March Madness always finds a way to live up to its name. Seeing underdog teams rise up and make unexpected runs through the NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Tournament make this one of the best annual events in sports.
Those same underdogs are also responsible for destroying millions of brackets before the second weekend of the tournament every year. If you harbor dreams of creating a perfect bracket this year, prepare to be disappointed. You face much better odds of successfully navigating an asteroid field in a galaxy far, far away.
Still, 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. On the other hand, there are a few useful guidelines you can employ to give your 2019 NCAA Tournament bracket a longer life.
Never pick a No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed
UMBC did what seemed impossible a year ago. The Retrievers knocked off Virginia to claim a spot in the history books as the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 seed. Moments like this one are exactly why we love March Madness.
Don't bother searching for the next UMBC in this year's 68-team field. No. 16 seeds were 0-135 all-time against no. 1 seeds before Virginia lost.
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 '96 only after the Catamounts missed a potential game-winning basket in the final seconds.
Still, only 15 games pitting a No. 16 seed against a No. 1 seed have been decided by single digits. Will a No. 16 beat a No. 1 again? It's bound to happen at some point. Are you willing to sabotage your bracket based on a minuscule chance you could correctly guess such a monumental 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 is never a wise idea. At least 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.
Two or more top eight seeds failed to reach the Sweet 16 each of the last nine years. Last season, No. 16 seed UMBC took down No. 1 Virginia in the first round and No. 9 seed Florida State dispatched No. 1 Xavier in the second round. Additionally, No. 7 seeds Nevada and Texas A&M eliminated No. 2 seeds Cincinnati and North Carolina in the second round.
You need to go back to the 2009 NCAA Tournament to find the last time that all No. 1 and No. 2 seeds made it to the second weekend.
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 seven tournaments.
Striking a balance is crucial when advancing top teams. Since the NCAA began seeding teams in 1979, all four No. 1 seeds reached 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 plucky double-digit seed rise up and put themselves on the basketball map.
Witnessing Loyola-Chicago bust the bracket and reach the Final Four last season made for exciting entertainment. The Ramblers joined LSU in 1986, George Mason in 2006, and VCU in '11 as a No. 11 seed to survive until the final weekend. Other memorable underdog runs have included Davidson reaching the Elite Eight as a No. 10 seed in 2008 and Florida Gulf Coast busting brackets with a Sweet 16 run as a No. 15 seed in '13.
These type of runs are still rare. It's a good idea to remain cautious in projecting a double-digit seed to bust brackets. Only four No. 11 seeds have reached the Final Four since 1985. Four others have tapped out at the Elite Eight. Eight No. 10 seeds have reached the Elite Eight. Only one, Syracuse in 2016, has made it to the Final Four.
Only one No. 12 seed, Missouri in 2002, has made it as far as the Elite Eight.
Advance at least one First Four team past the Round of 64
First Four teams have a knack for winning when they get past the opening round in Dayton. Since 2011, the First Four has matched the last four at-large teams in the field and four automatic qualifiers in four games over two days. It has injected drama and excitement into every tournament since that time.
Picking an at-large First Four team to advance in your bracket is a smart choice. At least one of those teams has advanced to the Round of 32 every year since 2011. Three First Four teams have reached the Sweet 16 since the field expanded to 68 teams. La Salle and Tennessee did it in '13 and 2014. Syracuse also achieved that feat last season. VCU is the only team to go from First Four to Final Four to date. The Rams made their incredible run in 2011.
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. Ignore potential upsets in the No. 3 to No. 6 seed range at your own peril. Vulnerable teams are always populating these seed lines in March.
Teams in the No. 3 to No. 6 seed range exhibit a number of flaws. Their seed could have dipped because they piled up losses while dealing with key injuries or suspensions. Perhaps they inflated their seed with a deep conference tournament run. The point is many teams in this part of the bracket are ripe to fall on the opening weekend.
Since the field expanded to 68 teams in 2011, No. 3 seeds have grown more vulnerable to early upset losses. At least one No. 14 seed has upset a No. 3 seed in four of the last six years. Stephen F. Austin did it most recently, taking down West Virginia 70-56 in 2016. Two No. 3 seeds were toppled in the second round by No. 11 seeds a year ago. Syracuse eliminated Michigan State and Loyola-Chicago edged Tennessee.
No. 13 seeds have knocked out No. 4 seeds 16 times going back to 2001. Marshall and Buffalo both beat No. 4 seeds last season. The Thundering Herd beat Wichita State and the Bulls routed Pac-12 champion Arizona.
