How to fill out your NCAA tournament bracket

Chris Chase

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The NCAA tournament is less than 24 hours away, which means that you're likely procrastinating from work right now looking for advice on how to fill out your bracket. You're thinking you need to analyze each team, check in with the experts and ask everyone at the office what they think. Don't; it's a waste of time.

To be successful with your brackets you needn't read every single statistic or analyze game-film, you just have to combine a little bit of knowledge with a little bit of analysis and then hope you step in a big pile of lucky. After all, the only thing predictable about the NCAA tournament is its unpredictability.

And that's what makes March Madness so wonderful. If each of the four top seeds advanced to the Final Four every season, filling out brackets and watching the first and second round games wouldn't be as fun. The one-and-done format of the tournament lends itself to high drama, stunning upsets and intense pressure on every single possession. And that, in turn, makes filling out brackets an exercise in guesswork, at best.

Still, there are a few general guidelines that will assist you in your quest to win your pool. Here are ten battle-tested tips which will guarantee that you have the best-looking bracket in your entire pool at noon on Thursday. (I make no promises as to how it will look a few hours later.)

1) Chill with the upset picks -- Upsets may get you some points on Thursday and Friday, but pools are won late, not early. There's not much to gain by picking Memphis to lose to Maryland in the second round, especially if you're just going to have the Terps losing in the Sweet 16 anyways. Sure, you'll see a short-term point bump if your upset pick comes through, but the risk involved in losing ground to the majority of people who have Memphis in the Elite Eight is far greater. The risk-reward doesn't justify such picks.

Look at it this way: If you predict a big upset and it doesn't pan out, your brackets will be crippled. If the upset does happen, it won't kill you since nobody else in your pool is likely to have it either. After George Mason beat North Carolina three years ago, a friend texted me, "this kills my pool." He was right, but it killed everyone elses too.

Still, every bracket needs a few upsets, particularly in the first round. The key to making these is to hedge your bets; pick against you team you don't expect to go very far in the tourney even if they do win their first game. If you expect Kansas to lose to West Virginia in the second round, why not go with North Dakota State to pull the upset of the defending champs in the first round?

Pick at least one No. 12 over No. 5 (it's happened 15 of the last 17 years) and maybe one "big" upset beyond that.

2) In the later rounds, seeds ain't nothin but a number (except if that number is one) -- There are a lot of similarities between Marquette and Missouri. They're in the Midwest, have gold featured prominently in their color schemes and had former coaches with awesome hair. The main difference is that Mizzou got a No. 3 seed, while Marquette slipped to a No. 6. If they face-off in the second round, Missouri will be favored because of their better seed, yet, if the same two teams had played last week, nobody would have thought it an upset if Marquette won.

Don't let the seedings fool you. There's not much difference between any team seeded No. 3 through No 10.

On the other hand, the No. 1 seeds are, like Ron Burgundy, kind of a big deal. Pick at least three of them to make the Elite Eight. (That's happened in eight of the past 12 years.) Also, have at least two top seeds in the Final Four. That happens around 80 percent of the time. Last year, for the first time ever, all four No. 1 seeds advanced that far. That feat came just two years after another tournament first: no top team advancing to the Final Four.

3) Pick a #1 seed to win the whole thing -- In 12 of the last 17 years, a number one seed has hoisted the Championship trophy on the first Monday in April. Kansas continued that trend last year; making it the seventh time in the last ten Tournaments where that's happened.

4) The "cut your losses" method: When in doubt, pick the team you like less -- Let's say I pick Duke to go the Final Four. Now, I don't like Duke ... at all. Other than my team winning it all, there's nothing that would please me more in this tournament than seeing Greg Paulus crying on the shoulder of Gerald Henderson. However, I'm still going to pick Duke to beat Villanova in the Sweet 16. Why?

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Because if those floor-slapping, group-hugging preppies advance that far, I can take consolation in the fact that it might end up winning me money. And if they lose, then I won't be at all upset about losing money because we might see another picture like this (at right).

This rule works also for teams you like also. I want Wake and Kansas to do well in the Tourney. Sure, it'd be sweet if I picked one of them to win it all and I predicted they'd do so. But my fragile tournament psyche will be a lot more stable if I pick against them. That way, if either wins, I'll be happy enough that I won't care if my brackets are screwed up. If they don't, then I'll still have a chance at winning some money. And if I pick my favorite teams and they end up losing, then it's like getting kicked in the groin and punched in the face at the same time.

5) Don't jump on the local bandwagon -- People are homers. They pick what they like and what they know. I'm in a pool with about 25 Wake Forest alumni and I guarantee at least 20 of them will have Wake in the Final Four. Saps. A lot of people in this pool also live in Maryland, which will mean that we'll have a disproportionate number of entries that have the Terps in the Sweet 16. Don't get on that train, my friends.

