah) and most of the Big Ten, especially Rutgers (16-1 at home; 1-9 away from the RAC).

There are others, too, and there will be both additions to and subtractions from that list in the next few weeks. For now, it's more of a reminder to not overlook those data points on the various team resumes and to maybe put some extra consideration into teams who look good away from home the rest of the way.


Defense Wins Championships

Last but certainly not least, try to figure out which defenses you trust the most.

Over the past 16 years, the average pre-tournament adjusted defensive efficiency (AdjDE) rank by the 64 Final Four teams was 19.5. And that number is skewing high because of 2011 VCU, which ranked 138th before introducing the world to "havoc." Remove that outlierthe only team during that stretch to rank lower than 72nd and one of just four that were worse than 50thand the average drops to 17.7.

The last time a team played in the national championship after entering the tournament with an AdjDE rank worse than 37th was Michigan in 2013. Those Wolverines ranked 66th, but they had the No. 2 offense, the Wooden Award winner (Trey Burke) and a late-season bloomer (Mitch McGary). That team also trailed Kansas by 10 with 2:25 remaining in the Sweet 16 before a miraculous comeback in an overtime victory.

So, it can happen, but it takes some extraordinary circumstances to make a deep run without a great defense.

Defense isn't everything, though. The No. 1 defense only made it to the Final Four in three of those 16 years, and only 16 top-five defenses—aka an average of one per yearmade the Final Four during that span. Most concerning of all, Virginia had the No. 1 defense when it lost to No. 16 seed UMBC in the first round in 2018.

Still, if you're thinking of putting teams like Dayton, Creighton, Villanova and Iowa into the 2020 Final Four, you might want to keep a close eye on how well (or poorly) they do on defense the rest of the way.


Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.


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