Last season marked just the fifth time since 1985 where all four No. 5 seeds made it to the second round. The other instances were in 1988, 2000, '07 and '15. Three of the four No. 5 seeds lost to a No. 12 seed in 2013 and '14.
At least one No. 11 seed has beaten a No. 6 seed in 14 straight tournaments. Three No. 11 seeds triumphed in 2016 and '17. Last year, Syracuse and Loyola-Chicago both made deep runs as No. 11 seed. The Orange reached the Sweet 16 and the Ramblers made it to the Final Four.
Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 68 teams in 2011, No. 5 seeds are 20-12 (.625) against No. 12 seeds. No. 6 seeds are 14-18 (.438) against No. 11 seeds in that same span.
Vulnerable seeds in the No. 3 to No. 6 range this year: LSU, Kansas, Kansas State, Wisconsin, Marquette, Auburn, Villanova, Maryland.
Potential giant killers in the No. 11 to No. 14 range: Yale, UC Irvine, Oregon, Murray State, Belmont, Arizona State, Vermont, New Mexico State.
Watch out for homecourt heroes
Some teams pile up shiny regular-season records because they dominate opponents inside their own arena. Send them away from that friendly home environment and a whole different scenario suddenly unfolds.
Be careful about advancing these so-called 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 really does offer a useful barometer for how those players and coaches perform under pressure.
If a team frequently loses to good or average opponents on the road and sports a sub-.500 record in road or neutral-site games, that's a major red flag. Teams fitting this profile are usually ripe for a quick NCAA Tournament exit.
Homecourt heroes to avoid in 2018: Kansas, Baylor, Oklahoma, Auburn, Louisville, Villanova, Seton Hall, Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio State, Oregon, Saint Louis, Bradley, Iona, North Carolina Central, Fairleigh Dickinson, Prairie View A&M, North Dakota State.
Free-throw shooting separates contenders from pretenders
NCAA Tournament games often go down to the wire much more than a typical regular-season game. 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: Ole Miss, Louisville, North Dakota State, Liberty, Gonzaga, Marquette, Virginia Tech, Tennessee, LSU, Vermont, Northeastern, Utah State, Virginia, Michigan State, Maryland, Saint Mary's,
Bottom 50 free-throw shooting percentage teams: Arizona State, Northern Kentucky, Kansas State, Georgia State, Old Dominion, UCF, Wisconsin, Saint Louis.
Beware of extremely hot or cold teams
There are always a few teams who still earn an at-large bid even while closing out the regular season in a tailspin. They back into the field of 68 after suffering multiple losses over their final few games.
On the other end of the spectrum are teams that get unusually hot down the stretch. They reel off double-digit winning streaks that mask weaknesses that contributed to an initial turbulent patch in non-conference play or early in the team's conference slate.
Both teams are in the early exit danger zone. Finding consistent winners is key. Too many losses down the stretch could indicate injuries, chemistry problems, or other issues are at play. A massive winning streak peppered with multiple blowouts, on the other hand, can make a team ill-prepared to deal with close games in the NCAA Tournament.
Extremely hot teams: Auburn, Florida State, Houston, New Mexico State, Utah State, VCU, Wofford, Colgate, Iona, UC Irvine, Murray State
Extremely cold teams: Iowa, Ohio State, St. John's, Louisville, Washington, Marquette, Oklahoma, Syracuse, Iowa State
Offensive and defensive balance wins championships
Everyone has heard how defense wins championships. That's only partially correct. Successful NCAA Tournament teams typically 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 from season to 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 possess glaring deficiencies on at least one end of the court.
Top 30 teams in the field in both offensive and defensive efficiency this season: Duke, Virginia, Gonzaga, North Carolina, Michigan State, Virginia Tech, Kentucky, Michigan, Buffalo, Houston, Maryland, Louisville.
Yes Virginia, it is a Cinderella run
If you're looking for a place to roll the dice and pick an underdog to make a run to the Final Four, just pay attention to the region where Virginia plays. The Cavaliers are an upset magnet. Each of the last five seasons, Virginia's region has produced a Final Four team seeded seventh or worse. Connecticut (2014), Michigan State (2015), and South Carolina (2017) were all No. 7 seeds. Syracuse (2016) was a No. 10 seed. Loyola-Chicago advanced last year as a No. 11 seed. Three of those years, Virginia was a No. 1 seed.
That's the case again this season. Virginia is the No. 1 seed in the South Region. Based on recent history, that could mean absolute bracket chaos. In the previous three years that the Cavaliers have been a no. 1 seed, there have been a total of nine first-round upsets, four second-round upsets, four Sweet 16 upsets, and three Elite Eight upsets.
— 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.