March Madness 101: Tips and tricks for filling out an NCAA tournament bracket

The Dagger

Every March, talk of “brackets,” “seeds” and “Cinderellas” around copy machines and water coolers invade the airspace around your cube. Badgered repeatedly by office hoop heads to participate in their cutthroat tournament game, you – on the outside a diligent worker dedicated to fattening the company’s wallet but inside yearn for much, much more – have historically stiff-armed their advancements. After all, conformity is a threat to your work ethic and individuality.

However, this time each year you notice productivity around the office dramatically slips. Important meetings are skipped. Lunches extend for hours. And TPS reports sit unresolved. Enough is enough. You too want to stick it to the man. More importantly, you want to silence the annoying, self-proclaimed experts at their own little game …

[It’s bracket time! Sign up now to play Tourney Pick’em]

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If you’re an inexperienced bracketeer with hopes of dominating the office pool, this is an educational primer detailing basic terminology and tips that encompass the NCAA tournament.

Lace up your Air Jordan 10s, gamer.

It’s time to boost your bank account.

The 2016 NCAA tournament is poised to be a memorable one, but if you’re stuck on which teams to take in your bracket, here are a few tips to consider. (AP)
The 2016 NCAA tournament is poised to be a memorable one, but if you’re stuck on which teams to take in your bracket, here are a few tips to consider. (AP)


To get familiar with the lingo, below are common words and phrases associated with the greatest sports event on the planet. Consider each bold-faced text. Have a highlighter handy.

What is the NCAA basketball tournament?

The tournament, nicknamed the “Big Dance,” is a single-elimination postseason playoff between 68 Division I college teams. Games are played round-by-round over a three-week period until a single champion is crowned. The opening slate, dubbed the “First Four” (code for, “you probably would’ve played more games in the NIT”), features four teams, two from high-major conferences and two from mid-majors. The winners of those games are slotted into positions ranging from the No. 9 to No. 16 seeds, establishing the traditional 64-team bracket (Note: First Four games will NOT be scored in Yahoo’s Tourney Pick ‘Em game.) From that point on, each winner advances onto the following round, whittling the field down. After Round 1, 32 teams remain; Round 2, 16 teams (dubbed the Sweet 16); Round 3, eight teams (Elite Eight); Round 4, four teams (Final Four) and Round 5, two teams (national championship).

What is March Madness?

This phrase – coined by H.V. Porter, an official with the Illinois High School Association in the late 1930s – references the excitement, passion and general zaniness the tournament creates. Upsets, buzzer beaters and raucous celebrations typically ensue. Submit to the “Madness” and you’ll surely relish every riveting second.

How is the tournament field selected?

The process of selecting who plays in the tournament is arbitrary and explicit. Teams earn berths two ways: 1) By winning their conference tournament, an automatic berth (32 teams punch tickets this way); 2) By being handpicked by the committee, an at-large bid (36 teams). How the latter is determined is very complex. Think of a lengthy crossword puzzle without an answer key. Committee members scrutinize schools based on a variety of factors: RPI ranking (Ratings Percentage Index), strength of schedule, predictive/results-based analytics, road/neutral court wins, Quadrant 1 wins, overall level of play, full body of work, etc. (See a team sheet example here.) Other extreme factors such as major injuries to notable players and coaching absences are also taken into account. Suffice it to say, it’s a complicated process. For more info feel free to thumb through the thoroughly confusing NCAA’s principles and procedures manual. Calculus will seem like a walk in the park.

What is ‘seeding?’

A seed is the position a team stands within a bracket. It has nothing to do with horticulture. Each region (four in total) houses teams ranked 1 (perceived best) to 16 (worst). In Round 1, the highest seeded teams are matched up with the lowest seeded team possible (e.g. 1 plays 16, 2-15, 3-14, 4-13, etc.). As the Committee puts it, the top priority for seeding is “to achieve reasonable competitive balance in each region of the bracket.” Generally speaking, teams from smaller conferences, often called mid-majors, are ranked lower than teams from high-major or power conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, etc.).

How do I ‘HULK SMASH!’ the competition in Tourney Pick’em?

