It's that time again. All across America, friends, families and corporations will skirt our nation's sports gambling laws in the name of basketball. The field is set and now, it's time to project how it plays out. When there's money on the line, you ought to treat the undertaking with seriousness. If you work for Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway, just picking the Sweet 16 correctly will net a $1 million annual deposit to your bank account for the rest of your life.
We're not all that blessed, but we can tackle our brackets with guesses that are as educated as possible. Here are some rules to live by:
Watch for recent trends. Don't get caught up in teams' overall record. How have they played over the last month of the season? High-seeded teams that limp into the bracket by going .500 or less late in the year are ripe for an early upset. Maybe they'll reverse the trend when it counts, but under the pressure of March Madness, it's more likely their slide will continue.
... Except when it's the little guys. For mid-major teams, most of the last 15-20 games they played were against teams not good enough to make the NCAA Tournament field. They were likely dominant. It's always hard to project how a team from the Southland or the MAAC will matchup with a team from the ACC or the Pac-12, but check their nonconference schedule. Those games aren't gospel, but if that team got beat up by a middling team from a big conference, you might rethink picking them to knock off a major conference team in Round 1. Conversely, if they're a team you've never heard of but has a couple close losses or a win over a major conference team early in the year, it's not hard to see then once again rise to the occasion in their one shining moment.
Conference tournaments aren't always honest. For smaller leagues, the tournaments are a win-or-go home occasion. That's just not true for bigger leagues or teams assured of at-large bids before suiting up. One example: Kansas went 0-1 at the Big 12 tournament last week, but it lost without its second-best player, Josh Jackson, who was suspended. Forcing teams to play on 3-4 consecutive days is also a difficult format that doesn't always result in the best team winning. High seeds stumbling in the conference tournament isn't a reason to write off a team. Each of the past three national champions didn't win their conference tournaments. Last year, Big Ten champion Michigan State went home early after losing to a No. 15 seed in Round 1. No. 11-seed Gonzaga routed Big East champion Seton Hall by 16 in the first round. SEC champion Kentucky failed to reach the Sweet 16, too.
Cuteness is for the early rounds. Few things are more satisfying than correctly picking a "shocking" upset on your bracket. It can be worth at least 20 minutes of bragging rights. But save it for the highly seeded teams you think would lose later, anyway. Get chalky in the late rounds and especially with your national champion. There's no clear favorite in this year's bracket, but don't pick Cinderella to go all the way. In the past 14 years, only one national champion has been lower than a No. 3 seed. And only three teams with double-digit seeds have ever made the Final Four.
Don't be too boring, though. The gap between the great teams and the very good teams isn't wide, especially this year. The Final Four won't be all the top-seeded teams in each region. That's happened only once in the history of the tournament (2008). And just once since 1996 have all four No. 2 seeds reached the Sweet 16. Conversely, a double-digit seed has reached the second weekend in 30 of the past 32 tournaments. Pick one you love and ride with them.
Trying to pick an early upset? Look for offense. Defenses can have great luck locking down when baskets get priced at higher premiums late in the tournament, but the smaller teams that are most dangerous are ones that score in bunches. Mid-major teams with good defensive ratings have likely put those numbers up against small-conference teams that won't have the same level of talent or size of those they'll see in the bracket. But teams whose offenses free up tons of good looks or teams that spread the floor with 3-4 shooters at once can take down almost anyone on a good day. A few lower seeds from non-power conferences that can overwhelm with efficient offense: UNC Wilmington, Wichita State and Nevada.
The 12-5 is the eternal wellspring of upsets. It's the most common bracket tip because it's true. If you're picking an upset, the 12-5 matchups give you the highest chance to hit one. Since 1985, it's happened 46 times -- the same number of times a No. 11 seed has beaten a No. 6 seed. Compare that to just 26 upsets for No. 13 seeds over No. 4 seeds. And on 20 occasions, No. 12 seeds have reached the Sweet 16. Last year, three No. 12 seeds won their first-round games. At least two No. 12 seeds have pulled the upset every year since 2011.
Consider conference strength for the big leagues. Anything can happen in the early rounds, but history can tell you how the later rounds might shake out. The Big Ten hasn't won a national championship since 2000, and 2017 is widely considered a weak year across the league. Though 2017 has been a very strong year at the top of the Pac-12, it hasn't won a title since 1997 and has thin depth. The Big 12 hasn't won a national title since 2008.
Don't overlook the First Four. Those either/or games on your bracket that don't get locked in until Tuesday and Wednesday night? Don't just assume that the winner will lose in the first round. Every year since the First Four expanded beyond 16 seeds in 2011, one of the teams that participated won at least one more game, and No. 11 seed VCU made it all the way to the Final Four in 2011.
Loyalty is for real life. Cover your diploma if you have to. Don't worry about your wife's alma mater or your friend's son who's a walk-on at State U. Save your loyalty for more meaningful matters. The tournament is strictly business. Filling out a biased bracket is the surest way to never retrieve your cash from the pool.
Finally: Don't be that guy or gal. You get one bracket. One. Not an "upset-heavy bracket" and a "chalk bracket." Not a "homer bracket" and a "real bracket." One. Make your picks and stick with them.