It takes a full season to get to this point. We dissect teams, watch hundreds of games (remember that night you were up until 2:30 watching San Diego and Portland? Me too, although I’d like to forget) and learn the smallest nuances about our favorite schools and players.
Then the NCAA Tournament brackets come out, and we fill them out confidently, knowing that the team that everyone’s picking has a star player who only shoots 42 percent from the foul line, and that State U’s center has one leg that’s shorter than the other.
And despite it all, we never win that darn NCAA Tournament pool. It’s always Doris from accounting that walks with the first place prize, after choosing her National Champion because she liked their team’s colors, or thought their coach was a “cutie.”
While picking your NCAA Tournament bracket will always be an inexact science, there are trends that stand out year to year that can help you when making those tough picks.
So while it’s very unlikely that you’ll finish the tournament with an unblemished bracket, here are some key factors that have withstood the test of time, and should be key aspects when determining your National Champion.
Talent Usually Wins Out:
So listen, we’re not saying that all four No. 1 seeds are going to make the Final Four like last year, because well, last year was an absolute anomaly.
But it is also no coincidence that dating back to the last five NCAA Tournaments, what turned out to be the most talented team won four of them (2004 with UConn, 2005 with North Carolina, 2007 with Florida and you can make a case for Kansas in 2008).
You don’t need to win your conference tournament (North Carolina in 2005) or even be a No. 1 seed (UConn was actually a No. 2 in 2004), if you have talent that no one else can match up with.
And by talent, we mean future NBA talent.
John Calipari said that he believes you need three future professionals to win a National Championship. And well, there hasn’t been a team this decade where that didn’t hold true.
Because this is a down year for college basketball, the number of teams that have that is limited. Really looking across the landscape, only North Carolina and maybe Louisville have three sure-fire pros.
So it may only take two. Which brings Memphis (Tyreke Evans, Robert Dozier), UConn (A.J. Price, Hasheem Thabeet) and Pittsburgh (DeJuan Blair and Sam Young) back into the picture.
At the end of the day, it’s not what you do in November or December that matters, but what you do for three weeks in March.
And like anything else in life, at the end of the day talent almost always wins out.
Look Out For: North Carolina- The Tar Heels have four guys who could have been pros this year in Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, Danny Green and Tyler Hansbrough, as well as guys who aren’t much farther behind like Deon Thompson and Ed Davis.
They’re Called Free Throws For A Reason:
One of my favorite NCAA Tournament stories (that I get reminded of yearly by a friend) happened in 2002.
Duke was the defending National Champion, and blitzed through the ACC, conquering every town from Chapel Hill to Tallahassee along the way.
They had Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy, and everybody’s All-American Jason (now Jay) Williams leading the team.
But coming into the tournament, I went against the grain and picked Duke to lose, telling anyone who would listen, “Don’t take Duke, because Jason Williams will be handling the ball in pressure situations, and he is a terrible free-throw shooter.”
And for once in my life, I was made to look like a genius. Down four to Indiana in the Sweet 16, Williams was fouled while making a three-pointer, cutting the Hoosiers lead to one. However, he missed the subsequent free-throw, Indiana recovered and the rest was history.
And we all saw that bad free-throw shooting did Memphis in last year’s National Championship game.
The bottom line is, they’re called free throws for a reason. If you’re serious about winning a National Championship you better be able to make them down the stretch.
Be Wary Of: Connecticut- Overall this team shoots about the same as Big East foes Pittsburgh and Louisville, however three UConn starters- Jeff Adrien, Stanley Robinson and Hasheem Thabeet- all are below 64 percent on the year. The trio went just 12 for 26 in the Huskies six overtime loss to Syracuse in the Big East Tournament.
Juniors and Seniors Win Championships, Not Freshmen and Sophomores:
Remember that stacked Kansas team that cut down the nets last year in San Antonio? As freshman and sophomores in 2006 they lost in the first round to Bradley.
How about this year’s North Carolina squad? They lost in the second round as a heavy favorite to George Mason in Tyler Hansbrough’s freshman year.
Although there are some exceptions (Carmelo Anthony’s Syracuse squad in 2003), age and experience do matter. Even the Greg Oden-Mike Conley led Ohio State team that made it to the National Championship game two years ago had seniors like Ivan Harris and Ron Lewis in supporting roles.
The bottom line is, the NCAA Tournament is one of the most pressured-packed sporting events out there. That is why it is always good to have guys who have been through the grind before.
