“Sweet 16” Tips for Picking a Winning NCAA Bracket

by David Mihm | March 15th, 2010

My Full 2010 NCAA Tournament Predictions:


1) The team with the most individual talent does not always win the national championship. In fact, in recent Tournament history, it only seems to happen about half the time. North Carolina won in ’05 with Sean May, Ray Felton, and Rashad McCants. The Huskies won in ’04, led by Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon, but Syracuse upset Kansas to win in ’03. Two balanced teams made the final in ’02, with Maryland winning the battle with Indiana after the Hoosiers had knocked off a loaded Duke team in the Sweet 16. The Blue Devils won in ’01 behind NBA-level stars Shane Battier, Jayson Williams, and Mike Dunleavy, but Michigan State won behind its teamwork in 2000, while more talented Duke and Arizona made early exits. Last year, North Carolina clearly had the most talent and cut down the nets in Detroit.  This year, it’s probably Kansas–though Kentucky is close–and the Jayhawks should make the Final Four…but if things hold to form, we’re due for a bit of an unheralded winner.

2) Don’t pick all four #1 seeds to reach the Final Four. 2008 was the only year this has happened in the modern era (since 1985) and history is not likely to repeat itself anytime soon.

3) Historically, 7-10 affairs have been almost as evenly matched as 8-9 games. Don’t be afraid to pick two of the #10 seeds to get to the second round—or more (see item #4).

4) #10 seeds make great sleepers. Even office pool veterans might find this one surprising—I’m not sure why it doesn’t get the same amount of media hype as the ever-reliable 5-12 upset…2006 and 2007 were the first times since 1996 that at least one #10 seed didn’t reach the Sweet 16. Kent State and Gonzaga have even made the Elite Eight as a #10 in relatively recent memory, along with everyone’s favorite, Davidson, in 2008.   Best chance for a #10 sleeper this year is probably Georgia Tech.

5) It’s not just mid-major Cinderellas that do well with double-digit seeds. Like their little brothers, major-conference schools among the last at-large teams selected also have an uncanny record of winning at least one game in the NCAA Tournament. Examples: Texas A&M 2006, NC State 2005, Auburn 2003, Missouri 2002, Georgetown 2001, to name a few. Villanova made a great run to the Sweet 16 in 2008.  Arizona did in last year.  Teams that fit the profile in this year’s Tournament? Again…Georgia Tech and perhaps Washington out in San Jose.

6) Free throw percentages matter. What all of your favorite buzzer-beating highlights from previous Tournaments DON’T show is the number of times the losing team has missed one or more free throws prior to the victors’ heroics. Memphis’ foul shooting wasn’t an issue until the final few minutes of the final game last year, but it did finally jump up and bite the Tigers.  Look for the teams that shoot well from the foul line, and especially well in the clutch.  Among contenders, BYU (best in the nation at 79%) and Duke lead the way, with Villanova, Butler, Marquette and Wisconsin also highly rated. Texas and Florida State are causes for concern.  Kentucky has really struggled with one-and-ones in pressure situations at times this season.

7) Teams that get to the charity stripe can save themselves on a cold shooting night. If the shots aren’t falling, who can get to the rim? Among the national leaders in free throw attempts: Kansas State, New Mexico, Gonzaga, and Washington.  And oh yes, Kentucky.  What the Wildcats lack in quality they make up for in quantity.

8) Pick Duke to reach the Sweet 16—at least. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the Blue Devils have made the third round of the Tournament 10 years in the last 12 (though they’ve missed two of the last four). Nevertheless, Coach K is a terrific in-game coach, and Duke has a pretty good draw this year.

9) Look for teams with clutch players. Kentucky’s John Wall, West Virginia’s Da’Sean Butler, Ohio State’s Evan Turner, Michigan State’s Kalin Lucas, and Kansas’ Sherron Collins make up my “All-Clutch” Starting Five. And don’t forget that mid-majors can have these guys, too—Richmond’s David Gonsalvez, and San Diego State’s Billy White are just a few mid-major stars who have been unbelievable in late-game situations throughout their careers.

10) Remember that the East, South and Midwest Regional Finals, as well as the Final Four, are played in massive domes. After playing in traditional college gyms all season, it’s often difficult for players to adjust their depth perception when shooting in a supersized arena that seats 40,000+. The team with the most experience playing in domes might be Syracuse…so if the Orange make it to Indianapolis, they could be very dangerous.

11) The Mountain West hasn’t gotten enough publicity this year. BYU, UNLV, San Diego State, and New Mexico have been battle-tested in the rugged conference.  I’m taking all except UNLV to win their first round games.

