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A few types to help fill out your bracket

By By Will Bardwell / sports writer
March 11, 2004
Is there any single document on the Internet that gets printed more than the NCAA Tournament brackets?
Think about it. As soon as the brackets become available on Sunday evening, college basketball fans everywhere will swarm to their computers to get a printout of the 64-team (or 65, depending on how you look at it) marathon for the national championship. And I usually end up printing five or six copies so I can "practice."
Getting a bracket may be quicker today than it was before the Internet, but it's no easier to fill them out. There are all those first-round upsets to worry about and plenty of questions about mid-majors you haven't seen before (unless you watch ESPN at 2 a.m.). But you've got to fill it out eventually. When you do, there are several general guidelines you can follow to increase your odds at finding those diamond upsets in the rough.
First of all, don't fill the bracket out on Sunday. I know it's fun and I know it's tempting. But if you want to stand any chance of finishing respectably in your office pool, heed the words of Cat Stevens: "Take your time, think a lot You may still be here tomorrow, but your dreams may not."
Read like crazy. Print out overviews of every team. Get your hands on a copy of the Rating Percentage Index. It'll introduce you to some teams you probably haven't followed, like 19-8 Nevada and 18-7 BYU. Find out about leading scorers for as many teams as you can, and how they get those points. If a mid-major power forward goes up against a Southeastern Conference zone defense, chances are he's not going to score the 22 points he usually gets.
Pay special attention to teams who shoot three-pointers well, and of those teams, which ones have a real sharpshooter. Utah State, which will probably be seeded somewhere from No. 7 to No. 10, is 25-2 largely because it shoots 40 percent from behind the arc.
Another thing to pay close attention to, of course, is defense. There are a million ways to gauge a team's defense, but my favorite stat is opposing team's field goal percentage. Mississippi Valley State, a solid pick to win the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament, has held opponents to just 37.8 percent from the floor the third-best defensive performance in the country. MVSU also picks off 10.2 steals per game 10th-best in Division I.
Eventually you have to stop reading, though, and start writing. Filling out your bracket may be an inexact science, but it's still a science. Don't trust your gut. Your gut is a source of burps, not basketball wisdom. Don't predict an upset just because you've "got a feeling." If you've got a feeling in your gut, Pepto-Bismol will usually take care of it.
If you miss a first-round upset, it's not the end of the world. Most of the time the underdog will be out after one more win at the most, so it's not going to kill your bracket. You're going to find yourself in a far larger bind if you pick Eastern Ohio Valley Community College to upend Duke, only to see the Blue Devils make a Final Four run. That's a dead bracket. Plus you're going to look stupid, and who wants to look stupid?
Not counting wins by a No. 9 seed over a No. 8 seed, there were six first-round wins by a lower seed in 2003. In 2002, there were seven. Eight upsets happened in the first round of the 2001 tournament.
That sounds like a lot, but remember there are 32 games in the first two days of the Big Dance. Using history as an indicator, you can predict at least 75 percent of the first-round winners just by taking the higher seed.
The toughest games to pick are the No. 8 vs. No. 9 games. Last year, three No. 9 teams won their first game. The year before, all four No. 8 seeds won. Do your best to crunch stats on these games, and pay special attention to late-season finishes. Usually a team that finished poorly will be fitted into one of those seeds and will make a quick exit. For example, Ole Miss lost six of its last nine in 2002 and barely made the Big Dance as a No. 9 seed. The Rebels were trounced by UCLA 80-58 in the first round.
Late-season finishes are also a great way to pick the other upsets that are bound to happen. When the brackets are announced Sunday, see if you can find a mid-major who won its conference tournament paired against a big-name team that faltered down the stretch and lost in the first or second round of its own conference tourney. In 2002, 12th-seed Creigton followed this formula to a double-overtime win over Florida, a No. 5 seed.
That brings up another point beware of falling 12th seeds. Since 1989, only one tournament has seen all four No. 5 seeds advance past the first round. Again, look for a hot mid-major matched up against a struggling team that probably doesn't deserve a No. 5 seed.
The most important thing is to not get upset when you watch one of your Sweet 16 picks get knocked off in the first round next week. It's bound to happen, but it happens to everyone else too. Just don't be "that guy" who picks Monmouth over Stanford and you'll salvage enough credibility to at least be invited into the pool again next year.