Get the Athlon Sports Newsletter
March Madness is here. Athlon Sports will give you the best tips for a winning bracket
The day after Selection Sunday is not a great time to get caught up on the college basketball season.
As you start to fill out NCAA Tournament brackets for your pools, Athlon Sports did some of the homework for your basketball cram session. March Madness is unpredictable, and we expect it to be again this year after a season in which top teams lost on a nightly basis.
But there are some tried and true trends in the Tournament, and we’ll break them down here.
These are our favorite rules for picking our brackets, along with some of the examples from this year’s field.
Advance all the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds
The turnover at the No. 1 spot all season prompted us to consider if this would be the year a No. 16 seed beats a No. 1. Sure, it might happen, but the 16 seeds this season aren’t going to do it -- a 20-loss team (Liberty), the No. 7 seed in the MEAC (North Carolina A&T), a team that started 5-10 (LIU Brooklyn), the third-place team in a watered-down CAA (James Madison), a .500 team from the Sun Belt (Western Kentucky) and the SWAC champion (Southern). The pair of No. 15 seeds winning last season may convince you to pick against a No. 2. Don’t. Before last season we went 11 years between 15 seeds winning in the first round. However...
Consider dropping a No. 1 or a No. 2 in the round of 32
The top seeds were unclear going into the conference tournaments, meaning few teams had iron-clad cases to be on the top line. The eight teams at the top have lost to teams in the No. 8-9-seed range sometime during the season, and may do so again in the Tourney. Consider: Only one No. 1 seed since 2004 failed to reach the Sweet 16 (2011 Pittsburgh, who lost to Final Four-bound Butler). During that same span, 12 of 28 No. 2 seeds failed to reach the the second weekend.
Our picks for vulnerable top-two seeds: Miami (cooled at the end of the rgular season, could face Illinois in round two), Georgetown (has not reached the Sweet 16 since 2007), Kansas (potential North Carolina or Villanova matchup is worrisome).
Don’t fall in love with upsets
We remember Final Four teams like Butler, VCU and George Mason. Don’t get too caught up trying to look smart by advancing a No. 11 seed to the FInal Four. Of the last 48 Final Four teams, 41 were top-four seeds, and four of the seven who were top-four seeds were No. 5 seeds. Butler, VCU and George Mason are memorable because they're outliers.
Related: NCAA Tournament Bracket Cheat Sheets
Pay attention to game sites as much as seeds
Coaches would prefer to drop a seed if it means playing closer to home and in front of a more friendly crowd. Trust the coaches on this. Also, make sure your upset pick isn’t playing too far from home. You may love an East Coast mid-major, but you may want to back off as it gets sent to San Jose. We don't need to tell you to favor Louisville, the No. 1 overall seed playing in Lexington, Ky., and potentially Indianapolis. Here are a few other team locations to consider in the rounds of 64 and 32:
Teams playing close to home in the early rounds: Cal (in San Jose against UNLV), Oregon (in San Jose, its own time zone against Oklahoma State), Kansas State (in Kansas City)
Teams playing far from home you may want to avoid: Colorado State (in Lexington, Ky., against Missouri), South Dakota State (vs. Michigan in Auburn Hills, Mich.), San Diego State (in Philadelphia, albeit against Oklahoma), Syracuse (in San Jose against Montana, then potentially Cal/UNLV), Florida and Miami (in Austin, Texas)
Related: March Madness by the numbers
Pay attention to extreme free throw numbers
Expect closer games in the NCAA Tournament. That means free throws will play a critical role. If you’re on the fence about a team, give free throw numbers a look. Avoid falling in love with teams that can’t hit free throws.
Key teams with high free throw percentages: Davidson, Oklahoma, Creighton, Oklahoma State, Arizona, Missouri
Key teams with low free throw percentages: Wisconsin, Cincinnati, North Carolina, Pittsburgh
All that talk about bubble teams, forget it
We spent the last six weeks talking about bubble teams. Time to stop paying them any mind, especially bubble teams from major conferences. Teams had trouble clinching a Tourney bid because they couldn’t win consistently. Teams from major conferences had chances all year to prove they were Tourney teams and didn’t do it until the last week of the season. Knock them out early. The exception: Bubble teams from mid-major conferences. The inclusion of VCU and George Mason in recent years were criticized ... until they reached the Final Four.
Bubble teams to avoid beyond round of 64: Ole Miss, Iowa State, Cincinnati, Villanova
Give credit to coaches who win in the Tournament
Some coaches have a knack for winning the tournament. Some don’t. Does a coach always seem to win one more game than you expect? Does another continually let you down? For further reading, Peter Tiernen at Bracket Science explains overachievers and underachievers.
Coaches who overachieve compared to seed: Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, Louisville’s Rick Pitino, Marquette’s Buzz Williams, Arizona’s Sean Miller, VCU’s Shaka Smart
Coaches who underachieve compared to seed: Gonzaga’s Mark Few, Temple’s Fran Dunphy, New Mexico’s Steve Alford, Georgetown’s John Thompson III, PIttsburgh’s Jamie Dixon, Cal’s Mike Montgomery
When picking a mid-major to advance, do your homework
Look beyond the record. We like mid- and low-major teams that tested themselves against major competition, whether or not they won games. Make sure to look at a mid-majors conference record. Did a team play well during its conference season, or did it wait until the conference tournament to get hot?
Teams that challenged themselves in the non-conference: Belmont, Davidson, Florida Gulf Coast, Temple, Wichita State
Teams that didn’t: James Madison, LIU Brooklyn, Middle Tennessee State, New Mexico State, Valparaiso, Saint Mary’s
Use caution with teams that faded since February and early March
Are teams tired? Was there a major personnel change? Was there an injury? Did opponents catch up? In any case, we don’t like teams limping into the Tournament, no matter what they did from November through January. On the flip side, give credit to teams that got better as the season went along. Did a team get a player back from injury or make a key lineup change?
Teams that faded: Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Oklahoma
Teams that faded prior to the conference tourneys: Creighton, Miami, Syracuse
Teams that improved through the season: Duke (with Ryan Kelly), North Carolina, Ohio State
Absences to consider: Akron (Alex Abreu, suspended) UCLA (Jordan Adams, injured)
When picking a champ or Final Four team, consider the point guard
An NBA-bound point guard isn’t necessary to reach the Final Four or win a title, but it’s tough to advance that far without consistent point guard play. Who has a steady point guard, who has a liability?
Good teams with questionable point guard situations: Arizona, Kansas, Michigan State
Balance on offense and defense
Defense wins championship is a football saying. Don't let it take over your bracket. The key to winning in March is balance on both sides of the court, especially for teams that can play multiple tempos and styles. The last 10 national champions ranked in the top 20 in both of Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive and defensive rankings.
The teams in the top 20 in both this season are: Florida, Gonzaga, Indiana, Louisville, Ohio State and Pittsburgh