How to Fill Out a March Madness Bracket: Stop Trying So Hard

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Don't overthink it, stop picking upsets, and other advice

Image: NCAA

Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), and Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic) talk about the NCAA men's basketball tournament.


Everyone,

Kentucky and North Carolina look like NBA farm teams. Syracuse and Michigan State are formidable. The pairings are set, the pods aligned, the madness upon us. It's that time of year again—time to flop harder than Rick Perry behind a debate podium in your NCAA men's basketball tournament office pool.

Face it: you won't win. Can't win. No matter how hard you crunch the KenPom efficiency ratings—the elegant, more civilized lightsaber to the RPI's crude blaster—or study the team cheat sheet capsules in USA Today. According to some oddsmakers, a No. 16 seed has a 384-million-to-one shot at winning the whole tournament. Your odds of filling out a winning bracket are roughly equivalent. After all, March Madness defies March Methodology; college basketball knowledge is inversely proportional to bracket-picking proficiency; year after bitter year, the guy in your office who likes Butler because, you know, he has a bulldog calendar on his desk, and really, aren't they just adorable? walks away with your $20 entrance fee.

As such, I have a suggestion. A plea, really. Bracket America, stop trying so hard. Unlearn what you have learned. Don't pretend to be a bracket wiseguy.

Instead, get stupid. Have fun. Use one of the following to make your picks:

Mascot Fight Club: Simple. Which school's mascot would win in a street brawl, and/or on Animal Planet? (Note: if Syracuse meets Harvard, choose your favorite color.)

Celebrity Alumni: You already read US Weekly. Put that knowledge to use! Kansas (Don Johnson) is a perennial favorite; NC State (John Tesh) could be a dark horse. As for Arizona, the alma mater of Craig T. Nelson and Geraldo? There's a reason the Wildcats are playing in the NIT.

Inverse Graduation Rate: A few years back, the back cover of the official NCAA Tournament record book proclaimed a commitment to quality education and student-athletes; meanwhile, the book itself did not contain a single grade point average or degree announcement. Moreover, no Ivy League school has reached the Final Four since Penn in 1979. And MIT doesn't even have a team! Do the math.

Coach Height: According to scientific studies, tall men earn more, have more children and are considered "significantly more attractive" by the opposite sex. The book "Too Tall, Too Small" reports that in the 21 presidential elections from 1904 to 1984, the taller candidate won 80 percent of the time. Speaking of Washington, towering former coach John Thompson once led Georgetown to three straight Final Fours. This is not a coincidence.

Go Chalk: An Indiana University study found that as an overall bracket strategy, picking upsets is not only dumb, but the special kind of human dumb that comes from outsmarting ourselves. After looking at the average performance of individuals in ESPN.com's bracket challenge over a two-year period, researchers concluded that people: (a) pick too many upsets, thereby faring worse than the tournament seeding and no better than random chance; (b) can't help but pick too many upsets, because they're acutely aware that upsets happen.

"The bottom line is that we think we can do better than the seedings," Ed Hirt, one of the study's authors and a professor in Indiana's Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, told me. "We know more and can figure out who is hot, who is overconfident or a choker in the tournament. But all the information we have is likely already accounted for in the seedings anyway, so our illusory belief that we can do better actually hurts our performance."

There it is: either be creative—read: ridiculous—or just pick the higher-seeded teams. Jake, are you with me? Or are you actually going to deploy some legitimate basketball knowledge en route to your inevitable bracket meltdown?

–Patrick

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Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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