A blueprint to bracketology
Five keys to filling out your NCAA men’s tournament bracket
March is here. And while for some that means the return of Fox’s Empire, the remembrance of Brooklyn, New York’s, own The Notorious B.I.G. (R.I.P., Biggie) or the month before spring break, for the rest of us it means pulling out those brackets and deciding which team we’ve never watched has the best chance to win the NCAA men’s basketball national championship.
People declaring their NCAA tournament bracket to be the best will be coming to an office near you. Pools will have prizes for pride, money, time off, On the Run 2 tickets and anything else you can think of. Online outlets will have brackets galore to complete, including our own here at ESPN. And who can forget Warren Buffett’s $1 Million A Year for Life for picking a perfect bracket? Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but according to Jeff Bergen, a professor of mathematics at DePaul University who’s been crunching numbers on this topic for years, the chances of getting a perfect bracket is 1 in 9.2 quintillion. If that number is foreign to you, that’s 18 zeros, which further proves you have a better chance of riding with Beyoncé in a Maybach with the top off than winning a perfect bracket.
But, I’ll admit, I patiently await March Madness to watch overworked athletes put on for their schools and fans for no pay in arguably the toughest playoff system in sports. I’m no better than the other lost souls hoping this year will be the year I defy the odds and I too confidently submit for my chance to win. Every year I fall short of that one team, in that one round, that would allow me to move my momma up out of the ‘hood (surprise, surprise). However, all those submissions and years of completing 10 brackets at a time have not gone in vain. I’ve hosted successful tournament challenge pools and have come to find certain methods work for at least staying in the fight past the first two rounds — and if you’re really using your head, past the Sweet 16. Filling out my NCAA men’s tournament bracket (as the method for the women’s bracket is a tad different) has become an art form that has yielded me free food, bragging rights, concert tickets and, yes, even some cold, hard cash (#SecureTheBag). Now, I can’t guarantee a perfect bracket, as we’ve already discussed how nearly impossible that is, but I can share these five key elements for making your bracket competitive until the end.
BE SMART ABOUT PICKING THE UPSETS
Never has a 16 seed defeated a 1 seed. Never. This stat is reminiscent of a Detroit Lions Super Bowl win: It hasn’t happened for a reason. So don’t pick the 16 on a “what if,” because history is not going to swing in your favor. Instead, try a 15 seed over a 2 seed. Is it unlikely? Yes. Is it impossible? No. Just ask the No. 2-seeded Duke after it fell to No. 15-seeded Lehigh in 2012 or the 15th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast team that made it all the way to the Sweet 16 in 2013. It happens more often than you think.
Don’t rely on overall record either. Being a box-office blockbuster doesn’t automatically equate to a good film, same as having more wins than losses doesn’t automatically make you a championship team. Syracuse is a good example of a team that did well to start the 2014 season and posted a 27-5 overall record but ended the season inconsistent, suffered some key losses and didn’t make it past the round of 32, losing 55-53 to Dayton.
ALWAYS PICK A 12 SEED TO DEFEAT A 5 SEED
Over the past 10 years, 18 No. 5 seeds have fallen short to a No. 12 seed in the round of 64, with Middle Tennessee being the latest victor in 2017 over Minnesota. There were six No. 5 seed upsets in the 2013 and 2014 seasons combined. It’s to the point now where it’s not “if” a 12 will defeat a 5, but how many. It’s a paradox that has worked for me every year, and I can count on it as much as I can count on LaVar Ball making a completely outlandish statement. I’m not suggesting that every 12 seed is chosen to defeat a 5, but to be on the safe side, pick at least two.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
I found it is just as important to pay attention to where the round is being played as it is to the teams playing in them. Schools that are located near the site of the game usually have a stronger fan base in attendance, giving that team a home-court advantage feel, which seemingly raises a team’s chances of winning. What better way to win a game on neutral turf than to bring the whole city with you and flip it into a home game?
DON’T GO OVERBOARD ON 1 SEEDS
Picking all four No. 1 seeds to make the Final Four will get you put out quicker than a knife fight in a phone booth. Of the 33 champions since 1985, 20 have been No. 1 seeds, but you have to expect the unexpected. Only once have all four No. 1 seeds made it to the Final Four (2008: Kansas, North Carolina, Memphis and UCLA), so don’t get overly excited with the top spots. Make sure the Final Four picks include a 4 seed or 2 seed, as one of those usually is present in the end. I realized a bracket could be salvaged if the Final Four is correct. Ask yourself, were Jay-Z, Biggie, 2Pac and Nas all on top at the same time? No. Remember that when you get that itch to pick all the top seeds.
LEAVE THE HEART OUT OF IT
Listen, sometimes you have to make a pimp decision, and that decision may not always include your favorite team. As much as I love Michigan State University (go Spartans), I can’t pick them to win every year. Every year they may not be true contenders, or sometimes the matchups just don’t fall favorably in their region (although this year I may not be following my own advice). The truth is, sometimes the best teams have to face well-liked teams, and well-liked does not mean better. Do your best to refrain from choosing the alma mater just because, or you’ll end up having a tantrum in the Walgreens parking lot when your 2016 No. 2-seeded Spartans lose to No. 15 seed Middle Tennessee (I will not confirm nor deny that actually happened).