About the author: Jimmy is a senior at Maine South High School. He’s a reporter for The Mash, a weekly teen publication distributed to Chicagoland high schools.
With Selection Sunday just days away, bracket enthusiasts and die-hard fans alike are holding their breaths to see how the NCAA men’s basketball tournament will play out. For those who have never picked a bracket before, this is the year to start.
Sixty-eight teams will vie for the coveted national title, and this year’s tourney could be the most unpredictable yet. Even as the countdown to the selection show nears zero, many are unsure who the third and fourth No. 1 seeds will be (Syracuse and Kentucky seem to be locks).
The field is wide open with teams like Murray State, Long Beach State, even Harvard, capable of deep runs. Check out my tips for picking the perfect bracket, and be sure to sign up at themash.com for our March Mashness pool. You can compete against me and other Chicago-area teens to be “The Bracketmaster.”
How to pick a bracket
1. Take note of star power
While it’s good to pick a team that has depth, star players have the ability to carry their team deep into the tournament. Look back at Davidson’s run behind Stephen Curry in 2008 or Kemba Walker’s run with Connecticut last year (just a warning, this will not be my last Kemba reference). In this year’s tournament, watch out for Harrison Barnes at North Carolina and Isaiah Canaan at Murray State, among others.
2. Choose upsets tastefully
We all know that every tournament will have its fair share of upsets, but don’t be the guy or girl who picks the lower seed in nearly every game and has more than half of their Sweet 16 teams as double-digit seeds. Nearly every year it seems that a 12th-seeded team knocks off a No. 5 seed, so be sure to include at least one of these picks in your bracket. Oh, and it never hurts to pick one upset so you can cheer for the underdog. If Northwestern makes the tournament, I’m declaring now they will be moving past the first round in my bracket.
3. Look for commonalities in the schedules
If you’re stuck on a matchup, check through both teams’ schedules to see if they played each other during the regular season or shared any opponents. Then compare how each did on neutral courts since they will no longer have any official home games.
4. Pay attention to the coaches
Coach K, Roy Williams and John Calipari have years of experience in the tournament and know how to successfully coach their players through a rigorous schedule. This gives their teams a leg up on the competition and an advantage in the deep rounds of the tournament. When singling out the top coaches, look for teams that won close games. Also look for coaches whose career winning record is staggering. And, it never hurts if a coach has his own fan club, such as Tom Izzo at Michigan State. Trying to spot an up-and-coming coach? Look for a young guy with a lot of passion and a young team from a mid-major conference who is out for a deep tournament run.
5. Choose the team with the momentum
Wins are like dominoes: Get one under your belt and the rest just fall into place. Well, more often than not, the teams entering the tournament with momentum will do extremely well. Look at UConn last year. After winning the Big East conference tournament championship as a No. 9 seed, Kemba and company steam-rolled through the entire NCAA tournament and were the team cutting down the nets in March.
The 68-team bracket is broken down into four parts, or regions, with teams seeded one through 16 in each region. No. 1 seeds are the best teams and the teams decrease in talent (at least in the bracket-makers’ eyes) as the numbers rise all the way up to 16. So, a No. 16 seed beating a No. 1 seed would be a huge upset, while an eight seed beating a nine seed wouldn’t mean much.
How NOT to pick a bracket
1. Choose the teams you favor personally
Cheering for your hometown favorite, your future college or your parents’ college won’t get you anywhere unless, of course, you’re either from Chapel Hill, N.C., you’ll be attending the University of Kentucky, or your parents went to Syracuse. More often than not, people let their biases get in the way, which results in a busted bracket. You may want to cheer your favorite team to victory, but pick wisely if you want a winning bracket.
2. Pick winners based on colors or mascots
Just because Iowa State’s colors are a vivid red and yellow and TCU’s mascot is a Horned Frog doesn’t mean the two will be playing for a national title in the beginning of April. As lame as it is to pick the Bulldogs and Wildcats of the college basketball world, it’s more than likely they’ll win. Although, I’ll admit, hearing an announcer say, “Congratulations to the Horned Frogs on their national championship!” would be priceless.
3. Select the most “prestigious” teams
As well as some big-name programs are doing this season (Kentucky, Syracuse, North Carolina), there are a fair share of them that are struggling (Pittsburgh, UCLA). If either team were to make it to the tournament (basically they would have to win their conference tournament championship), the eye test would tell you to pick UCLA over the likes of Murray State and Creighton, but that wouldn’t be the brightest move. As tempting as it may be, picking big names over smaller, lesser-known schools is not always the best way to win your friendly schoolyard pool.
4. Play it too safe
While it may be risky to choose a couple key upsets, you know a least a few are going to happen, so picking the top seeds in all the early games is not the best option. Plus, how boring would the tournament be if the top four seeds of each region made the Sweet 16—can someone say snooze fest? I’ll be the first to admit that I chicken out when I consider putting a double-digit-seeded team in my Sweet 16, but there always seems to be one. So, pick right and be the envy of all of your friends.
5. Ignore game locations
Although the tournament games are played at neutral locations, that is rarely ever truly the case. Most teams, especially the higher-seeded ones, are often placed at locations close to their school. So, obviously, Duke playing in Charlotte, N.C., will have an advantage over a West Coast team. Even a Midwestern team like Kansas would have an advantage playing in Chicago. Also, keep in mind which teams travel well. The Kentucky faithful will fly across the country to support their team, so you know their games will feel like they’re right back home in Rupp Arena.