Today is one of the most exciting days of the year for the die-hard college basketball fan: Selection Sunday. My interest in the NCAA tournament has been exponentially lower over the past few years as my number of night shifts went up, but I'm back on track this season. I've watched more college basketball in the last 3 days than possible the last 2 or 3 years combined.
In preparing for the march madness pools, I have a handful of trends and suggestions that could be helpful. I am no expert, believe me, but I have had my fair share of success when my eye was on the college basketball world more in high school and college. These aren't getting too specific for this year, but instead they're just some thoughts for picking the tournament in general.
Watch out for teams seeded too high.
If you were to look at some of the major upsets over the past ten years, the teams losing have been teams that got a seed they may not have been suited for: Ole Miss losing to Valparaiso, South Carolina losing to Coppin State, and Iowa State losing to Hampton. This also applies to teams who make a run in the conference tournament and run out of gas. A prime example of this theory is the 2005-2006 Syracuse team with Gerry McNamara who won 4 games in 4 days to win the Big East Tournament. They were seeded 5th (too high) and lost to Texas A&M in the first round. Keep an eye out for the Penn States and Uconn's this year because they may get a seed they may not have deserved.
Pick teams to win sub-regions before you get set on an upset or two...
What I mean by sub-regions are the 4-team pods from the first weekend (like, the 1, 16, 8 and 9 seeds in a given region). Maybe you really want to look brilliant like you did last year with Cornell and St. Mary's in the Sweet Sixteen, so you're thinking you like a Penn State. They made a nice run in the Big Ten tournament, showed they could play, so maybe they've got a couple wins in 'em. Well, maybe their sharp-shooting has one more, but watch out for that second round match-up with a Louisville or Florida. Chances are that these teams that an 11 or 12 seed will run into are built for long runs and you don't want to knock out a real contender 4 or 5 seed just to look good with a 1-point first round upset.
...but don't be afraid to put a double-digit seed in the Sweet Sixteen.
Since 1996, there has been at least one double-digit seed in the Sweet Sixteen every year, except once (2007). These lower-achieving top-conference teams (Seton Hall, Georgetown) and high-achieving mid-majors (Butler, Gonzaga) shake things up every year. Pick the right one and you're a genius. Pick the wrong one and you may eliminate the national champion dangerously early.
5-12 match-ups (almost) always produce one upset per year.
This is a common truth in the last 10 years. Almost every year we get a 12-seed knocking off a 5-seed, so look for a good one. Or two. Or three, like in 2002 and 2009. Five-seeds tend to be vulnerable because these seeds tend to be top teams from second-tier conferences (Atlantic 10, Mountain West) or second-tier teams from top conferences (Providence, Alabama, Florida State in past years). With a weak overall tournament this year, the 5-seeds should be particularly careful with projections of Arizona (young team with no key wins) and Xavier (weak top-seed bowing out in first round of A-10 tournament) standing out.
Your Final Four teams are 8x more important than your first round winners.
In the standard scoring (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32) the first round upsets get too much attention from casual basketball fans. Those of us who have been doing tournament pools for a while recognize that you're not done until your champion is out. So, maybe a bunch of teams get upset in the first round, but you didn't have any of them winning more than a game or two anyways. This clearly won't matter as much as if you had Villanova in the finals last year and they lost in the second round to St. Mary's (I picked St. Mary's btw!).
Most importantly, you can lose a lot of points in the first few rounds and still win if your Final Four is in tact. The eight upsets your buddy picked correctly in the first round got wiped out when they picked Pitt in the Final Four in 2009 and you picked Villanova. Which brings me to my next point...
Pick your favorite teams with your head...
As any good Pitt fan knows, we just can't put them in the Final Four. Until 2009, we couldn't put them in the Elite Eight and expect results. We have a blinded view of how good our favorite team is, which makes it hard to be objective. My strategy tends to be that I'll pick them to lose early so if they win I can be surprised and if they lose I can at least not kick myself for picking them to go further. But double-check and think, can Pitt's frontcourt really match up with Purdue? Could they survive another match-up with Louisville?
...but go with your gut.
1-seeds don't always win, so at times you need to go with a feeling about how a team will fare. I had a feeling about St. Mary's going far last year and Villanova choking, which paid off. I also had a feeling about Cornell surprising a couple, which also paid off. This year, I'm not high on Ohio State, so chances are I won't have them in the Final Four. But college basketball is all about match-ups. Be smart, but ultimately go with your gut. You don't want to be sitting around saying "I almost picked Kansas over Memphis" in 2008 because no one cares about "almost". I also won the lottery, too, but that surely doesn't pay for a new Gibson Les Paul.
Ultimately, you will have your own style. I haven't won a pool in a while, but I've been in the running for a lot of money over the years, so my style has worked at times. Do your homework. Figure out who the hot shooters are and which teams have struggled down the stretch (ahem, Villanova...). Never count out a Jimmer Fredette (BYU), but keep an eye on teams that lose important players late in the season (BYU). See what I mean about relying on your gut instead of your head?