Every fan knows the pain. The tournament brackets are revealed on Selection Sunday and you spend the next week digesting expert analysis, changing your picks dozens of times. At last you produce the perfect bracket, only to see your Final Four picks ousted early and your office pool won by someone who made their picks in five minutes. This year, be that someone by following the Five Rules of Bracketology.
5.) "Hot" Means Nothing
A bad team that won their conference tournament is just that—a bad team. Especially if they won with torrid outside shooting, which often doesn't transfer from one half to the next, let alone carry from week-to-week. That big momentum you are counting on often doesn't survive another team's first dunk.
4.) Emotion Kills
Human interest stories are part of why we love sports. (That's "part," Dick Ebersol. Not all.) Everybody can root for a player whose mother just passed away or a coach with a sick child at home. But "rooting for" and "betting on" are two very different things. Sympathy can't dribble. Empathy can't hit from beyond the arc. That is, a personal crisis doesn't magically turn an average player into an all-American or make an average coach into a new John Wooden.
By the same token, the phrase "deserves to win" also gets thrown around a lot during tournament time—especially in a regards to a beloved, old coach in his last season. While the sentiment is sweet, virtue is an absolutely terrible predictor of basketball success. Here is how you can tell when a coach deserves to win a game: if his team has more points at the end.
Negative emotions also won't help. Everyone knows the Big 10 Conference plays a sluggish brand of basketball, virtually unwatchable to all but the league's most ardent fans. Everyone knows the SEC pompously believes itself to be as good in hoops as they are in football. Many fans also have a passionate, personal hatred for specific schools. Imagine the feelings of Tarheel fans faced with the prospect of picking Duke for the Final Four. Imagine how a Wolverine feels who must take Ohio State to make the Sweet 16 or a Missouri Tiger taking Kansas to win it all.
Nevertheless, personal animosity can't play a role in your thinking. Look at it this way, the deeper that team you hate advances, the more their fans will suffer when they ultimately lose. Unless they do win it all—in which care there's always football season.
3.) Size Matters
Tall teams are better than short ones—an extremely simple tree of truth often lost in a forest of more complicated stats. Basketball is a game of height. Tall guards can see over defenders for better shots and passes. A dominant center will usually get smaller post-players in foul trouble. When choosing between two otherwise evenly-matched teams, forget comparing RPI, rebounds, road records and free throw shooting on alternate Tuesdays. Just figure the average height of each team's starting five and pick the bigger number to win.
2.) When in doubt, look to Las Vegas
Sports analysts who work in mass-media—especially on TV and radio—are ultimately paid to be entertainers. Dick Vitale isn't going to get fired if his Final Four picks don't pan out. Bookmakers in Las Vegas, though, live and die—sometimes literally—by their ability to correctly predict the outcome of sporting events. Simple logic suggests going to the pros.
Consider the famed 5-12 match-ups, where so many bracketeers look for upsets. Fifth-seeded Michigan State is favored by 13 points over 12th seeded New Mexico State. But fifth-seed Temple is favored by only four over 12-seed Cornell. Utah State is just a three-point underdog to Texas A&M, and Vanderbilt is also favored by just three points over Murray State—which makes them a sensible pick for an even bigger, 4-13 upset.
1.) Play Favorites
Everyone loves an underdog, and nothing makes you look cooler than correctly picking a big upset in El Gran Baile. Unless you pick way too many upsets, in which case your brackets will become a symphony of red ink and frustration.
Top-seeded teams are top-seeded for a reason—they win. Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 in 1985, more than 90 percent of all Final Four teams have been seeded in the top three—a trend which has only grown in the last few years. The 2007 Final Four featured a pair of top seeds, Ohio State and Florida, and a pair two-seeds, UCLA and Georgetown. In 2008, for the first time ever, all four number ones got in. Last year, Villanova was the big Cinderella story as a three seed. Ecclesiastes maybe be correct that the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle always to the strong. But that's always the way to bet it.
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