If you’re a normal person, today is significant because it’s the first day of spring. But if you’re a college hoops fan, you know today’s really just the day before the first round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
Here are a couple of quick tips to keep you from bombing your March Madness bracket this year:
Fortune favors the bold.
Don’t be afraid to pick some underdogs. The tournament averages 12.2 upsets every year, not counting those between teams ranked only one seed apart. Your job is to identify which teams are most likely to pull them off.
Statistically, No. 10 and No. 11 seeds win their first-round matchups roughly 38 percent of the time. Those odds are slightly worse than a coin flip, so blindly taking favorites in those matchups can be risky. While No. 12 seeds win slightly less frequently at 35 percent, there’s a sharp cutoff at No. 13 seeds, which win just 20 percent of the time. No. 14 and No. 15 seeds rarely win, and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s toppling of the University of Virginia last year made history as the first-ever win in the tournament by a No. 16 seed over a No. 1 seed.
So if No. 10, No. 11 and No. 12 seeds are averaging first-round victories at a clip just below 50 percent, how do you pick the ones most likely to steal a win? The same way you should be playing the rest of your bracket: picking streaks and freaks.
Find out what teams are riding consecutive victories into the tournament. Every tournament, some teams come in hot off conference championships, while others ride better early-season performances to high seeds. Injuries are often responsible for these end-of-season collapses, so it’s important to monitor the health of the teams you’re betting on.
This year, Michigan State University’s end-of-season hot streak and Big Ten Conference championship should propel the team deep into the tournament. Unfortunately, their placement in Duke University’s (N.C.) division of the bracket will probably keep them out of the Final Four.
Florida State University also went on a late-season tear, winning six games until their loss to Duke in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship. The team has only lost one other game since February, which was to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), a No. 1 seed like Duke.
The University of Cincinnati’s (Ohio) domination in the American Athletic Conference tournament is also worth noting, especially since the team toppled No. 3 seed University of Houston along the way.
On the other hand, No. 1 seed Gonzaga University’s (Wash.) collapse in the West Coast Conference tournament should set off a red flag. The school lost its semifinal matchup and two regular season games to a Brigham Young University (Utah) team that did not even qualify for the NCAA tournament, so Gonzaga looks beatable on paper. But March Madness is about a bit more than just statistical confidence. It’s also about statistical miracles.
“Freaks” are teams with statistical outliers: game-breaking players or extraordinary coaches. In theory, teams with these individuals carry the highest statistical upside, and they’re more likely to go on a bracket-busting tear than just your average underdog.
Villanova University’s (Pa.) championship win last year supports this approach. The school’s victory can best be explained by the standout performances of three players who earned first-round selections in the NBA draft the following year: Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman. Skeptics may argue that Villanova’s championship run propelled them to their early selections, but that devalues Bridges’ and DiVincenzo’s award-netting regular seasons and Spellman’s all-around skill set.
Some could point to the University of Arizona’s embarrassing collapse in last year’s tournament as a counterexample, since the team lost despite superstar center Deandre Ayton’s presence on the court. Even though Ayton was still selected first overall in the following NBA draft, the example does speak to the limits of individual player performances.
Yet it also says something about the impact that freakish coaches can have on a game, as Arizona lost to an upstart team from the University at Buffalo (N.Y.) led by first-time NCAA Head Coach Nate Oats. Sports media has been ablaze with glowing coverage of Oats, whose passion for the game and blue-collar coaching philosophy has turned the program around.
Buffalo’s unique team culture and position in a weak region of the bracket make them a solid freak pick this year. Their end-of-season hot streak and resounding victory in the Mid-American Conference championship on March 16 should catapult them to a strong March Madness performance.
Other high-upside freak picks include No. 1 seed Duke, whose star forward Zion Williamson should lead the squad on a deep tournament run, and No. 12 seed Murray State University (Ky.), whose guard Ja Morant is projected to be taken second overall in this year’s NBA draft.
University of Kansas Head Coach Bill Self is another freak play for your bracket, as his leading win percentage in close games may give his squad an edge in tight contests. This includes a potential Sweet 16 upset against the UNC Tar Heels, especially since the game would be played close to home in Kansas City. Be forewarned however, since media buzz about Self leaving for the NBA amidst his NCAA scandal may be too much distraction for him to overcome.
No bracket is going to be perfect, and no one will get all the upsets correct. So while you might be tempted to go for broke by putting Murray State in the Sweet Sixteen, or by predicting a Final Four run for Buffalo, playing it safe in the bracket’s later rounds can provide solid insurance.
By the same token, don’t let your bracket anxiety keep you from enjoying some top-notch college hoops. Just play the numbers well, and pay attention to who’s hot, who’s not and who’s weird. That’ll put you in a great position to make a run in your March Madness pool this year.
Oh, and if you don’t have the Duke Blue Devils winning it all, you should just give up before you embarrass yourself any further.