So in case you live under a rock, the NCAA March Madness bracket was released yesterday, commencing a fantastic month of pure basketball bliss. For all those emerging from underneath a rock and wanting to get involved in the madness, here’s my essential preview of how to pick your bracket for the March Madness tournament. Let’s Dance!
Pick the #1 seeds to go far. No #1 seed has ever lost to a #16 seed (128-0). Overall, #1 seeds have won 78.5% of their games, so they are always a safe bet. The downside to picking the #1 seeds to win it all is that everyone picks them, so your chance of winning your bracket pool by picking a favorite is actually worse than picking a team slightly less popular. However, they always have the path of least resistance to the Final Four, so they are safe bets to go far.
The Final Four is the Most Important to Get Right
Usually, the winner of your bracket pool is going to be someone who correctly picks the tournament winner, or at least picks the most amount of Final Four teams right. Some stats to know when picking your Final Four and champion:
- All four #1 seeds have only advanced to the Final Four once (2008).
- Since 2010, at least one team seeded #4 or worse has made it to the Final Four.
- 7 out of the last 10 champions have been #1 seeds.
- The lowest seed to ever win March Madness was a #8 seed. The lowest seed to ever make the Final Four was an #11 seed (has happened 3 times).
- No #5 seed has ever won a National Championship.
Vegas’ top 10 teams favored to win the National Championship are:
- North Carolina
Play the Percentage Game
Despite the craziness of March Madness, usually the best teams/higher-seeded teams win. For the most part, it’s smart to play the percentage game. I’ve created a chart of the historical win percentages of each seed against the other seeds.
Note: The % number applies to the percent of games won by the seed on the left column against the corresponding seed on the top row. If a cell is grayed out, it means that there has never been a game between the corresponding seeds.
Keep Track of Injuries
Injuries are a natural part of the game, and an injury to a star player can greatly hinder a team’s chances of advancing far in the tournament. Here are a few injuries to players that could negatively affect their team’s chances come tourney time:
Oregon: Chris Boucher (11.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 2.5 bpg) – The Ducks took a massive blow when they lost their best big man and arguably their second best player in Boucher to a torn ACL. He’ll be out for the entirety of the tournament and Oregon will greatly miss his rebounding and shot-blocking ability.
Creighton: Maurice Watson Jr. (12.9 ppg, 8.5 apg) – One of the best point guards in the nation, Watson’s season-ending injury has really hampered the Blue Jays’ ability to move the ball offensively (7-8 record since his injury).
Florida: John Egbunu (7.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg) – Although not a prolific scorer, Florida will severely miss John Egbunu’s defense. Egbunu is probably Florida’s best defender and rebounder and will not be available for the tournament.
Xavier: Edmund Sumner (15.0 ppg, 5.0 apg) – Probably Xavier’s best overall player, Sumner’s injury has really hurt Xavier as they’ve gone 6-7 since he was lost for the year (3 of those wins barely count as they were all against DePaul).
Baylor: Johnathan Motley (17.3 ppg, 9.9 rpg) – Baylor’s undisputed star, Motley dislocated his finger in Baylor’s last game, an upset loss to Kansas State. He’s expected back for Baylor’s first round game against New Mexico State, but the situation is worth monitoring as an unhealthy Motley would probably eliminate any chance for Baylor to win the game.
How to Pick Upsets
What upsets are likely to happen? Picking upsets is the best part of March Madness. Every year, there are those few Cinderella teams that come out of nowhere to secure an improbable victory in March, to the sheer delight of the proud few who correctly picked the upset. In order to pick the right Cinderella team, it’s important to understand the key elements of every Cinderella.
Key Indicators of a Potential Cinderella
- Star Power – Every good Cinderella must be equipped with a star player, a guy who can take over the game and put up huge points on the big stage (See: Curry, Stephen). Look for teams with a guy who is averaging over 16 points per game as an indicator of a player who can put the team on his back.
- Veteran Leadership – Most Cinderella teams boast a steady cast of upperclassmen as their key players. In a one-and-done tournament, experience is key, especially for teams who are not accustomed to playing on such a big stage.
- 3-Point Proficiency – Most every Cinderella team is undersized, meaning that they are bound to get dominated on in the paint. In order to compete, potential Cinderella’s must be able to knock down threes in bunches. Look for teams with at least a few solid three point shooters (preferably better than 35% 3-pt).
- Favorable Matchup – This is a tricky one for people who don’t follow college basketball, but matchups are key in March Madness. For a Cinderella team to win, the matchup they receive is almost equally as important as the quality of their team. This really actually applies for picking any team in March Madness. Cinderella Team A could be poised for an upset, but doesn’t have a lot of size. If they get matched up against Team B with a lot of size, they are likely not going to win. Likewise, if Team A struggles turning the ball over, and plays against Team B who is known to have an aggressive defense, then Team A is likely not a great choice to win. Understand the matchups before proceeding with a pick.
Pick Low-Risk Upsets
My strategy to picking upsets is to pick as many low-risk upsets as possible. What I mean by this is, first, identify the teams that you think are going to go far. Obviously don’t pick any of these teams to be upset early. However, from the rest of the teams, feel free to pick as many to get upset as possible. Since you don’t have any these teams going far, the downside of picking incorrectly is pretty low. With that being said, here is a breakdown of the possible upset games this year.
Note: I don’t include 8-9 matchup as an upset worthy game, as #9 seeds win 47% of these games (Basically a toss-up).
1 v. 16 – The #16 seed has never beaten the #1 seed (0-128). I highly doubt this is going to change this year.
2 v. 15 – The #15 seed has only beaten the #2 seed eight times (8-120). However, 4 of those 8 upsets have come in the last 5 years. This year, the #2 seeds are all pretty stacked teams, so I would be shocked to see a 2-15 upset this year.
