By Steve Breazeale
If there is anything years of filling out NCAA Basketball Tournament brackets has taught me, it’s that I don’t know much—but I try.
In my bracket, I get a few of the late-stage picks right by going with the usual suspects (I’m looking at you, Duke), but about halfway through the tournament my bracket becomes more busted than the majority of MLB players from the early 2000s, which is to say bloated-looking and full of shame.
I don’t claim to be an expert on college basketball, but I have wasted plenty of time and lost plenty of Washingtons attempting to be one.
I know the tournament starts today, but if you’re like me, there is nothing like waiting until the last minute and frantically filling out your bracket with total confidence. And, no, the so-called “First Four” play-in games, which took place March 15-16, do not count as part of picking a bracket in my book. No one should get bonus points for picking Florida Gulf Coast over Fairmont Dickinson. If you went to either of those schools, I apologize. The real run through the 64-team bracket begins today.
Whether you want to win money, be the genius of the office for a week or stick it to your buddies, we all want the gratification of seemingly mastering an unmasterable art, and I am here to help you.
But before we all attain the glory of having picked a solid bracket, we must first go over some ground rules. Forget analyzing team tendencies, strengths and records. Those are for suckers. For a truly heroic effort, we must delve deeper and apply some unconventional tactics to gain that winning edge.
Rule No. 1: Be Loyal. You’re scanning your bracket and suddenly remember that your uncle went to Notre Dame? Boom. Pick them! Better yet, your grandfather once shook the hand of the head coach at USC back in 1968 and never fails to remind you of what a nice young gentleman he was? Go all in on the Trojans. Conversely, your grandfather once tried to shake the hand of the USC coach back in ’68 and got left hanging by that arrogant whippersnapper? By all means, feel free to pick against them. This irrational tip comes in handy when searching for whatever slim mental advantage you feel you might have in, say, picking a No. 8 vs. No. 9 matchup in the first round. It also gives you some rooting interest in games you would normally not care about at all.
Rule No. 2: Be Bold. Get frisky with a few of your picks in the first round. Just about every year we see a No. 12 seed upset a No. 5, or an 11 triumph over a 6. Sprinkle a few of those upsets into your bracket and get ready to reap a few rewards. Fun fact: From 2008-2015, No. 12 seeds have won 15 of 32 contests against No. 5 seeds.
Rule No. 3: Don’t be “that guy” in your bracket pool. You know who you are. You’re the guy who picks a No. 16 seed team to upset one of the four No. 1 seeds just to stand out. Trust me, the loss you’re sure to be handed is not worth the inner turmoil that will rage in your head when you don’t get to use the “See, I knew Austin Peay would upset Kansas!” speech you had stored in there all week. In fact, apply this rule to the No. 2 versus No. 15 matchups as well. Since 1985, the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds have gone a combined 241-7 against the No. 16 and No. 15 seeds, respectively, with the top-seeded team going a perfect 124-0. I’m aware this rule somewhat contradicts Rules No. 1 and No. 2, but stew on that previous stat for a minute before you do anything rash.
Also, “that guy” in your bracket pool is more often than not the person who can’t stop talking about his/her bracket during the tournament’s two-week run, making anyone they come into contact with avoid having a small-talk conversation with them like the plague. Do whatever it takes to not be “that guy”.
Rule No. 4: Raise the Stakes. Nothing ramps up your interest in a game between Baylor and Yale like having something on the line. Pride and money (if gambling were legal, of course) are good motivators. Having extra side bets with your friends can make the 10-plus-hour viewing party that is the first round even better.
These rules aren’t guaranteed to help, but if they do, I will gladly take the credit. If they don’t, my editor’s email inbox is eagerly awaiting your response.
In the end, a majority of us will be left wondering what could have been if we’d just picked so-and-so instead of so-and-so. I’ll be happy with a bracket that turns out to be 60 percent correct. I would even frame my bracket and hang it over my desk if I could somehow pick the Elite Eight. Hey, a guy’s allowed to dream, right?
Enjoy the madness.
Steve Breazeale is the sports editor for the San Clemente Times. John Calipari once gave him a thumbs-up sign at a press conference and he is now picking Kentucky to go all the way this year.