Bracketology 2021: Best Tips for Filling out Your 2021 Bracket

Michelle Bruton@@michelle_nflFeatured ColumnistMarch 15, 2021

Bracketology 2021: Best Tips for Filling out Your 2021 Bracket

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    Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    Selection Sunday has come and gone, and we now know how the seeds fall in the bracket for the 68 teams in this year's NCAA men's basketball tournament. (You can view the bracket in its entirety here 

    With the continued COVID-19 protocols in place, some things will look different in this year's tournament. The most obvious change is that the entire thing will be held in Indiana. But the bracket was designed differently this year, as well. 

    The top four seeds and the First Four will be treated the same as in previous years. But the rest of the bracket will be filled in using the "S-curve." What does that mean? Teams' placement in the bracket is based on rankings without regard to geography. So the overall No. 5 seed (the top No. 2 seed) will be in the same region as the overall No. 4 seed (the final No. 1 seed), and so on. There are 37 at-large selections (one more than usual) and 31 automatic qualifiers (one fewer than usual, as the Ivy League is not playing this season).

    The host sites for 2021 are: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Hinkle Fieldhouse, Indiana Farmers Coliseum and Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis; Mackey Arena in West Lafayette; and Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall in Bloomington.

    Action begins with the First Four on Thursday, March 18 (held on only one day this year).

    The first round is set for Friday, March 19, and Saturday, March 20. The second round will be held Sunday, March 21, and Monday, March 22. The eight games in the Sweet 16 will be played at separate times, with no overlap, on Saturday, March 27, and Sunday, March 28. The Elite Eight is set for Monday, March 29, and Tuesday, March 30. 

    Play the NCAA March Madness Bracket Challenge HERE!

Be Prepared for Replacement Teams

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    With two years having gone by since we last enjoyed the Madness, it's no wonder fans are excited about this year's tournament. Unfortunately, there is a very real chance that the coronavirus will impact the tournament to some degree for the second year in a row.

    Several conference tournaments were affected when teams had to exit due to positive COVID-19 tests.

    Duke forfeited in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament. The following day, defending national champion Virginia also exited the ACC tournament, while the Kansas Jayhawks withdrew from the Big 12 tournament. North Carolina A&T and Northern Iowa also departed their conference tournaments because of positive tests.

    Teams have to produce negative test results for seven consecutive days to play in Indianapolis. (This requirement also extends to people in the school's 34-person travel party.) Each team must also have five eligible players to participate.

    Per the NCAA, if a team from a one-bid league has to withdraw, it will be replaced by its conference's "preapproved contingency" team. If the withdrawing team is in a conference with multiple NCAA tournament bids, then it will be replaced by the highest-ranked at-large team that missed the cut. However, after Tuesday at 6 p.m. ET, teams will no longer be replaceable, and their opponents will simply advance to the next round.

Select Your 12-5 Upsets Carefully

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    By now, you surely know that a 12-5 upset is your lowest-hanging fruit when you're looking for upsets. That pairing has yielded 50 upsets in 140 games since 1985 (.357 winning percentage).

    There were three 12-5 upsets in 2019: Liberty defeated Mississippi State 80-76, Murray State defeated Marquette 83-64, and Oregon beat Wisconsin 72-54.

    According to NCAA.com, in 30 of the last 35 years, at least one No. 12 seed has won a first-round game.

    "Great," you're thinking. "I'm going to pick some smart 12-5 upsets and take them through the bracket."

    Not so fast. While it's a sound strategy to select, say, up to three No. 12 seeds to win in the first round, that might be where the train stops for them.

    Per NCAA.com, more than 50 percent of the No. 12 seeds who won in the first round fail to advance past the second round. Now, to be sure, 21 of the 50 teams have made it to the Sweet 16, so you could justify having one No. 12 seed make it to the second weekend. 

Scout the Enemy: Think About Your Opponents' Likely Picks

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    If everyone filled out March Madness brackets according to seeding and sheer logic, multiple people would have similar, if not identical, brackets. 

    But during March Madness, we all count on our competitors to make some off-kilter or emotional picks; their own alma mater, for instance, or an appealing underdog. 

    That being the case, a smart strategy to consider when filling out your bracket is to think about what your competitors' picks might look like. 

    Chances are, if you work in, say, Chicago, many of your co-workers went to Big Ten schools. Can you pick against one of them in a given round and hope that it's the smart choice that propels you ahead of them? You can also take a look at the data aggregating the most popular teams in national brackets and use that to glean some insights as to how the rest of your crew might be picking. 

    As with many of these other strategies, don't do something that makes your gut twinge or is way out of left field just to try to make your bracket stand out. But if there is a less obvious choice backed by data, whether it be KenPom or bracket trends, consider making the less obvious choice.

Remember That Cinderella Doesn't Always Show at the Big Dance

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    The most fun part of March Madness is arguably the first round. It's sheer delight when your upset pick triumphs over a higher seed.

    What a thrill!

    But the last thing you want is to lose a Final Four team—or worse—on the first two days, and that's more likely to happen if you pick a Cinderella to go too far. 