3 v. 14 – The #14 seed has a 21-107 record against #3 seeds. Despite this terrible record, there has been a 3-14 upset in each of the last 4 March Madness tournaments. Watch out for New Mexico State, who comes into the tournament red hot after winning the WAC tournament. They’ve got a well balanced attack, with a star point guard and solid big men. They also catch a skidding Baylor Bears team who has lost 4 of their last 7 and is dealing with an injury to their star player, Johnathan Motley. Likewise, keep an eye on FGCU. The Cinderella story of the 2013 tournament, FGCU is back to prove they weren’t just a one-hit wonder. They’ve got a star in Brandon Goodwin, and solid role players surrounding him. Unfortunately, they’ve also got a super tough matchup against Florida State, but never count out Dunk City!
4 v. 13 – With just 26 wins against #4 seeds, #13 seeds are an unlikely choice for upset picks. Don’t let this fool you into picking all the #4 seeds this year though, as the #13 seeds in this tournament are legit. University of Vermont comes into the tourney with the nation’s longest active winning streak (21 games). They are paced by freshman phenom Anthony Lamb (12.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 40.4% 3-pt.), but have six other players who score at least 6 points per game. A strong defensive team, Vermont will have to play scrappy against taller, more athletic teams (like their first round opponent, Purdue), to make up for their lack of size and strength in the post. Similarly, Winthrop is a #13 seed with a lot of potential. Led by 5-7 Keon Johnson, Winthrop shoots lights out from 3-point range, and actually match up pretty well against their opponent, Butler. Strongly consider picking Winthrop in this one.
5 v. 12 – #12 seeds have beaten #5 seeds in over 35% of these matchups, and there has been at least one 5-12 upset in 8 of the past 9 tournaments. Long story short, a 5-12 upset is almost guaranteed every year. Which one to choose this year? My choice is Middle Tennessee, who upset Michigan State last year as a #15 seed. Middle Tennessee returns almost every player from that team last year, and they got even better, dominating the Conference USA to the tune of a 30-4 overall record. They’ve got a great offense, but face a talented defensive team in Minnesota. Still, I think Middle Tennessee will win this game. In 4 of the past 5 years, at least two #12 seeds have beaten #5 seeds in a single tournament. If you want to pick a second #12 seed, go with Nevada. They shoot the 3-point shot well, which is a major key for any upset bid in the tournament, but they also rebound well. Going against a streaky team like Iowa State, Nevada could find themselves in a very close, winnable game.
6 v. 11 – Since 2010, #11 seeds are actually 15-13 against #6 seeds. Can we even call it an upset anymore? Still, be sure to pick the right #11 seed to win. This year I like Rhode Island, which is surging right now after winning the A-10 Conference Tournament. E.C. Matthews and Hassan Martin are studs on a pretty well-rounded team, and they lucked out with a favorable matchup against a Creighton team who has been mediocre since losing stud point guard Maurice Watson Jr. for the season. Another potential #11 seed upset is Wake Forest, if they can win their play-in game against Kansas State. Wake Forest’s John Collins is a player to watch in this tournament, and can take over any game with his post scoring and rebounding.
7 v. 10 – Another pretty even matchup historically, the 7-10 game is pretty much a toss-up. #7 seeds win about 60% of the time. The best #10 seed is clearly Wichita State, who many think should have been seeded much higher. If they can get past Archie Miller’s tough Dayton squad, look for them to give Kentucky a run for their money in the Round of 32.
My Favorite Cinderella Teams:
- Rhode Island (#11 Seed) – Given their recent success and top-tier talent, coupled with their relatively easy draw, I could see Rhode Island defeating Creighton handily in the first round. Moving on, they would likely play Oregon, who is without their best big-man, giving URI another opportunity at an upset. Don’t be surprised to see this team in the Sweet 16.
- Wichita State (#10 Seed) – A lot of experts have Wichita State as one of the best 15 or so teams in the tournament, yet they find themselves as a #10 seed. Look for the Shockers to play with a chip on their shoulder throughout this tournament. If Wichita State beats Dayton, it makes for an intriguing matchup against the Kentucky Wildcats. Given Wichita State’s experience, depth, and balance, they could give an inexperienced Kentucky team a real challenge. This team has a very good chance of being Sweet 16 bound.
- Middle Tennessee State (#12 Seed) – A repeat Cinderella from last year, MTSU is legit. Giddy Potts, JaCorey Williams, and Reggie Upshaw give MTSU a big-3 trio that is poised to take down higher seeded opponents. All three of these guys can score, and both Williams and Upshaw are above average rebounders, while Potts loves to knock down threes. It would not be wise to sleep on Middle Tennessee for the second year in a row.
- Winthrop (#13 Seed) – The combo of 5’7” Keon Johnson (22.5 ppg, 40.4% 3-pt) and Xavier Cooks (16.3 ppg, 9.2 rpg) is as deadly as any you’ll find in the tournament. Xavier Cooks presents a matchup nightmare at 6’8”, as he can play big or stretch a defense with his 3-pt shot (34% 3-pt). As long as they can hold their own on the defensive end, Winthrop is primed for a Cinderella run.
- New Mexico State (#14 Seed) – NMSU is one of the few potential Cinderella teams that actually have a good bit of size. NMSU couples strong guard play with solid rim protection, which is a great combination for any potential Cinderella. If Ian Baker and Braxton Huggins can get hot from outside, New Mexico State has what it takes to pull off the first round upset of Baylor.
Final Tip: Completely Disregard Everything I Said
Its called March Madness for a reason, as the improbable always seems to happen. And that’s the beauty of the whole thing. You can put in months of research and be just as wrong as someone who has not watched basketball once the entire year. Take my advice if you want, but know that literally anything can happen!