NCAA bracket advice: How to win March Madness pool without knowing college basketball

Hello and welcome to The Idiot's Guide For Filling Out Your Bracket. I am your idiot, CBS Sports college football writer Tom Fornelli. Over the course of the next several minutes, I am going to teach you how to be the best NCAA Tournament bracket-filler you can be.

It turns out you don't need to know anything about college basketball to win your bracket pool. Just ask Dave from accounting. He can't even dribble a basketball let alone tell you anything about North Carolina, yet he had the Tar Heels winning it all last year and won your office pool (which you definitely should run on CBSSports.com -- sign up now if you haven't).

It's your turn to be Dave, and I'm going to help you get there just by following these simple guidelines before you fill out your bracket.

Let's get started.

Tip No. 1: Don't get crazy

Part of the fun of March Madness is the upsets. Seeing a double-digit seed knock off one of the top teams in the country that opening weekend is an exciting experience. It makes you feel good when you watch it, and it's one of the reasons you keep coming back to the tournament every year.

But these upsets have a side effect. They cause you to want to pick as many as possible while filling out your bracket. You want to be the person who knew that tiny school nobody's ever heard of would beat Duke or Kentucky, but guess what? They're probably not going to, and if you get overzealous with your upset picks, you aren't going to win your pool.

Here's a sobering fact for you. Since 2005 there have been 52 teams that have reached the Final Four. Of those 52 teams, 20 were No. 1 seeds. That's 38.5 percent. Of the 26 teams to play in the championship game, 15 -- a full 57.7% -- have been No. 1 seeds.

It isn't just No. 1 seeds, either. Of those 52 teams to reach the Final Four in the last 13 years, only nine of them were a No. 6 seed or lower. The other 43 teams (82.6%) were ranked somewhere between No. 1 and No. 5 in their respective regions. The majority of those 43 teams (30) were Nos. 1 and 2 seeds.

It's fun to watch upsets, and it's even better to pick them ahead of time, but if you have too many of them in your bracket, you're going to lose out on a lot of points. And losing points isn't how you win.

Tip No. 2: Don't have UNC losing in the first round

Remember how Dave won? He picked the Tar Heels. And to extend that: North Carolina simply doesn't lose in the first round, so don't pick against it. Seriously, when the Tar Heels get in the tournament, they aren't playing fewer than two games.

The last time North Carolina lost in the first round was in 1999 to Weber State. That loss was the first one the Heels suffered in their first game of the tournament since falling to Texas A&M 78-61 in 1980, but that was in the second round as the Tar Heels had a first-round bye that year.

I don't even suggest having North Carolina lose in the second round, either. It has happened (2006, 2013 and 2014 are the most recent), but it doesn't happen often enough.

And it never happens in the first round. Sorry, Lipscomb.

Tip No. 3: Kentucky's probably going deep

Kentucky is the No. 5 seed in the South Region this year, which could mean bad news for teams like Virginia and Arizona given the Wildcats' recent history. This is the eighth time in nine seasons that Kentucky has reached the tournament under John Calipari, and when it gets to the dance, it tends to stay awhile.

Only once in Kentucky's previous seven tournaments under Calipari has it failed to reach the Elite Eight. That came in 2016 when the Wildcats were a No. 4 seed and lost in the second round to No. 5 Indiana. Other than that, it's Elite Eight or better every season.

And just in case you think this will be the year it doesn't happen because Kentucky is a No. 5 seed, well, in 2014 Kentucky was a No. 8 seed and it got all the way to the title game before losing. Kentucky is one of those teams that gets better in March because all the freshmen have figured out how to play with one another.

So you don't have to have Kentucky winning it all, or getting to the Final Four, but history suggests you want it getting past the Sweet 16.

Tip No. 4: Ignore any team seeded between 13 and 16

Upsets happen, and you want to pick them, but you want to be smart about it. Picking any team seeded between Nos. 13 and 16 isn't being smart about it.

The combined record of those teams in the last 13 years is 22-186. So, just over 10 percent of the time picking one of those teams works every time.

Expanding this point even further, you want to know how those 22 teams that won did in the next round? They went 4-18.

They just aren't worth it to you. There aren't enough potential points to steal from others in your bracket by picking them because they rarely win in the first round, and when they do, they don't go much further. Let other people in your bracket pool chase those points. You're smarter than that.

Tip No. 5: Go after the No. 11 seeds

Finally, you've come all this way, and now I'm ready to share with you the upsets you want to pick.

Simply put, the No. 11 seeds are your friends. Since the 2005 tournament, No. 11 seeds have gone 25-27 in the first round. That's right, nearly half of them have upset the No. 6 seed in the first round matchup, and the fun doesn't stop there.

In the second round the No. 11 seed is 10-15. That's a win percentage of 40 percent, which isn't amazing, but it's much stronger than the other double-digit seeds.

The fun doesn't stop there, either. When No. 11 seeds reach the Sweet 16, they continue to do well, posting a record of 4-6 over the last 13 years. To put that in perspective, every other double-digit seed has posted a combined record of 2-16 (both of those wins were by a No. 10 seed) in the Sweet 16 round. So the No. 11 seed has twice as many
Sweet 16 wins as the other double-digit seeds combined.

My theory for why the No. 11 seed has done so well is that it often features teams from the play-in games. Since the tournament expanded to 68 teams in 2011, the No. 11 seeds have gone 16-12 in the first round. I'm guessing that having the play-in games under their belt helps the No. 11 seed get out any rust or nerves before their first-round game. Meanwhile, the No. 6 seed they're facing usually hasn't played a game in nearly a week, and sometimes longer.

This year's No. 11 seeds are Loyola-Chicago (against Miami), San Diego State (Houston), and the winners of UCLA-St. Bonaventure and Arizona State-Syracuse. While Loyola and San Diego State could be good picks, I would recommend targeting the winners of the play-in games for the reasons I shared above. And don't be afraid to have one of them beating either Texas Tech or Michigan State in the second round. You don't have to, but as the stats show above, it happens more often than you think.

Tip No. 6: Have fun

Yes, winning your bracket pool would be awesome, and it should be your goal, but if things don't go your way, oh well. 

Just enjoy the tournament for what it is. Nobody likes to hear people bragging about their upset picks being correct, or complaining about their bracket being busted.

The NCAA Tournament is one of the best sports events of the year. Enjoy yourself, and if you want to make up a reason to call in sick to work, I won't tell.

CBS Sports Writer

Tom Fornelli has been a college football writer at CBS Sports since 2010. During his time at CBS, Tom has proven time and again that he hates your favorite team and thinks your rival is a paragon of football... Full Bio

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