The return of Selection Sunday means that sometime in the next couple of days you will be asked to fill out an NCAA tournament bracket. If you haven’t been paying attention to college basketball this season but don’t want to embarrass yourself in front of co-workers/family/friends, this can be a daunting task. Thankfully, we’re here to help with 15 bracket tips you can ride to an admirable finish in your bracket challenge.
[Just want to peek at our picks? Instant March Madness predictions from our college basketball expert]
1. Have at least one non-top seed in your Final Four.
It’s tempting to go chalk and wind up with a Final Four of nothing but No. 1 seeds, but history shows that’s not the way to go. The last weekend of the tournament has featured all four No. 1 seeds just one time (2008) since the event expanded to 64 teams. Three No. 1 seeds making it to the Final Four has been nearly as unique, happening just five times. Plus, picking all four No. 1 seeds is boring. March isn’t about being boring.
2. Don’t pick a No. 5 seed to win it all.
There’s always a lot of chatter this time of year about how “anything can happen in March.” A lot of things can happen in March, but a 5-seed winning the national title doesn’t seem to be one of them. Every seed line from 1-8 has produced at least one national champion besides the 5-seed line. No. 5 seeds have made it to the title game three times, but have never been able to be the last team standing.
3. Believe in at least one “First Four” team.
Even though the “First Four” — those four games in Dayton on Tuesday and Wednesday featuring the lowest-seeded four teams in the field and the last four at-large teams to get in — has been fairly controversial and often mocked since its inception in 2011, a team coming out of Dayton has won at least one game in the tournament’s “main draw” in every year since the First Four became a thing. That trend continued last season when Syracuse defeated Arizona State in Dayton, then knocked off both TCU and Michigan State to crash the Sweet 16. Overall, the First Four has produced four Sweet 16 squads and a Final Four team in VCU. Pick one of the four last at-large selections to this year’s field and ride that team to at least the second round of the Big Dance.
4. Roll with one wild card Final Four pick
Sure it’s scary to take one team that could easily lose in the first round and advance it all the way to the Final Four, but it’s also smart. Every single Final Four since 2012 has featured at least one team seeded No. 7 or worse. Since 2011, a total of nine teams seeded seventh or worse have crashed the season’s final weekend. So take the three teams you like the most to the Final Four, and then throw a dart in the region where you feel like the top seeds are the most vulnerable.
5. Pick at least one 12 seed to win in the first round.
The 12/5 upset is a March Madness tradition unlike any other. In 29 of the last 34 years, at least one 12 seed has advanced out of the first round of the tournament. Over the last 11 years, 12 seeds actually own a highly respectable overall record of 19-25 against five seeds. It almost always happens at least once, so pick a 12 seed you like and go ahead and move them onto Round 2.
6. Take a close look at the 13/4 matchups as well.
We just talked about the frequency of the 12/5 upset in the NCAA Tournament, but how about some love for the work the No. 13 seeds have been putting in recently? At least one 13 seed has won a game in the tournament in eight of the last 11 years. Last season it happened twice, with Marshall taking care of Wichita State and Buffalo blasting Arizona.
7. Pick at least one “major” upset.
Even if you don’t like any of the 12 or 13 seeds this year, pick at least one stunner in your bracket. At least one top four seed has lost in the first round of 10 of the last 11 NCAA tournaments.
8. Go back and look at the conference tournaments before settling on a national champion.
No team has ever lost the first game of its conference tournament and gone on to win the NCAA tournament. If you’re backing a squad that went one-and-done in its league tourney to win the Big Dance, you may want to reconsider. Looking at you, LSU, Texas Tech and Purdue.
9. Avoid the trendy 8/9 team.
Every year on Selection Sunday, there is an underachieving major conference team that gets thrown into the 8/9 “death game” and leaves everyone predicting that they will upset the No. 1 seed in Round 2. That team almost always gets caught looking ahead (or just isn’t as good as people want them to be) and doesn’t make it out of the first round. Don’t fall for the hype.
10. Be wary of the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed.
The NCAA tournament selection committee began designating a No. 1 overall seed in 2004. Since then, that team has gone on to win the national championship just three times — Florida in 2007, Kentucky in 2012, and Louisville in 2013. The best team doesn’t always win this thing, and in fact, the odds are against it. The best example? Last season of course, when No. 1 overall seed Virginia became the first top seed to lose in the first round.
11. Conference championships matter. Sort of.
In the history of the NCAA tournament, there have been only four national champions (who participated in a conference tournament) that didn’t first win either their league’s regular season or postseason title. Villanova in 1985, Kansas in 1988, Connecticut in 2014, and Duke in 2015 are the exceptions.
12. Be careful when picking a Big Ten or West Coast team to win it all.
One of the longest-running debates in college basketball is when a team from the West Coast or Big Ten will win its next national title. A Big Ten team hasn’t won it all since Michigan State in 2000, and a West Coast squad hasn’t cut down the nets since Arizona stunned Kentucky in 1997. Gonzaga came one win away from ending that streak two seasons ago.
13. Don’t automatically move all four No. 2 seeds to the second weekend.
In 21 of the last 22 years, at least one No. 2 seed has been knocked out of the tournament before the Sweet 16. A year ago, both North Carolina and Cincinnati were 2-seeds that failed to win multiple games in the dance.
14. Roll with at least one surprise Elite Eight team.
Maybe you’re not comfortable getting too crazy with your Final Four, but at least make sure your Elite Eight has some flavor. In each of the last eight seasons, at least one team seeded seventh or worse has played in a regional final, and in each of the last three seasons, at least one double-digit seed has made it to the Elite Eight.
15. Don’t feel bad about picking a No. 1 seed to win it all.
Even if you’re not going with the overall No. 1 seed (see rule No. 10), don’t let anybody shame you for picking a top seed to cut down the nets. Since seeding the field began, No. 1 seeds have won more national titles (22) than all other seeds combined (17). That trend continued last season with No. 1 seed Villanova claiming its second national title in three years.