Since a majority of pools involve people living in the same community (whether it be through your office, family, college, etc.), there's a tendency for certain local or collective favorite teams to become the popular pick. Going along with the crowd makes it harder to separate from the pack.

If you live in western Pennsylvania, don't pick Pittsburgh to win it all. You'll have to dominate the early rounds just to do so. If you go with Louisville instead, the path will be a lot easier.

6) Stick with teams that have a state or city in their names -- If you have Villanova, Gonzaga, Wake Forest, Butler or BYU coming out of their respective regions, you better get back to work. (And if you have Robert Morris coming out of the Midwest then you may as well just invest in AIG throw your money away.)

The Final Four (and entire tournament) is dominated by schools with states and cities in their name like Michigan State, Connecticut, Kentucky and North Carolina. In fact, Duke, Stanford, George Mason and Georgetown are the only non-place named schools to make the Final Four since 1990. Take that, Elias Sports Bureau!

7) If you can't figure out a specific matchup ...

a) Compare the coaches. Example: Duke vs. Texas. Mike Krzyzewski vs. Rick Barnes. One has three rings and the other gets stopped in the airport by people who think he's John Grisham. Need I say more?

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b) Go with the tougher mascot. This is also known as the "Scott Van Pelt Theory". The SportsCenter anchor, and Maryland alum, says when in doubt figure out which team's mascot would win in a no-holds barred brawl. (Perhaps this is why the Terrapins (a slow, lazy turtle) can't seem to beat anyone these days.)

Current examples: Tennessee vs. Oklahoma State: Volunteers vs. Cowboys. Clearly, John Wayne would walk all over somebody who works in a soup kitchen. Advantage: Oklahoma State. Or if Wake Forest plays Utah in the second round, there's no doubt that a possessed demon would win a brawl with those two Utes from "My Cousin Vinny".

c) Look for signs. If you're in line at the grocery store and get the urge for a pack of cinnamon-flavored gum, you'll know to advance the Cornell Big Red in your bracket. Or maybe you're flipping channels and turn on "The Larry Sanders Show", which is totally a sign that you should go with VCU.

8) Stick with your first instincts -- "Damn, I almost picked them!" is a popular refrain during the first round of the Tournament. It is, on its face, an utterly ridiculous statement. You're either picking one team or the other; it's like calling "tails", losing and then saying "shoot, I was going to say "heads". If you go with your gut, you won't ever have to second-guess yourself.

9) To our female readers, don't listen to any advice from guys -- We are a manipulative, repulsive and deceitful gender, and any tip you get from us will likely be geared towards one day seeing you without clothing.

When you go to ask Frank from Accounts Payable who he has in the East, here is the way the conversation will sound to you:

You - Hey Frank! Let me ask you a question, who do you have winning the tournament?

Frank, from Accounts Payable - Well, um, Connecticut is alright, but I'm going with, uh, North Carolina...? Yeah, definitely North Carolina. Their point guard is quick on the dribble and Tyler Perry is the man.

You - Wow, that's sounds great! You really know your basketball. (Walks away, accidentally brushing past Frank's arm.) Thanks Frank.

Frank, from Accounts Payable - No problemo... Later.

Now, here's how the conversation plays out in Frank's mind.

Oooh, she's talking to me. And Tournament questions, no less. She needed a sports question, so she came to the most athletic guy in the office (adjusts cell-phone belt-clip). I don't blame her, I am studly (runs hand through thinning hair). Time to dazzle her with my non-existent basketball knowledge.

(Frank gives his spiel)

I'm awesome. That was awesome, Frank. Way to go. Wait. Is that guy on UNC who looks like a muppet named Tyler Perry? Oh no, isn't that the guy who makes all those terrible movies? Hopefully she didn't notice that. I bet she's impressed. She is smiling. Oh man, she so wants me. I definitely have to go gloat over in advertising. Joel's gonna flip when he finds out I'm gonna be dating (your name).

(You brush past Frank's arm on your way out of his cubicle.)

She touched my arm. SHE TOUCHED MY ARM! I'm marrying her. Just propose now. That's clearly what she wants. First things first, just ask her out. She wants you to ask her out. Who asks an NCAA question if they don't want a slice of Frank. This pause is getting awkward ... say something ... ask her out.

(Frank says: No problemo... Later.)

NO PROBLEMO? What is this, 1986? You might as well have just said "cool beans" and gotten it over with. Alright, now that you've ruined this, try to save some dignity for a later date proposal. You haven't completely killed your shot yet. Let's walk away like you own the place and, you know, save a little face.

(Frank runs into a file cabinet, spilling hundreds of papers on the ground.)

Anyway, that's what's likely to happen if you ask some guy his opinion on the tournament. He won't know what he's talking about and you'll not only have a new stalker, but terrible brackets.

10) Most importantly, ignore everything you've just read

I haven't won a pool since 1994.