Signing up and participating in this year’s Tourney Pick’em is easier than throwing a pepperoni pie into the oven. First, sign into your Yahoo account. If you don’t have one, start here. Second, create a free entry within the game. Be creative. Give it a flashy, playful name (e.g. Forever Trae Young). Third, select the winner of each game round-by-round by simply clicking on the school’s name. Remember, however, First Four games are not counted. That’s it.


Now that you’ve graduated from dance school, it’s time to smack down the competition. Below are five tips chock-full of pertinent info that could help you buy a seemingly endless supply of frozen burritos.

1. Top dogs don’t necessarily pack the most vicious bite
Since the tournament expanded to its current capacity in 1985, just over 40 percent of No. 1 seeds have advanced onto the Final Four. During that span, only once have all four top seeds made it to the Mecca of college hoops (2008). Yes, elite squads have more favorable odds of making a deep run. This year, North Carolina owns the best odds, per Vegas, to win the whole enchilada. But sage players aim for variety when penciling in teams on bracket lines. It’s important to zig when others zag. Typically, the Final Four features two No. 1s and two lower seeded teams from the Nos. 2-4 range. Last season’s Final Four, however, was rather unusual. It featured two No. 1s (North Carolina and Gonzaga), a No. 3 (Oregon) and, oddly, a No. 7 (South Carolina).

2. Don’t fall in love with too many Cinderellas
Selecting upsets is a bragging exercise. Everyone wants to boast to their buddies they had the stones to pick a team from the Ivy League. But becoming enamored with the unheralded can bloody your bracket in a hurry. Shocker specials do and will occur, but not nearly as often as many would lead you to believe. Approximately 16-17 percent of top seeds per season are bounced early. That trend, though, is rising. Over the past six years, right around 20 percent of big boys (6 seeds or better) have gone home crying in Round 1. Last season, due to knockouts levied by Middle Tennessee, USC, Xavier and Rhode Island, the upset bug bit at a depressed 16.7 percent clip. Obviously, don’t pick by the book. Be mindful that underdogs only occasionally topple regional favorites, especially over multiple rounds. Here’s a breakdown of Round 1 winning percentage for teams seeded No. 11 or lower since 1985 (Note: 11s and 12s are the most likely to wear a glass slipper): No. 11s (49-83, 37.1%); No. 12s (47-85, 35.6%); No. 13s (26-106, 19.7%); No. 14s (21-111, 15.9%); No. 15s (8-124, 6.1%); No. 16s (0-132, 0%).

3. When you do court Cinderella, think offense
Defense may win championships, but when it comes to the NCAA tournament, offense most often defines upsets. Among teams seeded No. 11 or lower over the past 10 years roughly 65 percent of schools that wore a glass slipper had an offensive efficiency rank of No. 75 or better. Consult to see what little guys qualify before deciding.

4. Hit the books
Upon graduation you may have vowed never to enter another classroom, physically or virtually, again. But research favors the champion. In this age of endless convenience, accessing information is just one click away. Immersing in columns/videos on Yahoo Sports is the first step for success. For the advanced, numbers-rich sites like, and are invaluable resources. Pools can be won accidentally, but increasing your knowledge on the subject matter only increases your chances.

5. Team balance wins championships … most of the time
If you comb through the NCAA tournament annals, one key predictive metric stands out among Final Four participants, a small differential between offensive and defensive efficiency. Well-rounded teams that force turnovers, guard the glass, generally frustrate opponents and score the basketball consistently are, predictably, difficult to eliminate. According to the ridiculous addictive, the average efficiency differential (offense-to-defense) of championship teams from 2002-2017 was -0.87. The average offensive efficiency rank was 7.63, defensive was 8.50. Of this year’s batch of single-digit seeds ranked inside the top 25 in offensive and defensive efficiency, Michigan St., Duke, Purdue, Gonzaga and Ohio St. have the tightest separation in those categories.

More NCAA tournament coverage on Yahoo:
Bracket Big Board: How the tourney field looks now
Changes to Selection Show format may eliminate drama
Why Oklahoma’s Trae Young is not this year’s top player
5 burning questions ahead of Selection Sunday
Assessing the 10 best NBA prospect you’ll likely see in tourney

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