So you've printed your bracket, you've entered your bracket pool, and now you're sitting here looking at this sheet of paper wondering who to pick. Maybe you've watched one game all season, maybe you've watched them all.
Whatever the case, you've landed here because you're looking to get an edge on your competition. I've got great news: You've come to the right place.
Of course, you could just copy our expert brackets and turn it in as one of your own. But you're better than this, I can tell. You want to really do this thing on your own merit, and I applaud your determination. That's why I've assembled a few tips, nuggets and tricks to navigate this year's bracket, with the hope being that you can gain an advantage in your pool.
This is a guide to competency. It may not win you your bracket pool -- I'm not handicapping every game -- but it will serve as a helpful tool to prevent you from being a laughingstock. So when Easter rolls around, you won't be the butt of every joke. For that, you're welcome.
1. Avoid picking a No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1
Look, I promised this was not a complex guide. So we have to start somewhere. And starting by suggesting you avoid picking a No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 seed seems like the most logical place to begin, if for no other reason than it is obvious and easy to follow.
In the history of the NCAA Tournament, only once has a 16 topped a 1 -- when No. 16 seed UMBC topped No. 1 overall seed Virginia in 2018. It will not be happening in 2021. Every No. 1 seed is a favored by 20+ points right now. If you want to get weird with your bracket and pick some upsets, by all means, weird out. But don't fall into the trap of picking a 16-over-1 just so you can lay claim to totally nailing it. It ain't worth the trouble. Everyone else in your bracket pool knows this, so going against the grain is volunteering to start this March Madness at a disadvantage.
2. Pick at least one No. 12 seed to upset a No. 5 seed
Everyone that likes to pick upsets will naturally gravitate to the classic 12-over-5 game. Rightfully so. Half of the 5 vs. 12 matchups in the 2019 NCAA Tournament were won by 12 seeds, and historically, 12 seeds win this game nearly 36% of the time. My personal favorite is No. 12 Oregon State over No. 5 Tennessee in the Midwest -- the Beavers are rolling and the Vols have been hot and cold for weeks -- but I won't force my picks on you. Just predict at least one of the 12-over-5 matchups, and the odds suggest you may get one right given that upsets in these games happen so frequently.
3. A "First Four" team will (most likely) advance
Four teams since the NCAA Tournament field expanded to 68 teams in 2011 -- VCU, La Salle, Tennessee and Syracuse -- have advanced from the "First Four" play-in game to at least the Sweet 16. And since that expansion, at least one team each year playing in those games have won a game in the NCAA Tournament outside of 2019. So, historically, the odds suggest the "First Four" teams shouldn't be discounted. My personal favorite: I love me some Michigan State. Sparty faces UCLA in the play-in game for the No. 11 seed and the right to advance to the first round to face BYU. I'm picking them to beat the Bruins, then BYU, then Texas to advance to the Sweet 16. Hall of Fame coach Tom Izzo has a physical team that plays a bruising style, defends at a high level and loves to compete in knock-down, drag-out fights. That style is tough to contend with any time of year, but especially in March.
4. Beware of Gonzaga
No, don't beware of Gonzaga in the sense that buying into it might haunt you. Beware of Gonzaga in the sense that picking against this team is likely to cost you. As much fun as picking against a No. 1 seed might be -- and hey, go for it with Michigan or Illinois or Baylor if you want to get weird -- I strongly caution you against doing that with No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga. The undefeated Bulldogs are in one of the weakest overall regions, which features No. 2 seed Iowa, No. 3 seed Kansas and No. 4 seed Virginia ... all of whom they have already beaten this season.
5. Bet on a No. 1 seed
Feeling the need to pick a No. 1 seed upset? By all means, have at it. But don't down them all from your bracket. Since 2000, 14 of the tournament's winners were No. 1 seeds, including seven in the last decade (and three in a row). Your options are Gonzaga, Michigan, Illinois and Baylor here. Zags are the overwhelming favorite to win it all.
I'm backing a few non-No. 1 seeds in my own bracket to make Final Four runs -- including No. 2 seed Alabama and No. 3 seed Arkansas -- but I am also backing No. 1 seeds Gonzaga and Illinois. I'm rolling with a little diversity in the event chaos breaks out, but I'm rolling with the two No. 1 seeds playing their best ball right now.
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