Sports: Everyone Into the Pool!

Bracket-picking advice from a non-basketball fan

It can be a little daunting. A sheet of paper with 32 teams on two sides placed into brackets that whittle their way down to one center spot for the NCAA men's basketball champion.

All across America right now, people in offices, schools and knitting circles are filling in their brackets. But how in the world do you fill in one of these things with any hope of winning ­ especially if, like me, you don't follow college basketball throughout the regular season?

Fortunately, the good news is you don't have to know anything about college basketball. In fact, it'll probably be to your advantage if you don't know a pick and roll from, er, some other basketball phrase. Bet with your head instead of your heart, as they say.

So you've been handed a bracket, and you're sitting there wondering what to do. First off you think, "Is this legal?" Yes.

So long as the person running it isn't making a profit, you're square.

"But company rules forbid gambling on company premises," you say to yourself. Most employers turn a blind eye to NCAA brackets and Super Bowl pools, but if you're that concerned just casually check with a superior. Blame him or her if trouble ensues.

Now, back to your bracket. Grab a pencil with a healthy size eraser and read on.

It might look like 64 teams (well, 65 if you count the dopey "play-in" game) are a lot to deal with, but thankfully the NCAA Selection Committee conveniently handicapped the whole thing for you, seeding the teams 1 through 16 in each of four regions. Having crunched some numbers, I'm here to tell you that all you have to do is fill in the blanks and make an adjustment here or there.

Here at CityBeat we're not big proponents of paying for your newspaper, but you'll want to grab a copy of Monday's USA Today. It's helpful for looking at records, figuring out what conferences teams came from, their last tournament appearance and so on. Any number of Web sites have similar information.

Now, where to begin?

Start with your champion and Final Four. It sounds obvious, but stick with the top seeds. In the past 29 years the champion has been a No. 1 seed 14 times, a 2 six times, a 3 four times, a 6 twice and a 4 and 8 once each.

In the past five years, half of the Final Four have been No. 1 seeds. A couple of 5s made it (2002 and 2005), but basically you're looking at 1-4 seeds (and only one 4 has made it in the past five years).

Geography is important, too. In the past 46 tournaments, 33 champions came from east of the Mississippi. Of those 13 western titles, 11 were won by UCLA. To narrow it down further, teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference have made 19 Final Four appearances since 1990, winning six titles.

Moving back toward the sides of the brackets, start working your way in. Generally you get a point for each first round game you pick correctly, 2 for the second round and so on. Don't anguish over upsets, though, and just keep the following in mind for the first round matchups.

No 16 seed has ever beaten a No. 1. 'Nuff said. The last 15 to beat a 2 was Hampton over Iowa State in 2001. Since 1989, 10 14s have beaten 3s, most recently Bucknell over Kansas last year, but again those aren't great odds.

A 13 seed has won just 20 percent of the time in the past 19 years and hasn't made it out of the second round in the past five. A 12 has won about 45 percent of the first round games in the past five tournaments, which is interesting; 11s, on the other hand, are only six for 20 since 2001 (30 percent), and 10s do only slightly better at 35 percent.

The 8/9 games used to be a toss up, but it's feast or famine. In 2005 three of the four 9s won, though in 2004 only one did. The key seems to be overall record. Eight of 11 9 seeds that beat an 8 seed had a better record even though they were placed lower in the bracket.

Another thing to keep in mind is conferences. In the past nine years teams from the Atlantic Sun, Big Sky, Big South, Ivy League, Mid-Continent, Northeast, Ohio Valley, Southern, Southwestern Athletic and Sun Belt conferences haven't won a single game (save for two play-in games). The Patriot League (Bucknell) and America East (Vermont) turned it around last year after an eight-year drought.

Slightly larger conferences such as the Mid-American, Horizon and West Coast occasionally produce a so-called dark horse, a 9 or lower seed that makes it out of the second round and into the Sweet 16. There have been an average of two of these a year since 2001, and only Missouri (Big 12) in 2002 and Auburn (SEC) in 2003 came from big conferences.

Not sure what conferences are "big" or "small?" A rather obvious rule of thumb is that, if it has a lot schools you've never heard of or schools you know to be small, odds are it's a "small" conference.

So now you're into rounds three and four, the last ones before the Final Four. Remember, higher seeds are higher seeds for a reason, but also pay attention to overall record and who might have been playing particularly well late in the season.

Lastly, hope that random chance operates in your favor. This is sports betting, after all, and when it comes right down to it you just don't exactly know how these teams and players are going to perform come game time on national TV.

Bottom line: Work on spotting the trends. Remember, you don't have to pick every game correctly — you just have to pick better than the other people in your pool. ©

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