Be sure to read this before filling out your bracket
Getting every pick right in your NCAA Tournament bracket offers much worse odds than successfully navigating an asteroid field in a galaxy far far away. Underdogs always rise up and leave countless brackets in tatters by the tournament's second weekend. Those upsets are what makes March so much fun.
Filling out a bracket isn't an exact science. Luck plays a significant factor in correctly forecasting which teams will win and which ones will lose. Still, that doesn't mean you can't craft a winning strategy to vanquish family, friends or coworkers in your NCAA Tournament pool.
Here are some useful tips to give your 2017 NCAA Tournament bracket a longer life:
Never pick a No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed
Memorable upsets define March Madness. A No. 16 seed knocking off a No. 1 seed is not among those moments. Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, No. 16 seeds have gone 0-128 against top seeds.
Close calls do occur from time to time. In 1989, Georgetown held off Princeton 50-49 and Oklahoma edged East Tennessee State 72-71. Murray State took Michigan State to overtime in 1990, before falling 75-71 to the Spartans. Purdue survived a 73-71 thriller against Western Carolina in 1996 only after the Catamounts missed a potential game-winning basket in the final seconds.
Only 15 games pitting a No. 16 seed against a No. 1 seed have even been decided by single digits. Will a No. 16 beat a No. 1 eventually? Maybe. It's not worth sabotaging your own bracket based on a minuscule chance you could correctly guess an historic upset.
Pick at least one No. 1 or a No. 2 seed to lose before the Sweet 16
Going chalk with every No. 1 and No. 2 seed isn't a wise idea. One or two teams in this group typically don't make it to the second weekend. In fact, the top two seeds lose games during the first weekend of the Tournament more frequently than you think.
At least two of the top eight seeds failed to reach the Sweet 16 each of the last seven years. Last season, No. 15 seed Middle Tennessee defeated No. 2 seed Michigan State 90-81 in the first round and No. 7 seed Wisconsin edged No. 2 seed Xavier 66-63 in the second round. The last time all No. 1 and No. 2 seeds made it to the second weekend occurred during the 2009 NCAA Tournament.
Striking a balance is crucial when advancing top teams. Since the NCAA began seeding teams in 1979, all four No. 1 seeds made it to a Final Four just once – in 2008. On the other hand, you should always include at least one No. 1 seed in your Final Four. Only two tournaments since 1985 have featured a Final Four without a top seed – 2006 and ‘11.
Don't go overboard advancing underdogs in your bracket
We all love seeing a double-digit seed rise up and bust a bracket to put themselves on the basketball map. It makes for great drama to see these underdog runs to the Sweet 16, Elite Eight or, on rare occasions, the Final Four. VCU and George Mason reached the Final Four as No. 11 seeds in 2006 and ’11, respectively. Davidson made the Elite Eight as a No. 10 seed in 2008. Florida Gulf Coast reached the Sweet 16 as a No. 15 in 2013.
It's a good idea to remain cautious in projecting a double-digit seed to make this sort of run. They are truly rare. Only three No. 11 seeds have reached a Final Four since 1985 and three others reached the Elite Eight. Eight No. 10 seeds have reached the Elite Eight and only one has reached the Final Four. Only one No. 12 seed, Missouri in 2002, has made it to the Elite Eight.
Advance at least one First Four team past the Round of 64
Since the field expanded to 68 teams in 2011, the First Four has injected drama and excitement into every NCAA Tournament since that time. This opening round features two games pitting No. 16 seeds against one another and a pair of games matching the last four at-large teams head-to-head.
At least one at-large First Four team has won multiple games every season. Two First Four winners, La Salle and Tennessee, reached the Sweet 16 in 2013 and ’14, respectively. VCU became the first team to go from the First Four to the Final Four in 2011. It's a safe bet at least one First Four team will advance past the first round again in 2017.
Pick against vulnerable No. 3, No. 4, No. 5 and No. 6 seeds
Once you get past the top two seeds in a region, odds for an early upset see a dramatic increase. With a strong crop of regular season champions claiming a large percentage of the double-digit seeds in the 2017 NCAA Tournament, potential for bracket carnage has never been better.
Ignore potential upsets in the 3 to 6 seed range at your own peril. Vulnerable teams can be found in these seed lines that are dealing with key injuries or suspensions, have inflated their seed with a better than expected conference tournament run or piled up a few losses to drop their seeding.
Since the field expanded to 68 teams in 2011, No. 3 seeds have become much more vulnerable. At least one No. 14 seed has upset a No. 3 seed in each of the last four years. Last year it was Stephen F. Austin taking down West Virginia 70-56.
No. 13 seeds have knocked out No. 4 seeds 14 times going back to 2001. Hawaii was the most recent to pull this off, sending California home with a 77-66 loss last season.
