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Need bracket advice? Our best tips for your 2014 NCAA Tournament pool

Florida Mascot

Florida Mascot

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.

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.

East | Midwest | South | West

Advance all the No. 1 seeds (and probably all of the No. 2 seeds)
A No. 1 seed has never lost in the round of 64. We have little doubt it will happen one day, but you’re more likely to wreck your bracket by advancing a No. 16 seed.  The No. 2 seeds have been more vulnerable in the last two seasons than ever before. Two No. 2 seeds lost in 2012 and No. 15 seed Florida Gulf Coast advanced all the way to the Sweet 16. If you must drop a No. 2 before the Sweet 16, do your homework. Find a vulnerable No. 2 and a No. 15 that either dominated its low-major conference or scored an upset over a major team earlier in the season. None of this year's No. 15 seeds fit that profile.

Consider dropping a No. 1 or a No. 2 in the round of 32
In the last four Tournaments, eight of the 32 No. 1 or No. 2 seeds lost before the Sweet 16. The teams in seeds 7-10 are talented but streaky, capable of knocking off a top seed on a quick turnaround. Take a look at the names in the 8-9 games alone: Kentucky, Oklahoma State, Memphis, Pittsburgh and Gonzaga.
Our picks for vulnerable top-two seeds: Arizona, Villanova, Wisconsin

Don’t fall in love with upsets

Wichita State, Butler, VCU and George Mason in the Final Four are all memorable. So is Florida Gulf Coast’s run to the Sweet 16 last year. Still, don’t get too caught up trying to look smart by advancing a double-digit seed to the Final Four. Of the last 52 Final Four teams, 44 were top-four seeds, and four of the seven who were not top-four seeds were No. 5 seeds. Butler, VCU and George Mason (and last year’s ninth-seeded Wichita State) are memorable because they're outliers.

Don’t go chalk all way the Final Four

Statistically, advancing every higher seed every round might not be a bad idea, but what’s the fun in that? Only once have all four No. 1 seed advanced to the Final Four. Want to know if your Final Four is risky or too safe? Add up the seeds of your Final Four. The median for the last 20 Final Fours is 14. If the seeds for your Final Four add up to 10 or fewer, you’ve picked a safe Final Four. If the Final Four seeds add up to 20 or more, you’re picking the kind of Final Four that has happened only three times in 20 years.

The real upset potential starts at the No. 5 seeds

Since the field expanded in 1985, the No. 4 seed wins 78 percent of the time. That drops to 64.7 percent for the No. 5 seed, 66.4 percent for the No. 6 and 60.3 percent for the No. 7

12-5 Upsets We Like:

Stephen F. Austin over VCU, Xavier/NC State over Saint Louis, Harvard over Cincinnati

11-6 Upsets We Like:

Nebraska over Baylor, Tennessee over UMass, Providence over North Carolina

10-7 Upset We Like:

Arizona State over 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:

Connecticut, Creighton, Michigan, Oklahoma, Oregon, UCLA

Key teams with low free throw percentages:

Arizona, Kansas State, Louisville, Memphis, North Carolina

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 32:

Arizona State, BYU, NC State, Providence, St. Joseph’s, Xavier

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. In this space last year, we told you to watch Florida Gulf Coast and Wichita State based on regular season schedules. Also make sure to look at a mid-major team's 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:

Dayton, George Washington, Mercer, New Mexico State, Tulsa, UMass

Teams that didn’t:

American, Manhattan, Stephen F. Austin, Texas Southern, Western Michigan

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.

Teams that faded:

Arizona State, Iowa, Saint Louis, Syracuse, Texas, UMass

Teams that improved through the season:

Baylor, Dayton, Louisville, Nebraska, Oregon, Tennessee, Virginia

Find 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. Steer clear from advancing teams to the Elite Eight or Final Four if they have a great offense and questionable defense or vice versa.

The teams in the top 20 in both this season are:

Florida, Louisville, Villanova, Wichita State

Good offense, bad defense:

Baylor, BYU, Creighton, Iowa, Michigan

Good defense, bad offense:

Kansas State, Ohio State, San Diego State, Saint Louis