So, you want to ride in a helicopter. But helicopter rides are pretty pricey, even by Dealbreaker readers’ standards. Unless, of course, they are free, which they will be for the winner of Dealbreaker’s NCAA Tournament Challenge. Specifically, a ride on a BLADE helicopter will be free. But how are you going to win that sweet prize?
Perhaps with some expert advice from a sportswriter who has covered exactly one college basketball game this season and watched several minutes of a few others. Take it from me: If you haven’t paid attention to the sport at all during the season, it doesn’t matter. There are a few tried and true tricks to help you beat the competition at bracket time.
First of all, don’t pick a No. 1 seed to win it all. This may seem counterintuitive, but three of the last six NCAA champions, including No. 2 Villanova last year (when only one No. 1 seed, North Carolina, even made the Final Four), have been something other than the top seed in their reason. More to the point, when you cast your lot with one of the No. 1s, you’re going head-to-head with the serious competition, including people who have paid more attention than you and have greater insight into the ins and outs of this college basketball season.
This strategy is a little bit problematic this year because the No. 2 seeds – Arizona, Duke, Kentucky and Louisville – are among the more popular teams in the country, so there will be lots of people picking them, too. At the same time, that’s OK, because the tournament winner does tend to be a team that’s won it all before. Duke is always worth picking, not just because of the Blue Devils’ chance to win, but because if and when Duke loses, the pain of your bracket being destroyed is salved by the fact that Duke lost.
Start filling out your bracket by putting all the No. 1 and 2 seeds into the Sweet 16 at the very least. Sure, there’s the occasional big upset of a championship contender on the opening weekend of the tournament, but let someone else go out on the limb to call it. For your Cinderella team, think about the winners of those 6-11 games in the first roud, especially give the weakness of this year’s No. 3 seeds. Cincinnati and SMU are particularly appealing out of the underrated American Athletic Conference.
Scout those first-round time zones. Even in this era of superconferences, flung far across the country – Creighton, in Omaha, is a Big East team! – it’s still pretty tricky to make a long trip and play your best on relatively short notice. Jet lag is real, and a good way to guide some of your choices.
In recent years, the NCAA has been cognizant of this, too, and has scheduled fewer teams for long journeys in the early rounds. Still, there are some out there.
Take seventh-seeded St. Mary’s over No. 10 Virginia Commonwealth in the West as they square off Thursday in Salt Lake City. If you’re looking for one of those classic 12-over-5 upsets, go for it, but steer clear of Nevada against Iowa State when they play Thursday night in Milwaukee, though the late start time of 9:57 Eastern may play into the Wolf Pack’s hands.
On Friday, you’d probably be picking Oregon over Iona in the 3-14 game anyway, but be particularly sure of yourself given that the game is in Sacramento, where later in the day, well-traveled Creighton takes on 11th-seeded Rhode Island. At night, Sacramento is also where UCLA takes on No. 14 Kent State in the South Regional. Along similar lines, Marquette is only traveling one time zone over to face South Carolina, but that 7-10 game is in Greenville – go with the Gamecocks.
Meanwhile, pay attention to the stats. They’ll guide you wrong sometimes, but there are troves of information out there. Even if you’re not about to go to kenpom.com or another college hoops site, you have friends in Las Vegas and you want a team that’s expected to cruise early to set up a championship run.
Some of the teams that stick out as double-digit favorites in the first round are Butler, Florida and West Virginia – all No. 4 seeds, with the Gators and Mountaineers in particular seemingly disrespected by the seeding process. On the other end of things, Middle Tennessee, the No. 12 seed in the South, is favored over Minnesota.
Last but not least, don’t pick Princeton. This might be a gambling enterprise, but you still have to live with yourself.