March Madness returns after a one-year hiatus. This season's NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament could produce the biggest dose of madness yet. With so many COVID-19 pauses and cancellations during the season, there's no shortage of underdog teams who can rise up and make unexpected runs deep into the tournament.
Seeing underdogs destroy millions of brackets is one reason why March Madness is so popular year after year. The sheer unpredictability of the event makes correctly forecasting the winners a mostly futile exercise. If you harbor dreams of filling out a perfect bracket this year, prepare to experience disappointment. You face much better odds of successfully navigating an asteroid field while evading TIE fighters.
The good news is you can craft a winning strategy to help you conquer family, friends, or coworkers in your bracket challenge of choice. Filling out a bracket is never an exact science. Luck plays a key part in accurately forecasting which teams will advance and which ones will head home.
To improve your odds of winning, you can apply a few useful guidelines to give your 2021 NCAA Tournament bracket a longer life.
Never pick a No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed
UMBC pulled off a seemingly impossible feat in 2018. The Retrievers dismantled Virginia to claim a spot in the history books as the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 seed. Moments like that historic game are what makes March Madness so fun to watch.
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. Their current record is 1-139 since 1985.
Close calls do occur from time to time. Two No. 16 seeds took No. 1s to the wire in 1989. Georgetown held off Princeton 50-49 on two late blocks from Alonzo Mourning while Oklahoma edged East Tennessee State 72-71 after rallying from a 17-point deficit. Murray State pushed Michigan State to the limit in 1990, before falling 75-71 to the Spartans in overtime. 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.
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 will happen again at some point. Do you want to sabotage your bracket based on a minuscule chance you'll correctly guess such a monumental upset?
Pick at least one No. 1 or a No. 2 seed to lose before the Sweet 16
Advancing every No. 1 and No. 2 seed deep into your bracket is never a wise idea. Top-two seeds lose games before the field is whittled down to 16 teams more frequently than you think.
the 2019 tournament was the first time in a decade where all No. 1 and No. 2 seeds reached the Sweet 16. Before that, two or more of the top eight seeds failed to reach the second week nine straight years.
Strangely enough, the teams that pull off these upsets often carry that momentum 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 tournament's final weekend in five of the last eight 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 2011.
Don't go overboard advancing underdogs in your bracket
Everyone loves a good underdog story. Smaller schools put themselves on the basketball map and win legions of new fans after rising up and making deep tournament runs as double-digit seeds.
Loyola Chicago was the most recent example of this type of bracket buster, reaching the Final Four as an 11-seed in 2018. The Ramblers were the fourth 11-seed to achieve that feat, joining LSU in 1986, George Mason in 2006, and VCU in 2011. Other memorable underdog runs have included Davidson reaching the Elite Eight as a 10-seed in 2008 and Florida Gulf Coast busting brackets with a Sweet 16 run as a No. 15 in 2013.
These runs are so memorable because they are rare. Exercise caution in trying to identify a bracket-busting plucky underdog. Only four No. 11 teams have reached the Final Four since 1985. Four others tapped out at the Elite Eight. Eight No. 10 teams survived to the Elite Eight. Only one, Syracuse in 2016, reached the Final Four.
Only one 12-seed, Missouri in 2002, lasted until the Elite Eight.
Advance at least one First Four team past the Round of 64
First Four teams have a knack for winning after their opening-round game. 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 additional drama and excitement into March Madness.
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 with the exception of 2019. Four First Four teams have reached the Sweet 16 since the field expanded to 68 teams. La Salle and Tennessee did it in 2013 and '14. 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 each region, odds for seeing an early upset experience a dramatic increase. Ignore potential upsets within the No. 3- to No. 6-seed range at your own peril. Vulnerable teams always populate these seed lines in March.
