Every March since 1985, mankind has pursued the elusive flawless bracket. Each of us has our own system that inevitably fails somewhere between the first round and the Elite Eight, leaving a bruise on the forehead that perpetually says, “Dope! Why didn’t I see that coming?”
The first round—or what used to be the first round, let’s call it the “Round of 64”—is the most perplexing. With a smattering of mid-majors, bubble busters, last four in and surprise conference champions, how is the average college basketball fan supposed to sniff out an upset? Personally, I have always sent through the one and two seeds, then eliminated the seeds for the rest of the field. I try to focus on the matchups, Team X against Team Y on an average day.
But what happens when this analysis fails? I am perennially guilty of over-analysis, tearing apart each matchup until I find a logical scenario for either team to win. A perfect bracket is certainly not probable, and yet the concept is so simple that it most definitely feels possible to achieve this feat. I’ve been searching for a way to keep my selections as simple as the bracket itself, to eliminate the over-analysis and make quick, sound, concrete decisions. An oracle of sorts, perhaps, to help me defeat the massive 9-quintillion-to-1 odds against selecting a perfect bracket.
I’ve tried the classics—mascots, school colors and cost of tuition—and even ventured into some more involved metrics, such as geographic proximity to my birthplace, number of letters in the team’s arena, or the age of the head coach. Unfortunately, none of these have been reliable predictors of a perfect bracket, and Butler has single-handedly defied most of them two years in a row now.
Tired of losing in bracket pools to my far less-basketball-educated friends, including my 18-year-old sister, this year I decided if I can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. I called Ellie to tap into her vast supply of basketball reasoning and sniff out some first round upsets and Final Four surprises.
Much to my dismay, many of her selections revolved around seeding, effectively tossing my bracket strategy out the window. Nine times in the first round alone she based her prediction purely on which team was favored, even in those difficult eight-nine matchups.
But she did make some other well-informed selections, and made others using a smattering of very entertaining reasoning that I will certainly incorporate into my strategy in the future. For example, Wisconsin will beat Montana “because they’re better at football.” Notre Dame has the advantage over Xavier “because they have a great reputation in a lot of sports.” St. Louis will beat Memphis “because I haven’t picked an upset for a while.” And Purdue will beat St. Mary’s because “St. Mary’s sounds like a girls’ college.” Take that, Gaels!
When asked about the Creighton-Alabama game, my Auburn-bound sister paused for a moment then said, “Um, Creighton, of course.” She also showed some favoritism toward our two home-state teams, Colorado and Colorado State, giving both the Buffaloes and Rams victories in the first game—because they were hot at the end of the year—before seeing them fall to third-seeded foes in the next round.
To my pleasant surprise, her Final Four selections appear to have been fairly well thought out. Florida State gets through the East, because they beat North Carolina and Duke twice apiece during the year. Kentucky comes out of the South, “because they’ve been No. 1 all season.” From the Midwest it’s Kansas, because she doesn’t like North Carolina, and Missouri will emerge from the West because, well, she’s not quite sure about that one.
Using her lines of logic as inspiration, I’ve overhauled how I break down each matchup and streamlined the process into four simple categories. My system is slightly more involved than what Ellie came up with, but the message is the same—keep it simple, because over-analysis is detrimental to success.
The first question I ask is whose strength is its opponent’s weakness? This usually takes the form of something obvious, like a star 7-foot center going against a team whose biggest player is a mere 6-foot-8. Similarly, if a given team has a star that is clearly going to be the best player on the floor and can take over a game—send them through!
Playing styles are also important, and teams that live by the 3-pointer usually die somewhere in the neighborhood of the Sweet Sixteen or Elite Eight, if not earlier. The ability to play defense and rebound becomes more and more critical as the tournament goes along.
The other two tiebreakers I use for early round games are recent outcomes and experience. If a team got hot and won its conference tournament—I’m looking at you Colorado—send them through! This works especially well in major conferences, as we saw with Connecticut last season. The year before, Duke showed us the value of experience, as a roster loaded with seniors and juniors carried the Blue Devils all the way to the title.
That’s it. If I can’t decide based on those criteria, I’ll call Ellie.
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