All four No. 5 seeds have advanced to the Round of 32 just four times since 1985. This occurred in 1988, 2000, ‘07 and ‘15. Three of the four No. 5 seeds lost to a No. 12 seed in 2013 and ‘14. Last year, two No. 12 seeds advanced to the second round with Yale beating Baylor 79-75 and Arkansas-Little Rock outlasting Purdue 85-83 in double overtime.
At least one No. 11 seed has beaten a No. 6 seed in 12 straight tournaments. Three No. 11 seeds triumphed a year ago. Northern Iowa beat Texas on a buzzer beater while Gonzaga dominated Seton Hall and Wichita State did the same to Arizona.
Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 68 teams in 2011, No. 5 seeds are 13-11 against No. 12 seeds. No. 6 seeds are 11-13 against No. 11 seeds in that same span.
Vulnerable seeds in the 3 to 6 range this year: Florida State, Virginia, Maryland, Creighton, Minnesota, Baylor, Oregon, Florida, West Virginia, Cincinnati, SMU.
Potential giant killers in the 11 to 14 range: Providence, Wake Forest, Rhode Island, Middle Tennessee, UNC Wilmington, Bucknell, East Tennessee State, Florida Gulf Coast, Winthrop, New Mexico State.
Watch out for homecourt heroes
Some teams will pile up shiny regular season records because they dominate opponents inside their home arena. Send them away from that friendly environment and the story takes a 180 degree turn.
Be careful about advancing homecourt heroes deep into your bracket. Always pay close attention to a team's win/loss record on the road and at neutral venues. It is often a good indicator for how they play under pressure. If a team frequently loses to good or average opponents outside their own arena and possesses a sub-.500 record in road and neutral site games, that's a major red flag. Teams who fit this profile are usually ripe for a quick NCAA Tournament exit.
Homecourt heroes to avoid in 2017: Florida State, Duke, Iowa State, Michigan, Miami, Vanderbilt, Virginia Tech, Michigan State, Xavier, Seton Hall, Marquette, Providence, Wake Forest, Troy, South Dakota State, UC Davis, New Orleans.
Free-throw shooting separates contenders from pretenders
NCAA Tournament games are often closer contests than a typical regular season contest. Surviving these pressure-packed situations can spell doom for a team that can't get it done at the free throw line.
Free-throw shooting is a useful measuring stick for separating contenders from pretenders. Teams who struggle with low free-throw shooting percentages eventually shoot themselves out of a game. Such a scenario unfolds sooner rather than later.
Top 50 free-throw shooting percentage teams in the field: Notre Dame, Villanova, Oklahoma State, Marquette, Vanderbilt, South Dakota State, Michigan, Wake Forest, Purdue, Arkansas, Duke, Arizona, Northwestern, St. Mary's, UCLA.
Bottom 50 free-throw shooting percentage teams: Wisconsin, Seton Hall, Rhode Island.
Beware of extremely hot or cold teams
Every year, a few at-large teams earn an NCAA bid even though they ended the regular season in a tailspin. They back into the Tournament after suffering several losses in their final few games.
There is another group that gets unusually hot down the stretch after a rough start in conference play or during the non-conference portion of their schedule. These winning streaks often mask weaknesses that contributed to the initial turbulent patch.
Both types of teams are ripe for an early exit from your bracket. Finding consistent winners is key. Too many losses down the stretch might mean injuries, chemistry problems or some other issues are at play. A lengthy winning streak peppered with multiple blowouts, on the other hand, can make a team ill-prepared to handle close games in the NCAA Tournament.
Extremely hot teams in the field: Wichita State, Marquette, Oklahoma State, Vermont, Princeton, Minnesota, SMU, Iowa State.
Extremely cold teams: Xavier, Wisconsin, Kansas State, Virginia, Baylor, Maryland, Creighton.
Offensive and defensive balance wins championships
Everyone has heard how defense wins championships. That's only partially correct. The most successful NCAA Tournament teams strike a balance between strong defense and productive offense. A team significantly weaker in one area versus the other usually makes an early exit.
Advanced metrics are useful in identifying balanced teams versus unbalanced teams. A large percentage of Final Four and Elite Eight teams each season will rank in the top 30 in both offensive and defensive efficiency heading into the NCAA Tournament. Upset victims, on the other hand, usually sport glaring deficiencies on at least one end of the court.
Top 30 teams in the field in both offensive and defensive efficiency in 2017: Villanova, North Carolina, Kansas, Gonzaga, SMU, Wichita State, Kentucky, St. Mary's, Oregon, Arizona, Baylor, Louisville, Purdue, Florida State, West Virginia.
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.