NCAA Tournament Pools For Dummies (by a dummy)


Right now, somebody in your office is hunched over a little sheet with lots of horizontal lines all over it, and weird words like “Winthrop” and “Gonzaga” and “Xavier.” You desperately wish you could be like this person, all wild-eyed and confidently pontificating about some acid-laced fantasy of “Tar Heels” and “Hilltoppers” (Hi, Allison! Your blood-drive blob of a mascot is funny, but you have no prayer) and “Hoyas.” Well, here’s how.

This is the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament. There are many other NCAA tournaments. In fact, there’s a tournament playoff for every NCAA sport except the biggest draw and biggest moneymaker, Division I-A football, but that’s a whole separate bulging-vein rant. But in terms of water-cooler gossip, the Men’s B-ball tournament is where it’s at for the next few weeks.

There are sixty-five teams (already down to sixty-four…sorry, Coppin State, but you just spared yourself the shame of being annihilated by UNC) playing for a shot at the national title. And there are millions of Americans plunking down anywhere from a dollar to a C-note to, well, just some personal pride in order to claim bragging rights in the office. All you need is a printable bracket, which can be found at, oh, just about any web site you can think of right now, from CNN to ESPN to SI to your hometown newspaper’s site.

Go down the list. There are universities listed along each side, with a number from 1-16 (the seed) and usually their record (anywhere from 33-1…nice job, Memphis…to 17-16…see ya later, Georgia). The records are more or less irrelevant. These records are heavily influenced by the conference the teams play in, and the quality of the conferences vary wildly. So there is a group of old men, the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, that looks at all of the teams and picks 65 to play. The selection committee gives seedings to the invited teams, from 1-16. Pay more attention to the seedings than the records. Sorry, Drake, but the Missouri Valley Conference does not equal the Big East. Your 28-3 is worth less than UConn’s 24-8.

Every Division I conference has an automatic bid for the conference champion, which is how you see small-school teams like Mississippi Valley State sneaking in at 17-15 while other teams like Virginia Tech (ha-ha) get relegated to the NIT (Not Invited…err, National Invitational Tournament), which is like not getting invited to the cool kids’ after-prom party but drawing a mercy invite from the nice C-list kid to her party.

The first round of games will be played on Thursday and Friday, with the second round being played Saturday and Sunday. After that, there will be 16 teams remaining, colloquially called the “Sweet Sixteen.” These games will be played on next Thursday and Friday. The winners of those games are called the “Elite Eight.” And the Elite Eight play down to the all-important “Final Four” on Saturday and Sunday of next week. Afterward there is a week of incredible hype, and then the Final Four play off to the last two teams on Saturday, with the winners facing each other in the championship game on Monday night. Then “One Shining Moment” is played, confetti falls, slow-mo highlights are shown, and the winning team cuts down the nets.

So, how do you pick your bracket? On your printed bracket, toward the middle of the page, will be lines. Go down the column and pick the name of the team you think will win, and write it on the line next to the game. You’ll notice this makes another, bigger bracket, as the winner of the game beneath that one forms a new brace. So pick the winner of that game, also, and so on and so forth.

What do you mean, “No, I mean tell me which teams to pick!!!”?

Fine. First, go down the bracket and pick all the #1 seeds to win their first game. In the history of the tournament, no #1 seed has ever lost to a #16. (Damn you, Liberty, you almost had me cheering for Jerry Falwell’s team for a few minutes.) After that, well, it’s all up in the air. Every other matchup has seen upsets, over and over again. Sure, it’s unlikely that a #15 will take out a #2, but it has happened. And after the 3-14 games, hell, it’s anyone’s guess. Upsets happen every year in the tournament, folks. It’s picking the right upsets that will drive your alpha-male sports fan coworkers mad.

So what else should you look for? Well, “home” courts matter. Each school gets an equal allotment of tickets to sell, and then there are tickets sold to the general public. So in theory, all things are equal, but in fact the closer a school is to its tourney location, the more chance its fans will sell out their ticket allotment and/or start to buy up public tickets. As teams get eliminated, that team’s fans typically sell off their tickets to the remaining games. The teams with more fans already on-site tend to snap up more of those resold tickets, and so the “home” advantage gets larger as the tournament goes on. UNC will play in Raleigh and Charlotte, North Carolina until it either gets knocked out or goes to the Final Four in San Antonio. Sure, it’s two and a half hours from Chapel Hill, but that’s still their backyard as far as their fan base goes. It’s only four hours from Knoxville to Charlotte, but if the University of Tennessee makes it to face UNC in the regional finals, who do you think will have more of a home crowd?

Other things to watch? Well, personnel matchups, of course. Or which conference is better overall. (Go ahead, find three or more male coworkers standing together and talking about basketball. Ask them which conference is best. Watch them degenerate from an animated discussion to a raging argument to a stapler-chucking brawl.  And if you think that’s bad, wait until the end of October and ask them the same question about football.  When you do that, immediately turn and run.) Which teams have coaches with better tournament resumes, or reputations for coaching mediocre teams to great results. A friend of mine swears by a team’s record on the road during the regular season. Yeah, whatever. Someone who doesn’t follow college basketball closely isn’t going to know this stuff, and won’t bother to look it up. And you know what? It won’t matter. Usually I pick two brackets…one I do almost blindly, and one I pick by doing a few days’ worth of reading, including the very detailed tournament analysis by my good friend mentioned above, who is something of a walking encyclopedia of mostly useless sports knowledge. And his favorite of all? You guessed it, men’s college b-ball. The result? Every year both my brackets do about the same. So my clueless picks are about as good as my informed ones.

So go ahead, be clueless. Pick based on mascots, or because Cousin Annie went to Kent State, or because you always loved the name “Drake” for a baby girl. Whatever. Somewhere along the line you’ll pick a game correctly that the office know-it-all got wrong. At that point, not only is it allowed, but I’m pretty sure federal regulations require you to rub it into his face at every opportunity. Perhaps even ordering swag from their school bookstore and displaying it prominently in his cubicle.

At the end of the road, your $1 will probably belong to somebody else…the new guy in Accounting who can’t even remember to wear matching socks, in all likelihood. Your office’s self-proclaimed sports-nut experts will mutter something about beginner’s luck, buzzer-beaters, and crooked refs. The rest of us will just enjoy having something completely random to care about for a few weeks, just to lift the monotony of office life. And for the rest of your life, during vaguely related discussions, you’ll recall completely random things like that the University of West Virginia is actually in Morgantown instead of Charleston, that their mascot is the Mountaineers, and their colors are blue and gold. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll be a rabid fan of a random school for three weeks, just to rub it in to that smart-assed bastard’s face.


3 Responses

  1. Note: I humbly bow before Allison’s little red blobby dude in honor of their first-round upset. Good job!

  2. For another update, the bracket I picked all by myself is officially in the crapper. Damn you, Duke and Georgetown.

    So by all means, take advice from me!

  3. […] you missed it a few years back, here’s my NCAA Tourny Pools for Dummies (by a dummy) […]

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