The NCAA Tourney is upon us, which means a) you’ll likely hear the word “bracket” more in the next 96 hours than you would on a stroll down the shelving aisle at Home Depot and b) you can make a bunch of cash by cleaning up in your March Madness office pool. We asked Jason McCormick, now the race and sports director at Station Casinos, for inside tips on filling out an unstoppable bracket. There’s that word again…
1. Trust the committee
The selection committee has a litany of formulas for determining which teams should get what seed, depending on things like strength of schedule, quality wins and bad losses. McCormick advises that unless you’re a deep follower of college hoops, you should assume the committee knows what it’s doing. “There will be some upsets, but for the most part the favorites will win,” he says. “If you’re stuck and you don’t know who to pick, use the seeding to help you; favorites are favorites for a reason.” In other words, if you don’t have Villanova, Kansas, Gonzaga or North Carolina in your Final Four, you probably need to rethink your bracket.
2. Watch the 5/12s
The most common upset in modern tournament history is the No. 12 seed over the No. 5 seed; data indicates it happens roughly one out of every three times. The second-most common: No. 11 over No. 6. McCormick says every bracket should contain at least one of these upsets. “The challenge is picking the right 11 and 12 to win,” he says. Top candidates for upsets this year include the West Region’s #12, Princeton, and it’s #11, always dangerous Xavier.
“Unless you’re really in love with a low-seeded team, you probably shouldn’t have seeds below No. 7 in your Final Four. If you do, you’re risking your entire bracket on that team.”
3. Know your guards
Historically, the teams that have done best in the tournament are ones with strong floor generals. “Over the years we’ve noticed that games can be taken over by good guards,” McCormick says. “Good shooting and ball handling eliminate great rebounding; coaches can figure out ways to take big men out of the game.” Guards you should factor into your brackets this year include Gonzaga’s Nigel Williams-Goss, KU’s Frank Mason III and UCLA’s Lonzo Ball.
4. Be elitist
Everybody loves to pick an underdog, but McCormick cautions against riding them too far. “Unless you’re really in love with a low-seeded team, you probably shouldn’t have seeds below No. 7 in your Final Four,” he advises. “If you do, you’re risking your entire bracket on that team.” Not convinced? Consider these stats: Since 1979, at least one No. 1 has made the final four in all but three seasons. In 2008, all the No. 1s made the last weekend. Finally, the lowest seed to advance that far in the past decade was a No. 11, VCU in 2011.
5. Think it through
In office pools, which reward points for correct picks at the end of every round, it’s not about being perfect; it’s about accumulating the highest score along the way. So be cognizant of first-round upsets when making second-round picks. “If you feel there’s a chance your team could lose in the first round, keep the second round in mind,” McCormick says. Which basically means, be wary of tabbing that shaky team to win again. “It’s always fun to pick an upset, but in the long run, you want to pick the teams that will get through so you don’t lose those points as the tournament progresses.”