Some teams in the No. 3-6 range possess critical flaws. Their seed could have dipped because they piled up losses while dealing with key injuries or suspensions. Perhaps the team in question inflated their seed with a deep conference tournament run. The point is multiple 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 has upset a No. 3 in four of the last seven tournaments. Stephen F. Austin did it most recently, taking down West Virginia 70-56 in 2016.
No. 13 seeds have knocked out No. 4s 17 times going back to 2001. UC Irvine was the most recent 13-seed to pull off this feat, taking down Kansas State 70-64 in 2018.
All four No. 5 seeds have made it to the second round just five times since 1985. Three 5-seeds lost to a No. 12 in 2019. Oregon, Liberty, and Murray State all sprang first-round upsets and the Ducks reached the Sweet 16 before falling to eventual champion Virginia.
At least one No. 11 seed has beaten a No. 6 in 15 straight tournaments. Ohio State upended Iowa State as an 11-seed in 2019.
Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 68 teams in 2011, No. 5 seeds are 21-15 (.583) against No. 12s. No. 6 seeds are 17-19 (.472) against No. 11s in that same span.
Vulnerable seeds in the No. 3 to No. 6 range this year: West Virginia, Texas, Kansas, Villanova, Creighton, Colorado, Virginia, BYU, Tennessee, USC.
Potential giant killers in the No. 11 to No. 14 range: UC Santa Barbara, Winthrop, Liberty, Colgate, Utah State, Georgetown, Eastern Washington, Michigan State, Wichita State.
Watch out for homecourt heroes
The Field of 68 always features a few teams who pile up shiny regular-season records because they dominate opponents inside their home arenas. Send them on the road or to a neutral arena and a much different scenario unfolds.
Be careful about advancing these so-called homecourt heroes deep into your bracket. Take note of 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 2021: North Carolina, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgetown, Michigan State, LSU, Oregon State, Oral Roberts.
Free-throw shooting separates contenders from pretenders
NCAA Tournament games go down to the wire more often than regular-season games. Surviving these pressure-packed situations can spell doom for a team that struggles at the free-throw line.
Free-throw shooting is a useful measuring stick for separating contenders from pretenders. Teams who fare poorly at the free-throw line will eventually shoot themselves out of a close game. Such a scenario unfolds sooner rather than later.
Top 25 free-throw shooting percentage teams: Colorado, Virginia, Michigan, Liberty, Eastern Washington, Oral Roberts, Drexel, Syracuse.
Bottom 50 free-throw shooting percentage teams: Rutgers, Creighton, USC.
Beware of extremely hot or cold teams
Multiple teams each season find a way to earn an at-large bid even while finishing out the regular season in a tailspin. They back into the Field of 68 even while suffering numerous 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 lengthy winning streaks that mask weaknesses that contributed to a spate of losses earlier in the season.
Teams fitting either profile are in the early exit danger zone. Finding consistent winners is key. Numerous late-season losses can indicate injuries, chemistry problems, or other issues 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: Liberty, Georgia Tech, San Diego State, Morehead State, Colgate, Oregon State, Georgetown, Texas, Oklahoma State. Arkansas.
Extremely cold teams: Missouri, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Florida, Villanova, UCLA, Texas Tech, Virginia Tech.
Offensive and defensive balance wins championships
Defense wins championships is a popular mantra among coaches. 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 compared to 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: Gonzaga, Illinois, Michigan, Houston, USC, Purdue, BYU, Connecticut, Colorado.
Yes, Virginia, it is a Cinderella run
If you're looking for a place to roll the dice and advance an underdog to the Final Four, pay special attention to the region where Virginia plays. The Cavaliers are an upset magnet. In five of the last six tournaments, 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 10-seed. Loyola Chicago (2018) made a run as a No. 11. Three of those years, Virginia was the top seed.
This year, the Cavaliers earned a No. 4 seed in the West Region after winning the ACC regular-season title. Gonzaga is the overwhelming favorite to advance out of the West Region. Still, if recent history holds to form, the region could be littered with higher-seeded victims after the first two rounds.
— 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.