I am required by pesky moral obligations to start this off with a disclaimer. Do not follow any of the subsequent advice in this article. If your are betting on the NCAA tournament this year, then just click the red x button on the top right corner of your browser. (Well it is red if you are using Windows, if you're using a Linux distribution then the color depends on the desktop interface of said distribution, if you are using iOS then I assume the x is replaced with a picture of Lee Kun- Hee's face.)
My NCAA bracket-filling career has been cloaked in failure. It all started in 2004 when I penciled in a bracket with the Duke Blue Devils beating the Xavier Musketeers for the championship. That was a wrong but ultimately respectable prediction. Alas, two hours before the tourney began I got steaming drunk, erased the whole bracket, and wrote in unforgiving blue ink that the Florida A&M Rattlers were about to win it all.
And things have only gone downhill from there.
Most people look at my bracket, scratch their heads, and pretend like they didn't see anything. In fact there was only one year that my bracket garnered admiration. In the 2011 tournament , people in my bracket pool were gushing over my pick of Morehead State over Louisville. That is until they realized I had Morehead State winning the whole thing. That was a good year. Most years I am lucky if my entire bracket is not red after the first round. However there is hope this year. This year has been an atypical NCAA college basketball season. There is no favorite. It seems that whenever a pundit declares a favorite, that team goes and loses to Belmont by thirty points the next night. As Hunter S. Thompson famously said, "When the going gets weird, the weird go pro."
So to prepare for an undoubtedly crazy tournament, here is how to fill out a crazy bracket from someone who has experience in these matters.
Don't predict who might win, predict what might be awesome.
This is guideline numero uno. All the other guidelines follow this mantra. One should approach the bracket as if it is a blank canvas. There are 68 teams on a piece of paper, and any one of them could theoretically win. That is why the college tourney is so compelling. That said, if a bracket pool were an art class, most of the students paint a fruit basket (Indiana) or a sunset (Kansas) -- boring stuff that all looks the same. That's no way to get an A in art class. Instead of painting a picture of a mountain village (Gonzaga), why not go for something different? My personal suggestion is to paint a half pigeon-half man sitting on a Sherman tank in the middle of an alcoholics anonymous meeting (Valparaiso).
Pick a number one seed to lose in the first round.
When the bracket comes fresh off the printer, there are usually four really good basketball teams sitting there with a haughty number one next to their name. There is something unhealthily satisfying in choosing one of those teams to go down in the first game. In fact it might be the best part of college basketball. It is particularly gratifying to take down a team that the blowhards over at ESPN say is a lock for the final four. I believe I said something like "Suck on this, Tony Kornheiser" when I chose Portland State over Kansas in the 2008 tournament. (Kansas won the championship that year, but who cares- it was so worth it.)
Now when you predict a one seed to lose their first game, you are going to get hit with a wave of cynicism. People will laugh at you. They will say something like "a number one seed has never lost to a 16 seed." This is where you add the word "yet" to the end of that smug comment and stare the naysayer right in the eyes. Be proud of that pick, because if it comes true then you will be hailed as some kind of bracket prophet bound to be at least be as famous as a certain German octopus.
Chase the next George Mason.
An interesting subplot of the NCAA tournament is the battle between the haves and the have nots. The elite conferences are set up for success in this tournament. They have more money to spend on recruiting. They have better facilities. They have fat television contracts to keep the cheddar coming in. (Not to mention the very real possibility that refs are paid to "call the game right".) However having the advantage in a game is not the same as winning a game. So every once in a while a team that is a favorite to win the tournament, loses to a team that shouldn't even be in the tournament. A beautiful example of this was George Mason's incredible run in the 2006 Men's tournament. Before the tournament, hoops fans were all like "George Mason University- is that some kind of school where people learn to lay bricks"? That changed when the Patirots tore through the bracket, and somehow made it to the final four.
They beat Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State, and then Connecticut to be only the second 11 seed to make it to the final weekend of the tourney. (Three of those schools are among the most successful programs in college basketball.) Only one of the greatest college teams ever was able to stop them.* The funniest outcome of this was that zero percent of nationally televised sports analysts picked George Mason to make it that far. (Most had them losing to Michigan State) And to be fair who saw that coming? To have predicted the Patriots to make it to the final four you would have had to go against metrics like season record (the team finished 27-8) seeding (11), and strength of schedule (bad). To top it off the team didn't even win the Colonial Conference Championship. In other words someone who picked George Mason would have had to contradict not only basketball logic but basic logic. Well...challenge accepted.
Seeing how this has been an upset laden season there are a plethora of candidates for the next George Mason. Some pundits like Bucknell. However it just feels wrong betting against Butler. That team epitomizes "sticking it to the man." I personally am feeling the Iona Gaels. They are a 15 seed playing against the mighty Ohio State, so almost no one is going to be picking them to make it past the first round. Much like how no one chose George Mason. So chasing the George Mason is not an easy task, and it is not for the faint of heart. Almost certainly the final four will be composed of the haves. Almost...
*The George Mason Patriots lost to the 2006 University of Florida squad which included four current NBA players, two of whom are All-Stars.
Stay away from the 7 usual suspects.
At least 75% of basketball pundits make a bracket with one of seven schools at the top. These schools are Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke, Indiana, UCLA, Connecticut, and Duke. This year Kentucky sucked it up and didn't make the tournament. Connecticut got in trouble for doing something that is totally not important* so they wouldn't have been on the tournament if they went undefeated this season. That leaves 4 schools (5 if you are being cheeky) that will invariably be all over people's brackets. And why not? They historically have had the most success, the best coaches, and the most amount of money. Picking any of those teams is a safe bet. The thing is safe bets are boring. Everyone knows that majoring in accounting is a financially prudent choice, but psychology majors are more um lucky with the opposite sex. So go for a choice that is more risky. It is simply cooler to say "Indiana isn't going to make it past the sweet sixteen", then saying "well obviously Indiana is going to be the champion."
*The University of Connecticut's Men's Basketball Team failed to pass numerous classes, which is important. Stay in school, just like LeBron says.
Look for some kind of connection to the Spurs.
The only reason for the Morehead State pick was that Kenneth Faried passed Tim Duncan in the record books. Timmy once had the most career rebounds in the modern era of college basketball. And yeah, sure, Faried played against significantly inferior opposition, but still 1,673 rebounds in Division 1 basketball is insane. And anyone who could pull more boards than the GOATPUFF is surely a force to be reckoned with. This year any connection with the Spurs is a bit of a stretch. One possibility is San Diego State. (What's up, Kawhi?) And this year's random tip of the hat goes out to the Wisconsin Badgers, whose absolute obsession with defense is paired with a transparent reluctance to admit that offense is also a part of basketball. So they somewhat resemble the Spurs of yesteryear.
Wave Your Puerile Bracket Like It Is a Towel and You Are Patty Mills
The natural reaction of college basketball fans when they see a bracket that has 10 teams in the sweet 16 from low-major conferences will be "you are stupid." Some of them might follow the insults with quotes from Ken Pomeroy. (He is a smart enough guy who clearly has too much time on his hands.) Others might have very convincing stats. Someone might say that Larry Drew II could beat the team you have slated for the championship in a game of one-on-five.
Of course you probably won't pick the winner. However, in a year like this one, those chalk wielding cynics probably won't pick the winner either. So at least your picks will be unique. And in a year when March promises to be as mad as ever before, you could do worse than shooting for originality.