The email comes every year—"It's March Madness! Join my office pool! Fill out a bracket! Win tens of dollars!" But what if the last time you watched college basketball, you were nine beers deep and more interested in the halftime show?
So what? This is a great year to fill out your first bracket, because the tournament is wide open. Gonzaga is currently the consensus #1 team in the country, but at different points throughout the season, Indiana, Duke, Michigan, Kansas and Louisville have all sat atop one poll or another. This year, more than most, you don’t need to known anything about college basketball to win the pool.
And let's not have any whining about the time it takes--even President Barack Obama fills in a bracket every year; if he's got time, so do you. Plus, love him or hate him, wouldn't you relish the chance to prove once and for all that you're smarter than the commander in chief?
As you approach the bracket, you should know there are some prevailing winds that blow teams to and fro, as well as some metaphysical certainties to consider when making your picks.
#1 vs. #16
First things first: Fill in all the #1s to beat the #16s. Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, No #16 has ever won a single game — not one.
Not only do #1's dominate the first round, they win 80% of their tournament games, and have taken 17 of 28 titles since 1985. You should have at least one #1's in your Final Four, but no more than three -- only once have all the top seeds made it to the Final Four.
#2 vs. #15
Teams seeded #15 don't fair much better than #16. In 28 years they've won six games, and two of those wins came in 2012, so the likelihood of it happening again any time soon is infinitesimal. But if Timothy Donaghy assures you a #15 is going to win a game this year, for the love of John Wooden, do not pick that team to win a second game, as that has never happened.
In Rounds 2 and 3, #2's win about three-quarters of the time, but after that it becomes a crap shoot. They win only about 40% in the last three rounds, including a wretched 4-8 in the finals — to be fair, though, a lot of those late-round losses were to #1's.
#3 vs. #14 and #4 vs. #13
It's only when you reach the 13s and 14s that you have to start doing some soul-searching. Between them, they've gone 40-184 in the 1st Round, 7-33 in the 2nd Round and 0-7 in the 3rd. So you have to pick at least one #13/14 to advance a round, possibly two--but no farther.
How do you choose? What's the secret sauce that makes such an underdog rise up? Favorites have been hampered by injuries, lowly seeds have found themselves enjoying a home court advantage… but mostly it's a matter of good old-fashioned magic.
If you're going to guess, you might be tempted to go by winning records, but not all teams play the same schedule, so you'd be just as good off choosing a team based on their colors or which mascots would win in a fight. Maryland vs. Michigan? A wolverine will beat a turtle in a fight every time — Go Blue!
You should have one #4 make it to the Elite 8, but not much farther. A #3 seed has won it all four times, but a #4 seed has only won it once.
#5 vs. #12 and #6 vs. #11
The cosmos much prefers 11 seeds to 12s. Both win opening-round games 34% of the time, but five 11s have made it to the 3rd round and three to the Final Four, where the magic inevitably stops. Only once has a 12 seed won as many as three tournament games.
Throughout tournament play, #5s have a record of 130-112 and #6s are 131-111—weird, right? You should have at least one of each in the Sweet 16, but of those two, only one is likely to advance.
#7 vs. #10 and #8 vs. #9
Things get really dicey with seeds 7 through 10. The 10 seeds win only 40% of first round games, but come alive in the second round, winning 47% of their games, before tapering off — no 10 seed has won a game in the 4th round.
Match ups between 8s and 9s are a coin toss, with the lower seed taking 52% of their games. But the #8s are 14-9 in games from the 3rd Round on, and it was an 8 that was the lowest seed ever to reach the mountaintop, in 1985, when the Villanova Wildcats upset the heavily favored Georgetown Hoyas, a team led by Hall-of-Famer Patrick Ewing.
Typically you'll be asked to guess the total number of points scored in the final. Since 1985, the average has been 77-69, so go with 146.
If your bracket has a regional with zero upsets, don't panic—it happens in the real world, too. As recently as 2007, it happened in both the East and the South, though that was a crazy year in which there were only three upsets in the early rounds. On average however, it happens about once a year.
But don't be afraid to go upset crazy -- there has twice been as many as six upsets in one regional, and as many as 13 throughout the tourney on three occasions.
If you just want to play it safe, play the percentages. Your final eight teams should include three 1s, two 2s, and a 3, a 4 and a 6. And you should have a #1 beating a #2 in the final.
And if all this is a little more than you care to deal with, just pick the favorite in every game.