Every year at this time, millions of Americans print out and try to assemble the perfect NCAA men’s basketball tournament bracket for what is widely known as March Madness.
Anyone who has filled out one of these brackets — for sport, for fun, or for money — knows how difficult it is not only to have a perfect bracket, but to win the bracket in general.
And by the way, Americans will bet roughly $10 billion on the NCAA Tournament this year, according to new estimates from the American Gaming Association, as noted in a CBS Sports report. Only 3 percent of that is expected to be wagered legally.
With so many teams competing for the top spot — 68 — it can be difficult to choose which team is going to beat which, as very few people indeed have seen all of the teams play.
That said, here are five tips for strategies you can use to ensure you have a quality bracket.
1.) Ride the hot hand. When it comes to winning in the tournament, regular season records don’t go out the window, but neither are they the most important aspect. Instead, take a look at how a team performed late in the season. For example, if a team won eight of its last nine games headed into the tournament and another one lost five of its last seven in the same conference — and they have the same record — then the team who is playing better as of late would be the better pick.
Remember, this is about finishing the season strong, not starting it off well.
2.) Ask: Who’d they play? Be mindful of what it took for a certain team to get to where it is today. Some teams play in weaker divisions and get an easy path to the tournament, while others grind through a brutal schedule — like the Atlantic Coast Conference or the Southeastern Conference.
If a team played against a lot of good squads in the regular season and had some close games, then it could be in a better spot than one with a better record that perhaps wasn’t challenged much during the regular season.
3.) Also ask: How’d they perform on the road? During the tournament, it is exceptionally rare for a team to have a game on its own home turf. That said, it is worth looking at how certain teams performed on the road to see if they can handle playing when they have to travel and don’t have the comforts of home.
Not all teams are capable of that — so those that are have an edge.
4.) Go nuts, but not too nuts. There are plenty of upsets in college basketball — hence, why so many people watch March Madness. It’s unpredictable and therefore exciting for the fans. In order to win the bracket, you’re going to have to pick a few upsets, but not a ridiculous number.
For example, a number-16 seed has never beat a number-one seed in the first round. If you make an upset pick, have a reason for it. Don’t do it just to be different.
5.) Remember that defense wins championships. If a team is in the tournament, it’s obvious it can score points. However, in basketball, a greater measure of how a team is going to perform in the playoffs might be how few points it allows from opposing teams.
It’s difficult to squander a good defense, but a team with no defense could get bulldozed pretty early on.
Take a look at the points allowed per game — that could help you pick some real winners.
Tom Joyce is a freelance writer from the South Shore of Massachusetts. He covers sports, pop culture, and politics and has contributed to The Federalist, Newsday, ESPN, and other outlets.