All brackets are subject to infinite randomness, but not all strategies are created equal. College hoops’ weak shooters and trap defenses make for wild games, throwing all involved into a storm of coaching whims and player incompetence. There are untold permutations a bracket can take – slightly less for Duke fans – but is there a right way to do things? What follows is a list of better (and worse-than-average) strategies for college basketball experts. Some work, some don’t, though which exactly those are is up for debate.
Picking On Fame
Not everyone is a fan or even aware of college basketball, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from filling out a bracket. In such cases, picking the most immediately recognizable teams is a fine way to present oneself as sports-literate (or, at least, someone with cable). UNC’s recent lousy stretch notwithstanding, sticking to power teams is actually not a terrible way of doing things. (There’s that old story where the exchange students know enough to know that San Diego is a bigger city than Flint, Mich. – they picked the school they heard of.) It’s not always going to work, but generally, the most storied programs are the best. So stick with teams from North Carolina and schools that start with K.
Possible Final Four matchup: North Carolina, Duke, UCLA, Kansas
Sort of like loading up on PER-high players in an NBA fantasy draft, picking the schools with the highest Pomeroy rating – the highest predictive win value as determined by Ken Pomeroy – makes for a highly respectable, if slightly yellow, bracket. Mr. Pomeroy is arguably the Bill James of college hoops, and his eponymous ranking system predicts teams’ immediate wins based on their offensive and defensive efficiencies. Not surprisingly, the top 10 Pom teams are seeded in the tourney at 4 or higher, though his 18th-best team, Belmont, only earned a 13-seed in the Southeast. Florida, a 2-seed in the Southeast as well, ranked lower, as did several other single-seeded programs. Virginia Commonwealth is playing USC for a spot in the 64, but is 84th.
Possible Final Four matchup: Ohio State, Duke, Kansas, Pitt
Why not pick Duke to win it all this year? They have more or less the same team, Coach K‘s 2010 championship nucleus is now a year older, wiser and, presumably, more clever on the court. Same with Ohio State, Pitt and the better part of the top-ranked programs. In many ways, it’s not a bad way to pick: unless they’re Kentucky, good college teams tend to get better the next year. Of course, it’s not an especially predictive method. Kyrie Irving was injured in December and the Blue Devils haven’t looked the same since. Villanova was fine last year, horrid this. Really, picking the best 2010 teams to repeat means one of three things: you are not completely ignorant of basketball, but don’t like it as much as you used to; you are a first-year law student; you are a retired college basketball player and give paid analysis on TV.
Possible Final Four matchup: Washington, Duke, Kansas, Michigan State (or Kansas State, or BYU)
In some ways a baseball strategy, prospect picking places premiums on raw, athletic players who are vouched for by scouts. These players will improve or even dominate, and their teams could win. It’s in vogue right now, to craft baseball teams built on high-upside, controllable players, and one can fill out a respectable bracket with teams full of NBA-ready (or at least, NBA-quality) players. However, this does not necessarily translate to team success. Take Kevin Durant’s 2007 Texas team – he was transcendent, but they were still bounced in the second round. Of course, teams with multiple NBA prospects – think Joakim Noah‘s Gators squads, Juan Dixon‘s Terps or the UNLV teams that fielded professional athletes – will do better in the tournament.
Possible Final Four matchup: Ohio State, Arizona, Kansas, BYU
Picking For Spite
Have a friend or colleague you hate that goes to Virginia? Do you want to see your old man whine when Xavier gets bounced? Do you violently hate words that begin with hard consonants? Why not pick for spite? Brackets are weak chains, apt to rupture on flukey plays. Why spend hours of sweaty research poring over excel spreadsheets to gain nothing more than a 15 percent advantage? Years of watching college basketball leads to only one conclusion: there’s better odds of a play breaking down, bad shooting mechanics or just straight amateurism than there is of the better team winning.
Possible Final Four matchup: Long Island, Oakland, Akron, Michigan State
Of course, if the best teams won every game, it wouldn’t be March Madness. Big players miss shots, unknown players step up, and teams from states that don’t even exist beat powerhouses. The Final Four in 2008 was all No. 1 seeds, but it hasn’t happened before or since. When in doubt, pick a mid-major, or a school with a strange name or encephalitic mascot. This might be the worst strategy, but a broken clock is right twice a day, so you should be able to gloat over at least one string of games.
Possible Final Four matchup: UAB, Bucknell, St. Peter’s, Old Dominion
What’s your favorite strategy?
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