Sunday, March 11, 2012

"Sweet 16" Tips for Picking a Winning NCAA Bracket


There is no telling what will happen this March. There's a reason it's called March Madness, folks. That said, if you want some advice, here are "Sweet 16" Tips to help you win your pool.

1) The team with the most individual talent does not always win the national championship. In fact, in recent Tournament history, it only seems to happen about half the time. Duke won with teamwork in 2010 despite teams like Kansas and Kentucky having more talent. The Tar Heels were called an "NBA team" by Michigan State's Tom Izzo -- and that was before North Carolina whipped MSU in the title game. Kansas won in '08 with the likes of Cole Aldrich, Darrell Arthur, Mario Chalmers, Sherron Collins and Brandon Rush. North Carolina won in ’05 with Sean May, Ray Felton, and Rashad McCants. The Huskies won in ’04, led by Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon, but Syracuse upset Kansas to win in ’03. Two balanced teams made the final in ’02, with Maryland winning the battle with Indiana after the Hoosiers had knocked off a loaded Duke team in the Sweet 16. The Blue Devils won in ’01 behind NBA-level stars Shane Battier, Jayson Williams, and Mike Dunleavy, but Michigan State won behind its teamwork in 2000, while more talented Duke and Arizona made early exits. Last year, Ohio State and Kansas were loaded but it was UConn who won the title thanks to a Kembian performance from Kemba Walker. This year the 1A and 1B teams would be Kentucky and North Carolina.

2) Don’t pick all four #1 seeds to reach the Final Four. 2008 was the only year this has happened in the modern era (since 1985) and history is not likely to repeat itself anytime soon. Advancing all the #1 seeds to the Sweet 16 isn't a bad idea (it's much more of a risky gamble to pick a top seed to be upset by an 8/9 seed than to just pencil the top seeds into the second weekend). Yes, Michigan State might have a tough matchup with Memphis in the third round, but who says Memphis can get through Saint Louis, who plays as if it's rush hour on the court (read: slow, slower, slowest).

3) Historically, 7-10 affairs have been almost as evenly matched as 8-9 games. It isn't uncommon for there to be more #10 seeds in the second, errr, third round than #7 seeds. Notre Dame-Xavier, Saint Mary's-West Virginia are toss-ups (actually, both the No. 10 seeds are favored at the moment).

4) #10 seeds make great sleepers. While everyone else looks for the 5-12 upset, just find the vulnerable #2 seed. That's where your #10 seed can do a lot of damage. In fact, 2006, 2007, and 2009 are the only times since 1996 that at least one #10 seed didn’t reach the Sweet 16. Kent State (2002) and Davidson (2008) have even made the Elite Eight as a #10 in relatively recent memory. Best chances for a #10 sleeper this year is Xavier (a preseason Final Four threat that has a potential third round game against Duke) and Purdue (who has been playing its best ball as of late and might not have to face Kansas in Round 3).

5) It’s not just mid-major Cinderellas that do well with double-digit seeds. Like their little brothers, major-conference schools among the last at-large teams selected also have an uncanny record of winning at least one game in the NCAA Tournament. Examples: Texas A&M 2006, NC State 2005, Auburn 2003, Missouri 2002, Georgetown 2001, to name a few. Villanova and Arizona made nice Sweet 16 runs 2008 and 2009, respectively. Teams that fit the profile in this year’s Tournament could be No. 11 Texas or No. 12 California. Texas has played all the Big XII's best tough, losing most of those games, albeit in very close fashion. California was the Pac-12's best team and plays great defense that its never out of games.

6) Free throw percentages matter. A team like No. 11 Colorado State has the 6th-best FT% in the country (76.8%). That comes into play in a tight game. Teams like UConn (263rd in the country, 66.1%), Purdue (282nd, 65.3%) and Cincinnati (291st, 64.8%) could be brutal in late-game situations.

7) Teams that defend the 3-point shot well can avoid those killer upsets. When you think of great March Madness moments, you usually see those mid-major Cinderella's hitting game-winning triples. Even before it gets to that point, comebacks usually begin with a pair of back-to-back 3-pointers. Georgetown is the best team in the country at defending the trey, allowing makes at just 27%. Teams like Wisconsin (3rd in the country, 27.6%), Alabama (4th, 28%) and Michigan State (8th, 28.5%) are in the best positions to stave off crazy comebacks. Missouri, on the other hand, allows 3-pointers at a 36.5% clip, 278th in the country. A potential third-round game against 3-happy Florida doesn't seem to cut-and-dry, does it?

8) Pick Duke to reach the Sweet 16—at least. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the Blue Devils have made the third round of the Tournament 12 years in the last 14 (though they’ve missed two of the last six). Nevertheless, Coach K is a terrific in-game coach, and Duke's high seed and Greensboro placement makes this an easy "rule." While this goes against Xavier as a potential No. 10 seed that can do some damage, the safe bet is to put Duke into the Sweet 16.

9) Look for teams with clutch players. UConn's Shabazz Napier, Michigan State's Draymond Green, Ohio State's William Buford, Kansas' Thomas Robinson and Duke's Austin Rivers make up my “All-Clutch” Starting Five. And don’t forget that mid-majors can have these guys, too—St. Mary's Matt Dellavedova and Creighton's Doug McDermott are just a pair of mid-major stars who have been unbelievable in late-game situations throughout their careers.

10) Remember that the East, South and Midwest Regional Finals, as well as the Final Four, are played in massive domes. After playing in traditional college gyms all season, it’s often difficult for players to adjust their depth perception when shooting in a supersized arena that seats 40,000+. The team with the most experience playing in domes might be Syracuse…so if the Orange make it to New Orleans they might have an edge.

11) The Big Ten's Top 5 are really, really good. Just because a team like Indiana finished fifth in its conference doesn't mean it's not a potential Elite Eight or Final Four team. The conference has been able to play at various speeds and should be well equipped to handle all types of opponents. The fact those five teams are all "expected" to reach the Sweet 16 based on seeding tells you all you need to know.

12) Don’t drive yourself crazy picking the early-round games—it’s far more important to get the Final Four correct. In a traditional bracket pool, you’ll earn the same number of points for picking two Final Four members than for predicting all of the first-round games combined. (In the annual Harkins-Mackinder pool, picking the entire Final Four is worth 20 points, compared to 32 for picking the entire second round). Spend most of your time analyzing who’s going to make an extended run rather than obsessing about those pesky 8-9 and 5-12 matchups.

13) Look at your predicted national champion’s schedule to see if it has won six-plus games in a row during the regular season. As an addendum to this rule, I prefer to look at in-conference games only. The only exception would be a team like Baylor who beat Saint Mary's, West Virginia and Mississippi State in succession before winning four straight games to start Big XII play.

14) Defense doesn’t always win championships in college hoops, but it can certainly win you a couple of games. Ohio State, Louisville, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Virginia, Kentucky, Georgetown, Kansas, Alabama and St. Louis are all in the Top 10 of defensive efficiency via KenPom.com.

15) The final score of the championship game is often lower than you might expect. Because this is typically a pool tiebreaker you should really think about it. Heck, last year's tiebreaker was 94 thanks to UConn's 53-41 win over Butler.

16) If all else fails, ask your spouse or significant other who he/she would pick. (That is, unless you’re in the same pool.)

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