2014's "Sweet 16" Tips for Picking a Winning 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. Louisville took home the crown last season without a for-sure NBA player (Russ Smith seems like a NBA second rounder, no?). Kentucky's 2012 title team was loaded with top recruits and NBA-bound players and it was the national champ. Duke won with teamwork in 2010 despite teams like Kansas and Kentucky having more talent. The Tar Heels were called a "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 Arizona (No. 1), Michigan State (No. 4), Louisville (No. 4) and Kentucky (No. 8) seem to have the most NBA talent. The No.1 overall seed Florida, however, doesn't seem to have any for-sure NBA players but might be the best team.
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). Wichita State is starting at a Round of 32 matchup with preseason No. 1 Kentucky while Arizona could potentially face Oklahoma State - an early-season Top 10 team - in the same round. Virginia has Michigan State awaiting in the Sweet 16 while Florida might have to go through UCLA (Sweet 16) and Kansas (Elite Eight) to reach the Final Four. Someone will get knocked off before Dallas.
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. New Mexico-Stanford, Oregon-BYU, Texas-Arizona State, UConn-St. Joseph are all toss-ups.
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, 2009, and 2013 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 are Stanford (decent matchups with New Mexico and interior-depleted Kansas) and Arizona State (Texas game a toss-up but shot-blocking presence down low would allow the Sun Devils to stay out on Michigan's shooters in the Round of 32).
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.  Oregon was drastically underseeded as a No. 12 seed last year and the Ducks proved that with a Sweet 16 berth. Teams that fit the profile in this year’s Tournament could be No. 11 Tennessee, No. 11 Iowa or No. 11 Providence. 
6) Free throw percentages matter. A team like No. 11 Providence has the second-best FT% in the country (78.2%) while No. 7 Oregon is fifth-highest (77.3%). That comes into play in a tight game. Teams like No. 1 Arizona (316th in the country, 65.5%), No. 8 Memphis (328th, 64.7%) and No. 6 North Carolina (343rd, 62.6%) 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. Louisville is the second best team in the country at defending the trey, allowing makes at just 28.6%. Teams like Ohio State (5th in the country, 29.3%), Kansas State (6th, 29.3%) and St. Louis (7th, 29.6%) are in the best positions to stave off crazy comebacks. Baylor, on the other hand, allows 3-pointers at a 35.5% clip, 244nd in the country. A potential third-round game against 3-happy Creighton could get ugly, right?
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 13 years in the last 16 (though they’ve missed three of the past seven). Nevertheless, Coach K is a terrific in-game coach, and Duke's high seed and Raleigh placement makes this an easy "rule." While this goes against a potentially hot No. 11 seed in Tennessee or Iowa (assuming a win over overseeded UMass) the safe bet is to put Duke into the Sweet 16.
9) Look for teams with clutch players. UConn's Shabazz Napier, Michigan's Nik Stauskas, Arizona's Nick Johnson, Creighton's Doug McDermott, and Kansas' Andrew Wiggins make up my “All-Clutch” Starting Five. And don’t forget that mid-majors can have these guys, too.
10) Remember that the West, 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 Dallas they might have an edge.
11) The Big Ten's Top 3 are really, really good. Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin are all Final Four caliber teams. Heck, even Ohio State can get hot and make a run. The conference has been able to play at various speeds and should be well equipped to handle all types of opponents. This could be the first Final Four with multiple Big Ten teams since 2005.
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 Deuce2Sports 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. Why conference-only games, you ask? Because rarely will you ever see a six-game stretch in a nonconference schedule that features NCAA Tournament caliber of competition. Major conference will provide that opportunity. So, while a team like Ohio State started the year 15-0 the Buckeyes didn't win more than three Big Ten games in a row at any point. Michigan won its first eight Big Ten games as well as its final five plus another two in the Big Ten Tournament showing its more than capable of winning six games in a row. Louisville won seven straight AAC games in February. Surprisingly, Duke's biggest ACC winning streak was five games. Iowa State's was four in the Big 12. 
14) Defense doesn’t always win championships in college hoops, but it can certainly win you a couple of games. Arizona, Florida, Louisville, Ohio State, Virginia, VCU, San Diego State, St. Louis, Cincinnati and UConn 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. Remember the 2011 title game's tiebreaker was 94 thanks to UConn's 53-41 win over Butler. In 2012 Kentucky's 67-59 win over Kansas was just 126 combined points. 
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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