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How to Choose Your Bracket

March 19, 2003 Columns No Comments

How to Pick Your Bracket

by Jed Tai

The bracket has been announced and it’s now when the fun begins. Your office is having about 20 different tournament pools with tons of money at stake, and you want to kick serious butt on Hoopville’s bracket challenge as well. You’ve been staring at the brackets all day long and surfing the net for information on possible Cinderellas. The big question remains — how am I going to fill out my bracket?

Is there a true winning formula? Some say there is, some say there isn’t. You may think that you know more about the game than most, but doesn’t it always seem like the winner of the pool doesn’t even follow college basketball? In truth, there often is a lot of luck that goes into having a winning tournament pool entry — having won an office pool myself, I can tell you that sometimes things simply fall into the right places. But that’s not to say you can simply flip a coin to choose all the games; of course, there are sme general guidelines to follow. Here are a few I go with every year when filling out my bracket:

1. Go with the #1 seeds

Especially in recent years, the #1 seed is guaranteed to be at least in the Sweet 16, if not the Elite 8. Almost 50% of all #1 seeds in the past 15 years have made it to the Final Four. When in doubt, go with the #1 seed, especially far into the tournament.

2. Watch the #4 and #5 seeds

Almost every year, at least one #4 or #5 seed goes down in the first round. Look particularly for games when teams differ significantly in style or makeup. Sometimes the team that pulls the upset is good enough to make a run all the way to the Sweet 16, so be aware of teams who could pull off two wins that first weekend.

3. Beware of the MAC!

In recent years, a member of the Mid-American Conference has made noise in the tournament. Last year it was Kent State going all the way to the Elite Eight. A team from this league always seems to be ready to wreak havoc on a higher seed in the first round of the tourney. If they don’t win the game, they at least make it very interesting. Why the MAC in particular? Well, let’s just say they’ve hurt me enough in the past that I’ve gained a good respect for them.

4. Seniors, seniors, seniors

Experienced teams typically do well in the tournament. With the exception of Arizona in ’97, national title teams have typically had good senior or upperclassman leadership. Sometimes young teams can make a good run, but it’s the more experienced teams that usually seem to come out ahead. Last year, it was Maryland with their senior trio of Dixon, Baxter, and Mouton. Good seniors help a team go a long way.

5. The Revenge Factor

It’s always hard to beat a team more than once. It’s also harder to beat a team seeking revenge. If a matchup features two teams that have either 1) met up during the same season, or 2) met up in a previous NCAA tournament — you may want to strongly consider picking the team that lost the last time. Now this isn’t completely failproof (see Kentucky versus Utah in
the 90’s), but it seems to happen more often than not.

6. Make sure you get the later rounds

It’s fun to pick upsets in the first few rounds, but if those teams don’t go very far, it’s not really worth too much. Different pools have different methods to calculate points, but most of them, including the Hoopville Tournament Challenge, give more points to choosing the later rounds correct. With that in mind, don’t worry if you miss some of the upsets in the first round. As long as the teams you pick to go far don’t get knocked out early, you’ll be in good shape. Don’t risk trying to pick the big upset while losing out on a team who could possibly make a long run.

7. Go with the flow

The first time you look at the bracket, some games will immediately strike you as possible upsets. Go with this initial feeling and mark it down already, as it probably has a good chance of coming true. The more you think about it, the more you’ll doubt your selection, and it always feels worse when you kick yourself laster because you know you felt the right way about it the first time.

There are many other methods to use, but those are some of the basic ones I use to fill out my bracket (and not to brag, but I do fairly decently in the pools I enter).

If you’re big on picking based on historical trends and assorted facts, here is a site to check out:

Jeremy Benson’s Tournament Reports:
The reports Jeremy presents here provide a variety of good info — team records when ranked higher/lower, versus ranked/unranked teams, versus particular coaches/opponents, etc. Some more information to bombard your brain with when deciding who should beat who.

If you don’t know much about some of the teams themselves, perhaps you should go with the ratings route — hoping that unbiased/objective math formulas might indicate who indeed is the better pick. Some ratings to definitely check out include:

Sagarin Ratings:
Jeff Sagarin’s ratings are often maddeningly accurate when used to choose winners/losers, as well as point spreads. It’s not
always right (then again, what is), but it seems like it’s more often right than wrong.

These ratings are similar to Sagarin’s, and are worth consideration. What’s nice about this site is that it not only has ratings, but also breaks down each team’s performance this year against differently rated teams, on home/road/neutral courts, in league/non-league games, and has predictions for future games.

Massey Ratings:
Another set of ratings for the true numbers guru.

Jerry Palm’s RPI:
The NCAA committee takes into consideration a team’s RPI rating when seeding teams and placing them in regions, but whether or not it’s useful in picking games is a different story entirely. This isn’t the actual formula the NCAA uses, but it is a reasonable facsimile. Use at your own risk.

Of course, while not personally recommended, you can take the advice of other so-called “experts” and base your picks off their pools. Be aware though, as most prognosticators probably don’t know much more than you do.

But most of all, have fun – that’s what it’s all about. Good luck!


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