Be sure to read this before filling out your bracket
There's a good reason why the term March Madness so perfectly describes the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Underdogs always rise up each year and leave countless brackets in tatters by the tournament's second weekend. Those upsets are exactly what make this sporting event one of the best year after year.
If you harbor dreams of creating a perfect bracket this time around, prepare to be disappointed. You face much better odds of successfully navigating an asteroid field in a galaxy far, far away. On the other hand, that doesn't mean you can't craft a winning strategy to conquer family, friends or coworkers in your NCAA Tournament pool.
Filling out a bracket isn't an exact science. Luck plays a key part in correctly forecasting which teams will advance in the tournament. Still, there are a few useful tips you can employ to give your 2018 NCAA Tournament bracket a longer life.
Never pick a No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed
Memorable upsets have always defined March Madness. A No. 16 seed knocking off a No. 1 seed is not one of those moments. Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, No. 16 seeds have gone 0-132 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. But it’s still not worth sabotaging your 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 among these top eight seeds typically do not make it to the second weekend. In fact, top-two seeds lose games before the field is whittled down to 16 teams more frequently than you think.
At least two of the top eight seeds failed to reach the Sweet 16 each of the last eight years. Last season, No. 8 seed Wisconsin took down No. 1 seed Villanova in the second round while No. 7 seeds Michigan and South Carolina dispatched No. 2 seeds Louisville and Duke respectively. The last time all No. 1 and No. 2 seeds made it to the second weekend occurred during the 2009 NCAA Tournament.
Strangely enough, the teams that pull off these upsets often carry it all the way to the Final Four. At least one No. 7, No. 8 or No. 9 seed that dispatched a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the second round has made it to the final weekend five of the last six tournaments.
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 only one time — 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 put themselves on the basketball map. It makes for great drama to see these underdogs bust the bracket and reach 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 four 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 that made the field 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 2018.
Pick against vulnerable seeds in the No. 3 to No. 6 range
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, highlighted by teams like Buffalo, New Mexico State, South Dakota State, claiming a large percentage of the double-digit seeds in this year’s tournament, potential for bracket carnage has never been better.
Ignore potential upsets in the No. 3 to No. 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 four of the last five years. Stephen F. Austin did it most recently, taking down West Virginia 70-56 in 2016.
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 in 2016.
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, Middle Tennessee provided the only 12-seed over 5-seed upset with an 81-72 win over Minnesota.
At least one No. 11 seed has beaten a No. 6 seed in 13 straight tournaments. Three No. 11 seeds have triumphed in each of the last two years. Last year, USC edged SMU while Rhode Island beat Creighton and Xavier took down Maryland.
Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 68 teams in 2011, No. 5 seeds are 16-12 (.571) against No. 12 seeds. No. 6 seeds are 12-16 (.429) against No. 11 seeds in that same span.
Vulnerable seeds in the No. 3 to No. 6 range this year: Texas Tech, Auburn, Clemson, Florida, Miami, TCU, Ohio State, West Virginia
Potential giant killers in the No. 11 to No. 14 range: St. Bonaventure, UCLA, New Mexico State, Loyola-Chicago, South Dakota State, Stephen F. Austin, UNC-Greensboro, San Diego State
Watch out for homecourt heroes
Some teams pile up shiny regular season records because they dominate opponents inside their home arena. Send them away from that friendly environment and a whole different scenario plays out.
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 a useful barometer for how they perform 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 2018: UCLA, Arkansas, TCU, Oklahoma, Butler, San Diego State, Texas A&M, Florida State, Syracuse, Arizona State, Creighton, Providence
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 another useful measuring stick for separating contenders from pretenders. Teams who struggle with low free-throw shooting percentages will 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: Davidson, Auburn, Xavier, Butler, Villanova, Virginia, Tennessee, West Virginia, Clemson, South Dakota State, Arizona, St. Bonaventure
Bottom 50 free-throw shooting percentage teams: Arkansas, Alabama, Texas A&M, Miami, Michigan, Georgia State, Texas, UMBC, New Mexico State
Beware of extremely hot or cold teams
Every year, a few teams earn an at-large bid even though they ended the regular season in a tailspin. They back into the NCAA Tournament after suffering multiple losses over 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. Finding consistent winners is key. Too many losses down the stretch might indicate injuries, chemistry problems or 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: Michigan, Gonzaga, South Dakota State, San Diego State, St. Bonaventure, Loyola-Chicago, Murray State, Lipscomb, College of Charleston
Extremely cold teams: Oklahoma, Arizona State, Syracuse, Clemson, Texas Tech, Creighton, Auburn, Alabama, Butler
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 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 this season: Virginia, Villanova, Duke, Purdue, Michigan State, Gonzaga, Ohio State, Kentucky
— 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.