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Filling Out Your Bracket: 10 Rules of Thumb

One writer’s guide to helping you win your office pool

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Maryland vs Xavier Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It’s March, and we all know somebody who knows nothing about college basketball who nevertheless won their office pool because they employed the time-tested strategy of “I picked the team with the coolest mascot/colors.”

Likewise, if you’re reading this site, you probably know somebody who spends two days on KenPom, obsessively trying to compare all possible matchups and mismatches, only to have their sure-fire Final Four team go down to Middle Tennessee in the first round. (That was me two years ago.)

Each person has their own method for making sense of March Madness, but here are a few rules of thumb that I have acquired over the years that I have found helpful.

Rules For Filling Out Your Bracket

  • Rule #1: Don’t overthink things. If you are the type of person who pays attention to college basketball from November through February, your brain has picked up on a lot of patterns over the course of the season. Don’t outsmart yourself. You can trick your brain, but you can’t trick your gut.
  • Rule #2: Don’t fill out a bracket until Monday night. That gives you all day Monday to research and ruminate.
  • But aren’t those first two rules in conflict with each other? Trust your gut, but also do lots of research? At first glance it seems so, but not when you factor in Rule #3: Get drunk. On Monday, after a day of analysis and assessment, get slammed, take a shower, and then come out and make picks as quickly as you can off the top of your head. Revise in the sober light of dawn on Tuesday morning.
  • Rule #4: Don’t trust Georgetown. This rule isn’t relevant in 2018, since the Hoyas missed the Big Dance by a mile, but it’s on my list, and it’s worth keeping in mind in future years.
  • Rule #5: Always take the smaller in-state underdog. In past years this is how I nailed Dayton over Ohio State and Wichita over Kansas. Don’t underestimate a decades-long chip on a team’s shoulder. I’m not sure if Drunk Monday Night Andrew Michael is going to pick Marshall to beat Wichita State or not, but if they meet West Virginia in the second round, give me the Thundering Herd.
  • Rule #6: Be aggressive in the early rounds and conservative in the late rounds. The larger the pool, the more likely it is that you’ll need to nail practically every upset to win. There are hundreds of people that are going to play it mostly by the chalk. You can’t stand out with chalk picks. But you also don’t want to lose a Final Four team on the first day. You want to go with your gut instinct for the Final Four, but the path those four teams have to take will not be what you expect. Mix it up a little.
  • Rule #7: Fill out an NIT bracket, too. In a lot of ways, the NIT is the more enjoyable tournament. The stakes are lower if you mess a pick up, they have Dick Vitale calling the games, and teams get to play on their home court in front of legitimate students sections. Plus you get to look like a bigger basketball fan than the rest of your friends. BONUS: the Big Ten actually wins the NIT from time to time.
  • Rule #8: Forget about your picks during the actual games. (I’ll refer you back to Rule #3, since being drunk can help with this.) Part of the beauty of March Madness is the upsets. The down-to-the-wire finishes. The “Holy crap!” moments. If you’re too worried about whether your bracket can stay in the 87th percentile on ESPN, you might forget to stop and appreciate why we love college basketball in the first place. Even if you don’t win that $500 office pool (and let’s face it, you probably won’t), college basketball is more than worth it.
  • Rule #9: Don’t take it too far the other way, either. There are lots of people who only care about the NCAA Tournament because they’re low-key gambling on it. That’s fine. Those people are why the NCAA Tournament gets enough TV ratings to more or less fund the entire bottom half of D-I athletics. Such people aren’t targets for scorn, they are targets for conversion. The best college basketball games happen in campus arenas on snowy nights in February. We need more people to realize that, and the biggest opportunity lies with those fans who enjoy what happens in March.
  • Rule #10: Undeserving teams always win First Four games. The more controversial the inclusion of a particular team, the more likely they are to make a run to the Sweet Sixteen. I don’t know if it’s because those teams play with an extra chip on their shoulder, or if the NCAA rigs the games to stave off criticism of the Selection Committee, I just know what I’ve seen over the past few years. Find a fan of a bubble team that got left out, and whichever team they complain the most about, pick that team to win in Dayton.

If any of these rules of thumb prove helpful in winning your office pool, please consider kicking back 10% of your winnings to your favorite Big Ten site.