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March Madness Preview: Bracket Strategy 101

March 12, 2007 | By RotoRob | comment on this post
It's time to fill in your brackets.
Before you go mad, let us help you with your brackets.

On Sunday, the selection committee unveiled the 65 teams that will participate in this year’s NCAA men’s basketball championship tournament. A total of 63 teams are given automatic entry and the final two teams play each other in the ‘play-in’ game, the winner of which moves on to the main field of 64. All that’s left at that point is to fill out your bracket. Oh. Is that all?

Yes, completing a full bracket, predicting the winners for the 63 tournament games, can be a hugely daunting task, sometimes making you wish you had tried a more simple job, like, say, calculating pi to 68 decimals in your head. So let’s try to keep things simple; it’s way too easy for this process to get so out of control that before you know it you feel like you’ve just been given five minutes to assemble the parts of a high-powered rifle, the instructions of which are printed in Swahili, before a Bengal tiger that hasn’t eaten in a week is released into the room. Take some advice from the cover of the Hitchhikers’s Guide to the Galaxy: Don’t panic!

Here’s some more advice:

  • Don’t go crazy. It’s easy to start rifling through endless scouting reports, making multiple calculations and creating probability scenarios. But have you ever noticed how often the person who wins your office pool is the one who selected winners based on where they’d rather be? Or who would win in a battle of their mascots? Hmmm… can a Wildcat beat a Boilermaker? The point here is, while we’re not suggesting employing either of these methods, there’s no need for you to get too complex with your selection process. As it is, there are about 9.22 quintillion (a billion billion) possible outcomes.
  • It’s all about seedings. The last thing you want to do is make a lot of mistakes in the first round that compound your errors in subsequent rounds. For instance, if you take a No. 4 seed to go all the way to the Sweet 16, but they actually go down in round one, the domino effect of this incorrect pick can have a devastating impact on your bracket. So choose your upsets carefully. Here are some odds to help you through the first round: top seeded teams, from 1992 to 2006 have never lost a first round game, going 60-0. In fact, since the tourney expanded to 64 teams in 1985, a number one seed has never lost a first round match. So steer clear of those No. 16 seeds that are all paired up against the number ones.

A No. 2 seed has only lost in the first round three times in 15 years, winning 95 percent of the time. Number threes are 52-8 and fourth seeds have lost 12 times (winning 80 per cent of the time). Here’s where it gets interesting. For whatever reason, the No. 5 vs. No. 12 games tend to produce more upsets than any other matchup. The five seed only advances 63 per cent of the time (compared to the No. 6 seeds, which advance 75 per cent of the time). As you get to the No. 7 vs. No. 10 and No. 8 vs. No. 9 games, things become much more muddled (seven seeds win 55 per cent of the time, while eight seeds only win 45 per cent of the time).

Looking beyond the first round, here are some things to consider when looking at round two potential matchups: 85 per cent of the time, No. 1 seeds make it to the Sweet 16; when six seeds meet three seeds, they win slightly better than half the time. While No. 2 seeds dominate the seven seeds (winning 72 per cent of the time), they only win just over half the time when they play the lower 10 seed in round two.

Almost three-quarters of all number one seeds make it to the Elite Eight, while usually two number two seeds make it to this round every year. The odds of the seeds making this level continue to drop until, curiously, the No. 6 seed, which between 1992 and 2006, made it to Elite Eight almost twice as often as the five seeds. Finally, there is usually one seven through 11 seeded team that makes it this far every year. When you start looking at seeds 12 and higher, the chances of one of them getting this far are almost nil. In fact, in 2002 Missouri became the first team seeded 12 or higher to ever make the Elite Eight.

  • Look for vulnerabilities. So Team A heads in at 21-8 and Team B is 17-13. Easy call, right? Wait a minute. How did Team A do down the stretch? Oh they lost their last four games? Hmmm. And Team B won 10 of their last 11? Interesting. Watch for specifics in this area in our team preview articles.
  • Polls? What polls? Don’t even look at the top 25 list at this point. That was then. This is now. Being a top 25 does not guarantee you’ll be playing in the second round.
  • How’d they get there? A number of teams will gain automatic entry into the tourney for winning their conference tourney. That doesn’t necessarily make them a great team, just a team that was good enough to get hot over the course of a few days. Teams that have gained at-large bids have generally enjoyed more consistent season-long efforts against greater competition. Of course, then there are those schools that win their conference tourneys and would have qualified for at-large bids anyway.
  • Perfection ain’t easy. Don’t expect to go 63-0 in this thing. More people will likely win the lottery and get bit by a shark in the same day than will have a perfect bracket.
  • Hedge your bets. When taking a team for a first-round upset, it’s usually wise not to have that same team going too far into the pool beyond that. That way, if the upset does not occur in round one, your pool can still be corrected by the third round, assuming you didn’t have the upset choice getting past the second round.
  • Don’t listen to any of this. Oh sure. Now you tell me. I read this far, and now you’re negating everything I just read? Great. Well, the deal is, this is all about fun, so it’s perfectly okay to just follow your heart and choose your favorite teams. Hell, you actually want to root for those teams, don’t you? There is so much luck involved in winning this thing, that the best advice I can give you is just do what you want. If you want to fill out your bracket employing any means you dream of just do it. Want to dip slugs in paint of the team colour and let them race? Go for it! This exercise is meant to add even more fun to what’s already perhaps the greatest sports tournament there is, not to complicate things.

The bottom line is that an NCAA pool can add great enjoyment to your tournament viewing experience. Having some teams to root for can make that huge bowl of cheese doodles all the more tasty. Of course, it can also make you choke on one when the team you had going to the Final Four loses to a school that’s previous greatest sports claim was winning the collegiate armadillo racing championship.

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