    The first round is where your underdogs should live. Don't get too attached to them.

    It's important to remember that the lowest-seeded Final Four teams were No. 11s (Loyola-Chicago in 2018, VCU in 2011, George Mason in 2006 and LSU in 1986). None of them made it past the national semifinals. 

    If you want to stand out among your friends, family and coworkers, you can put a No. 12-16 seed like Winthrop or Cleveland State in your Final Four. If you want a winning bracket, keep any team seeded lower than 11 out of your Final Four.   

Now Narrow Your Cinderella Teams Even Further

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Because you read this article and decided you want to win, you will not put a team seeded lower than No. 11 in your Final Four. Good job. 

    Now we should talk about which teams you're going to send to the semifinals. 

    The biggest Cinderella in March Madness history was Villanova in 1985, which won it all as a No. 8 seed. Two other No. 8 seeds in tournament history have made it to the national title game, and teams seeded eighth have advanced to the Final Four five times since the field expanded to 64 teams in '85.

    That means No. 8 seeds, believe it or not, have actually made it to the national championship the same number of times as Nos. 4 and 5 seeds, and they have done better than Nos. 6 and 7 seeds. 

    However, while this should probably leave you impressed with No. 8 seeds, it should remind you that putting any team seeded worse than No. 4 in your Final Four is always a risk. Some years, it's a smarter play than others, and it could be a wise move if you're in an enormous pool.

    But most of the time, you don't want to get cute with your Final Four. Save that for the first round. 

Don’t Overthink It: A No. 1 Seed Is the Safest Bet to Win It All

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    David Becker/Associated Press

    This isn't rocket science, yet it bears repeating because every year because people fall in love with a No. 3 or 4 seed and tab that program to cut down the sets to the tune of "One Shining Moment."

    This is a reality check.

    Unsurprisingly, No. 1 seeds are historically dominant over No. 16 seeds, owning a 135-1 all-time record, per NCAA.com. The only upset in this matchup was UMBC versus Virginia when the Retrievers delivered one of the greatest underdog performances in sports history. 

    No. 1 seeds have won 20 of the 34 NCAA tournaments since the field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985; they've been top dogs in six of the past 10 and 13 of the past 20. 

    In tournament history, at least one No. 1 seed has made the Final Four all but three times. However, all four have made the Final Four only once, so don't go overboard.

    This year, the top seeds to beat will be Gonzaga and Illinois.  

Consider the Size of Your Pool

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    Brennan Linsley/Associated Press

    As we've established, No. 1 seeds are the safest choice for your champion. That's especially true when you're in a small friends-and-family pool since your best bet is to make conservative picks early on and choose a safe champion. 

    If you are in an enormous pool, though, you might need to take a few more risks in order to differentiate your bracket (and then cross your fingers that it pays off).

    If you have the same champion as many of the other entrants, it stands to reason you may have picked some of the same earlier upsets, too. All it takes is one wrong pick to derail your shot at the pool. 

    Of course, this doesn't mean you should go against your gut; pick the team you believe will win. But if you see a path to the championship for more than one team and are in a large pool, consider the strategy of going with the less popular choice since it has a higher ceiling but a much lower floor.    

Pick Some No. 11 Seeds and Feel Confident About Them

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    So you've heard ad nauseam about what a great bet No. 12 seeds are in the first round of the tournament. But what about No. 11 seeds?

    As The Athletic's Peter Keating pointed out, No. 11 seeds have gone 21-19 in their first-round games since 2010. That winning percentage is higher than the one No. 12 seeds have posted in the same timeframe (16-24).

    As Keating noted, 2010 is also the year the tournament expanded from 66 to 68 teams, and 13 of the 18 extra slots created have gone to No. 11 seeds. 

    In 2011, No. 11 VCU reached the Final Four. In 2018, the No. 11 Loyola-Chicago Ramblers stunned the country when they did the same. In 2014, No. 11 Tennessee reached the Sweet 16. So did Syracuse in 2018.  

    Keep a close eye on the teams in the First Four this season since Michigan State is an attractive pick. No. 11 Utah St. over No. 6 Texas Tech, though not in the First Four, also feels like an upset waiting to happen.    

Find a Storyline to Care About Outside Your Own Team

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    Matt Marton/Associated Press

    You'll need to pick some upsets as you fill out your bracket. And whether you're a fan of a power-conference team or a mid-major, your squad is not guaranteed to make it to the Final Four, let alone out of the first round.

    To keep some emotional investment amid the Madness, find another team or two with which you can connect. Perhaps it's your spouse's or sibling's favorite team or alma mater. Perhaps the competitive fire burns so hot in those relationships that you wish for that team to do nothing but fail, in which case, you do you.

    Perhaps it's a national feel-good story like the heroic underdog UMBC Retrievers in 2018 or Sister Jean cheering the No. 11 Loyola-Chicago Ramblers on to the Final Four that same year. If you have no rooting interests, perhaps you pick the program in the same state as your favorite professional team. 

    Many brackets are born in March, and few see the sunny days of April. You're going to want something to keep your interest alive aside from money and bragging rights.   

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