It’s that time of the year. In my opinion, the best time of the year in the sports world. The pairings have been announced, brackets are being printed as I write, and casual pools entered with plenty of money at stake. But how to fill out your bracket? Maybe you’re a basketball fan, maybe you’re not. Neither guarantees success or failure with your bracket, and besides, it totally depends on the year anyway.
At the risk of jinxing myself, I’ve had some success in recent years, even come out ahead financially a few times in pools. Here are a few loose rules I follow when filling out a bracket:
1. Don’t obsess over it. During the regular season, I watch my team—Notre Dame—almost exclusively. I check scores for other big games. Conference Tournament week, I watch as much as possible to see who’s peaking and who is falling, which key players are injured, etc. Beyond that, I do not do much “research.” I once heard Skip Bayless lament over how much research he did for a particular game, and how it led him to believe there was no way one particular team could win. Of course that team won. You can’t explain that. If things always went like they were supposed to, number one seeds would always end up in the Final Four. That certainly happens every once in a while, but most years it doesn’t.
2. Pay attention to trends and injuries, especially late in the season. It’s not on common for a team to peak too early, look great or even unbeatable early on, only to get bounced early in the tournament. I have my eye on Michigan this year as a potential to do just that.
3. Know some tournament history and coach records of success and failure. Tom Izzo (Michigan State), Mike Kryzewski (Duke), Billy Donovan (Florida), Brad Stevens (Butler), Shaka Smart (Virginia Commonwealth), Thad Matta (Ohio State) Rick Pitino (Louisville), and Jim Boeheim (Syracuse) often advance deep into the tournament. Bo Ryan (Wisconsin) seems like a perennially Sweet 16 kind of guy, which is no small feat. For whatever reasons, Jamie Dixon (Pittsburgh) and Mike Brey (Notre Dame) have not fared all that well in the tournament. Coaches like Mark Few (Gonzaga), Bill Self (Kansas), Roy Williams (North Carolina) and Jay Wright (Villanova) are a little more difficult to predict because it has gone both ways: deep runs and early exits.
4. Respect both talent and experience; both can win in the tournament. In terms of experience this year, Butler, Florida, and Louisville stick out to me. Talent-wise, you’ve got to respect the heck out of a team like Indiana.
5. Pay attention to match-ups. What styles do various teams play? Do they get out and run a lot? Do they rebound well? How tall are they? Do they rely on one star are on balanced scoring? Do they play slower, low-possession games? Do they play man or zone defense? Do they win in close games or blowouts? I don’t pick a champion until I see a bracket because match-ups matter so much.
6. Pick some upsets, but don’t go crazy. What makes this tournament so fun is the Cinderella stories, but the higher seed still wins most of the time. Balance is good. Don’t pick all number one seeds to the Final Four, but pick at least one or two.
7. Make your team lose early. This rule does come from a lot of past heartache with Notre Dame. They always get my hopes up and then crush them with an early loss. But by knocking them out early, my judgement becomes more objective. And now, if they “ruin my bracket,” it will be a good thing, not a bad thing.
8. Most of all, go with your gut. Malcolm Gladwell has written an excellent book about this. It was my gut that told me in 2010 that Butler was a Final Four team. Now admittedly sometimes our instincts fail us. But that’s part of both the fun and frustration of this thing.
In case you’re wondering, here are my picks for this year’s tournament, on the record. Final Four: Louisville, Ohio State, VCU, and Indiana. In the final, I have Louisville over Indiana in a close one. Feel free to track me as the tournament progresses!