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Our Best Advice for Picking your 2015 NCAA Tournament Brackets

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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.

Advance all the No. 1 seeds (and maybe 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.

This year? It’s still foolish to touch the No. 1 seeds in the first round. Two of the matchups for No. 2 seeds will at least make us think. Virginia struggled with turnovers late in the year, and its best player is still battling back from injury. Belmont launches 3s as well as anyone in the country, but the Bruins were the No. 3 team in their own league. In the West, Arizona faces a Texas Southern team that defeated Michigan State and Kansas Stat earlier in the year.

Drop at least one No. 1 or a No. 2 in the round of 32

In the last five Tournaments, 11 of the 40 No. 1 or No. 2 seeds lost before the Sweet 16. Only once in the last five years have all the No. 1 seeds advanced to the Sweet 16. As for the No. 2 seeds, their matchups with 7-10 seeds are against are talented but streaky teams, capable of knocking off a top seed on a quick turnaround. The 7-10 seeds in particular are interesting: Wichita State, Indiana, Michigan State, Davidson, VCU and Ohio State. All of these teams have the goods to knock off a No. 2 on a good day.

Our picks for vulnerable top-two seeds: Gonzaga, Kansas, Virginia

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 two years. Still, don’t get too caught up trying to look smart by advancing a double-digit seed to the Final Four. Of the last 56 Final Four teams, 46 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. After No. 7 UConn and No. 8 Kentucky reached the national final last season, there might be a temptation to advance more lower-seeded teams to the Final Four. UConn caught fire with an other-worldly performance from Shabazz Napier, and Kentucky was a talented team that underachieved all year. Proceed with caution.

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

Advance some double-digit seeds to the Sweet 16, but keep track of how many. The 2011 tournament was the only time in the last 11 years four double-digit seeds have reached the Sweet 16. Three double-digit seeds in the second weekend is probably a good rule of thumb.

Since the field expanded in 1985, the No. 4 seed wins 79 percent of the time. That drops to 63.3 percent for the No. 5 seed, 65.8 percent for the No. 6 and 60.8 percent for the No. 7.

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12-5 Upsets We Like: Buffalo over West Virginia, Eastern Washington over Georgetown, Wofford over Arkansas

11-6 Upsets We Like: Dayton/Boise State over Providence, BYU over Xavier

10-7 Upset We Like: Davidson over Iowa, Ohio State over VCU

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: BYU, Oregon, Notre Dame, Wisconsin

Key teams with low free throw percentages: Louisville, Michigan State, VCU, West Virginia

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: Georgia, Indiana, Ole Miss, St. John’s, UCLA

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: Iowa, Oklahoma State, Utah, VCU

Teams that improved through the season: Baylor, Boise State, BYU, Davidson, Oregon

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 around the top 20 in both this season are: Arizona, Gonzaga, Kentucky, Northern Iowa, Utah, Villanova, Wichita State

Good offense, bad defense: BYU, Davidson, Indiana, Iowa State, Notre Dame, Oregon

Good defense, bad offense: Louisville, San Diego State