12) Don’t drive yourself crazy picking the early-round games—it’s far more important to get the Final Four correct. In a traditional bracket pool, you’ll earn the same number of points for picking two Final Four members than for predicting all of the first-round games combined. Spend most of your time analyzing who’s going to make an extended run rather than obsessing about one or two 8-9 or 5-12 matchups.

13) Look at your predicted national champion’s schedule to see if it has won six-plus games in a row during the regular season. If it hasn’t, there’s little reason to believe that team can win six straight games with everything on the line.

14) Defense doesn’t always win championships in college hoops, but it can certainly win you a couple of games. Florida State, Temple, Duke, Kansas, Purdue, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Clemson, and Kentucky are all in the top 10 nationally in terms of adjusted defensive efficiency.

15) The final score of the championship game is often lower than you might expect. I’m throwing this one in because the combined final score is the traditional tie-breaking method in most office pools. Nerves often lead to poor shooting and increased turnovers, especially early in the game, so err a few points on the low side of your initial guess.

16) If all else fails, ask your spouse or significant other who he/she would pick. (That is, unless you’re in the same pool.)

Good luck, everyone, and enjoy the games!

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10 Responses to ““Sweet 16” Tips for Picking a Winning NCAA Bracket”  

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  1. barbara Says:

    Can you tell me if brandon rush is still hurt?

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  2. Sam Says:

    4 and 8 contradict each other. In 4, you say that Arizona has a good shot at making the Sweet 16, but then you say that Duke automatically should be put in the Sweet 16.

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  3. S Weidner Says:

    Duke biffed to VCU –last year–first round. Granted a damn exciting game–what with the OT, but for me Duke is just too arrogant. Last year they were a 6 seed beaten by an 11. This year arrogance may turn to humility if they are beaten by a 15. Humility is the opposite of pride–a deadly sin..we all know, “pride goeth before the fall” The Blue Devils indeed. Last year I did a bracket using the school mascots. It wasn’t accurate, but it was fun and informative…clicking around to all the schools I picked up a bit of the flavor of each. This year I’m letting my four year old grandson pick a bracket–he is picking a lot of upsets hummmmm.

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  4. Mojo Says:

    what happened to Duke? LOL
    I have Memphis in my pool, and I picked Kansas to beat NC…

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  5. Kathy Says:

    This still hold true???

    2) Don’t pick all four #1 seeds to reach the Final Four. (This one’s for March Madness rookies.) It’s never happened, and it won’t happen this year either, with parity at an all-time high in college hoops.

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  6. Christopher Mackinder Says:

    For the record, this is the FIRST (and likely only year) that I saw picking all No. 1 seeds to reach the Final Four as a possibility. The combined record of that group, coupled with the fact the only non-No. 1 seed that I saw possibly reaching the Final Four was Tennessee made the choice easy (While I think Texas is a great team, I just didn’t feel they were as good as advertised and therefore kept them from San Antonio).

    Luckily for myself, I nailed the Final Four in my pool and I’m just waiting to see if Kansas can win it all, which would net me 1st, regardless if the Jayhawks beats UCLA or Memphis.

    Of course, as David’s No. 16 states, maybe I should have just asked my wife. If Memphis wins it all, she’ll finish 2nd (out of 86)!!!

    @ Barbara: I had a third-round seat at the Regionals in Detroit and I can say from seeing Rush up close and talking to him after the Kansas-Davidson game, he is fine. The only reason he isn’t scoring 20+ a game is because Kansas is so balanced and can have 5-6 guys score in double figures each game.

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  7. Lauren Says:

    Tell me your predictions. Please!

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  8. tom williams Says:

    the year is 2010 not 2009

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  9. jtm Says:

    regarding #11 – ummm … A&M is in the south and BYU is in the west.

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  10. Henry Muto Says:

    This isn’t how the bracket I play works. It is the seed number = pts for 1st round and X2 for 2nd round so Cornell was worth 36 pts if you got them to the sweet 16, Washington 33 pts, St. Mary’s 30 pts and they only give 15 pts for each FF pick that is correct. So it is far more important to get those underdog 1st/2nd round picks correct in this bracket I am playing online with 500 people. I got mad a few years ago they actually lowered the pts for the champ, FF and Elite 8 by 5 pts per round saying “every game is important”. Pretty stupid I think but such is life. I like having upsets worth more but I think they need to up the Elite 8, FF and champion pts a lot more.
    12) Don’t drive yourself crazy picking the early-round games—it’s far more important to get the Final Four correct. In a traditional bracket pool, you’ll earn the same number of points for picking two Final Four members than for predicting all of the first-round games combined. Spend most of your time analyzing who’s going to make an extended run rather than obsessing about one or two 8-9 or 5-12 matchups.

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