By John P. Lopez
The one absolute truth about winning your office pool this March is this: You’re going to have to be lucky.
In order to win it all and lay claim to office bragging-rights around the water cooler, you’re going to need an unlikely shot to fall, an unlikely hero to emerge or some kind of crazy bounce of the basketball to go your way when you least expect it. That’s why they call it March Madness.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to stack the odds in your favor. There are ways much more proven than the co-worker who either over-analyzes every statistic too much, or goes in the exact opposite direction and picks their bracket by favorite color, most-dominant mascot or the ever-dangerous, “hunch.”
Here they are. These five bracket-picking MUSTS will serve you well. With a little luck, you may even win the entire office pool.
1) You MUST pick at least one, probably two No. 12-seeds to pull off an upset.
Know this: Don’t dare fall in love with potential Cinderella stories. That’s a sure way to have your bracket blown up the first weekend of the tournament. But over the past 20-years, No. 12-seeds have defeated No. 5-seeds a whopping 33-percent of the time. Those are good odds. And in four of the past five years, at least three teams seeded No. 10, No. 11 or No. 12 have advanced to the Sweet Sixteen.
2) You MUST trust the athleticism and talent of the regular-season’s best players — no matter the conference in which they play.
Great players make great plays in great moments. That’s a fact. Go back to one of the greatest of all, Larry Bird from tiny Indiana State. Or what about David Robinson carrying Navy? Remember a kid named Fennis Dembo from Wyoming or Bo Kimble from Loyola-Marymount? What about more recently Stephen Curry, Bryce Drew and Gordon Hayward?
And if players who have proved themselves as great talents are guards, even better. If they’re guards who are Juniors or Seniors, then you’ve stumbled upon something big. Talent, experience and being a perimeter player matters. A few candidates this year: The St. Louis Billikens, South Dakota State, Bucknell, Iona and Belmont. All those teams have talented, experienced perimeter players.
3) You MUST be wary — very wary — of an unproven team or player that relies heavily on three-pointers.
Everyone loves the big shot and Madness became Madness because of great last-second moments. But while this may be slightly contradictory of my No. 2 “MUST” of perimeter play, teams that rely heavily on perimeter shooting tend to tighten up come tournament time. The bigger stages — literally — might have something to do with that. So, too, does much more loosely-called games, which makes for better defense and makes it tougher to get off shots. This year, among the teams that have most relied on three-pointers are Florida, Ole Miss, Iowa State and Ole Miss.
4) You MUST pick at least one team seeded between No. 3 and No. 6 to advance to the Final Four.
This year more than ever, No. 1-seeds have dangerous paths to the Final Four. Even though they have a number of advantages, namely being great teams, only once (2008) have all four No. 1-seeds advanced to the Final Four. That said, the lower-seeded most likely to make a Final Four run are No. 3, No. 4 and No. 5 seeds. Only three times in the past decade have teams seeded lower than No. 5 advanced to the Final Four. In other words, find those No. 3, 4 and 5 seeds you feel are greatly undervalued. This year, my list would include No. 4 St. Louis, No. 5 Virginia Commonwealth, No. 5 Wisconsin and No. 4 Syracuse. Want a long shot? Look at No. 6 Butler.
5) Coaching and conference matter — especially after the first weekend.
As much as big-name programs most assuredly will fall victim to upsets the first weekend of the tourney, if they survive, as the tournament progresses teams that have experienced the biggest moments will prevail. If you like Michigan State, Syracuse and Florida early, then like them late.