We aren’t saying that Wake Forest can’t win it all, just that history tells us that the Demon Deacons will probably struggle with the pressure associated with the game to game intensity of the NCAA Tournament.
As Jim Boeheim and Carmelo proved, it’s not impossible to win with a young cast, but it won’t be easy either. And newsflash to all you hopefuls out there: there’s no Carmelo in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
Stay Away From: Wake Forest- The Demon Deacons were the Jekyll and Hyde of college basketball in 2009, beating ACC heavyweights Duke and North Carolina, as well as Clemson twice. That same Wake Forest team also lost to Miami, North Carolina State and Georgia Tech. They’ve been inconsistent all year, why should the NCAA Tournament suddenly change things?
It’s Always Easier If You’ve Been There Before:
In regards to what was said about winning a National Championship, if you’re looking to pick first round upsets, go with the lower seeded teams who aren’t playing in their first NCAA Tournament games.
Some of the greatest upsets in the NCAA Tournament have happened with small schools taking their second, third and fourth crack at the Big Dance.
Remember Bryce Drew’s epic shot for Valparaiso against Ole Miss in the 1998 NCAA Tournament? It was his fourth consecutive tournament, and first win. The Crusaders went onto the Sweet 16 that year.
In 2005, it was Vermont’s turn at tournament magic, as Taylor Coppenrath and T.J. Sorrentine shocked Syracuse in overtime. It was also the Catamounts third NCAA Tournament, and with the experience, they feared no one that March.
Like anything else, comfort comes with experience, and these small schools won’t be intimidated by the bright lights that come with the NCAA Tournament. They also won’t be intimidated by the school with the recognizable name on their chest, or the opposition’s All-American point guard.
These schools have been there and done that and come ready to play. To get to back-to-back tournaments, it usually takes experienced players who can handle the pressure of a one-and-done elimination tournament. Heck, they usually have to win one (their conference tournament) just to get to the Big Dance.
So when looking for those upsets, don’t go with the school your co-worker is touting, or even the one everyone on television is raving about.
Look for the one flying under the radar, that isn’t happy just to be playing in March, but is coming in looking to win.
Because more often than not, they will.
Keep An Eye On: Temple- For the second consecutive year, the Owls wouldn’t be dancing had they not won the automatic bid from the Atlantic-10. But they did, beating Xavier along the way, as well as Tennessee and Penn State in the regular season. Temple was in the tournament last year, losing to Michigan State in a game that was closer than the 11 point final score indicated. Did we mention that they happen to be playing Arizona State, a team with no one on their roster who has ever played an NCAA Tournament game?
Don’t Try to Pick the Upsets:
If you happen to be the one guy in the pool who correctly picks the 15 seed to win in round one, you’ll have inter-office glory for all of one day.
But if that same 15 seed loses by 25 points, and goes to the Final Four, you can pretty much rip up your bracket on day one.
It is simply not worth trying to pick any team as a one, two or three seed as an upset victim. The risks are too high.
At the end of the day, it will be highly unlikely that we see a Final Four with all No. 1 seeds like last year. But there’s a reason that those same No. 1’s have never lost in the first round. They’re the best teams!
Play it safe and take pretty much all chalk until at least the Sweet 16. Sure you can pick a 12 to upset a 5, or 6 over a 3 in the second round, but don’t go crazy.
Most all pools are based on a point system, and while you will likely need to pick the correct National Champion in a big pool, it’s the smaller points in the first few rounds that add up and win you the whole thing.
So don’t give those points away, just because you have a “feeling,” Louisville or Michigan State won’t show up in the second round. Because if they do, and then show up again in the next round and the Elite Eight, you’re in big trouble.
Mental Note: In the last three years, only one No. 1 seed has been eliminated before the Elite Eight, Duke in 2006.
Finally, Just Have Fun:
Most pools you’re going to enter are usually no more than five dollars, with the occasional big office pool reaching no more than 20.
So have fun. If you feel like picking your alma mater because of school pride, do it. Or if you like a certain player or coach. Ride them.
At the end of the day, we remember the upsets and champion, but more importantly, the camaraderie that we build with friends, family and co-workers watching these games.
So have fun, because remember even if you follow all these rules, and make the smart picks, Doris in accounting is going for the win for a fourth year in a row.
You had no chance from the beginning.
(author’s note: This article was originally published at www.aarontorres-sports.com)