The NCAA Tournament, and the first few rounds in particular, are a non stop influx of action and emotion that utterly decimate any other two-week stretch of the athletic year. And, just to clarify, this is coming from a sports fan who ranks the NFL, NBA, and MLB ahead of the college game under all other circumstances. The only downfall of the 68 team single elimination gauntlet is that half of the participating teams get axed after each round, halving the number of buzzer beaters and vicarious celebrations for (over)zealous fans like myself. Unfortunately, over the years I’ve always found myself more absorbed in the NFL and NBA seasons until the time when I would be sitting with a blank bracket in front of me, as complex and unclear as Inception.
Finally, in 2012, I said “no more” and decided to make college hoops games a regular sight on my television in order to get a better handle on the infinite subtleties of succeeding during March Madness. Only problem was, I had this epiphany right after the Super Bowl. With little more than a month to gather information, I quickly got to work, scouring the internet and TV with vigor. I wasn’t going to let another season pass me by; this was the year that I would cash in on the Tournament.
When all was said and done, I still didn’t win my Tourney pool, and the guy who did watched the same amount of regular season ball as I had in my naive past. Jokes were exchanged, bad picks were rehashed, and by the beginning of April I realized that I had next to nothing to show for my dedication. But what I did have couldn’t be overlooked; I had finished in a respectable spot in my pool, (thanks Kentucky) I had a better grasp on the flow of the match ups, and I had a lot of fun blowing off more important work in the process. Now, after allowing almost a year for my wounds to heal, the fantasies of a perfect bracket are becoming louder with each passing day. My February Fever crash course has just begun, and here are the rules that I’ll be living by for the next month.
- Quantity Over Quality (In General)
Almost every night there are going to be at least two or three tournament quality games demanding your attention in unison. Rather than devoting time to a single game, flip back and forth between multiple contests to get a broad flavor for teams that you’ll need to evaluate. My rule of thumb is that when one game goes to commercial, I flip to another, rotating evenly between every game that I want to catch on a given night. It’ s crucial to cast as wide a net as possible with so little time and so many teams that are invited to the big dance.
- Quality Where it Counts
Now I know I just got done advising against a singular focus, but an exception applies when it comes to the handful of elite teams in any given season. The number of teams that are included in the National Championship conversation varies year to year and from person to person, so at the end of the day you will have to be the one who draws the line between good and great teams. After getting a sample size from multiple teams per the first tip, I’ll evaluate the squads who wowed me on the first go-around and vow to give them a second, more complete look. Choosing the tournament champion is the bread and butter of a successful bracket; it’s virtually impossible to win your pool without doing so. If you don’t feel comfortable making your own judgement, then use the Top 25 rankings and work your way down from number one.
- Avoid Bias
Undoubtedly one of the most difficult tips to follow, I will probably still fall victim to some of my personal tendencies when it comes time to fill out my bracket. Some biases are obvious, others are much more subtle. You may be a die-hard Duke fan and consciously hate anything Tar Heels related, but first impressions — both good and bad — can lead to a personal evaluation that comes back to kill you in the long run. Even though I see the majority of games through a very tight lens, I make sure to avoid getting too high or low based on any one game. Matchups, venues, injuries and a myriad of other factors can all occur during the course of a few days and make the juggernaut of Tuesday into a laughingstock on Friday, so resist that urge to pencil anyone into (or out of) the National Championship a month out.
Whenever I’ve got a little downtime during the day, I make it a point to crack open an article from ESPN.com to see how experts’ opinions compare to my own. I don’t scour multiple websites, since ESPN churns out as much content as I can handle, but the more well-respected sites you have time to utilize, the better. Some people may not have extra time for print sources on top of everything else, but the reading a few articles does a lot to augment my perceptions and point me in the right direction for future games.
- Mock Your Bracket
No, I’m not asking you to make fun of yourself for picking Missouri to go to the Final Four last year (very proud of that one) but rather to practice with theoretical brackets being produced by experts leading up to the tournament. By this point in the year, Joe Lunardi of ESPN is putting together multiple quality brackets each week as a sneak preview for fans and an opportunity for others like myself to put their knowledge into practice. Quickly go through the first round or better yet the entire tournament and determine who you would pick in each matchup and why. If you have trouble making a determination for certain games, as I often did last year, then you have a good point of reference for teams to watch in the future.
- Talent Comes From Everywhere At Anytime
Don’t miss out on watching top 25 teams from across the country just because they play during times that aren’t convenient for your schedule. Living in the 21st century means that almost anyone can record TV at any given time, so take advantage. I’ll record important early, late, or weekend games that I can’t watch live if it involves teams that I won’t otherwise get to watch. If you miss out on studs like Gonzaga or UNLV just because you live on the east coast, then prepare to do some last-minute scrambling to try to complete your bracket.
- Know What You Value
This one is somewhat self-explanatory, but I feel obliged to mention it since my reason for going through this whole process is to enjoy myself. At the end of the day, do what you think is going to make you get the maximum amount of fun out of March Madness. If you can’t bear to pick against the hometown team, then pencil them into the big game even if they’re a 12 seed. If you’re going to be a nervous wreck picking upsets or feel like a sellout having a number 1 seed win it all, then alter to your heart’s content. Is it more important to root for your favorite teams, or make money? Know who you are as a fan, and evaluate as such. At the end of the day, the buck stops with you, and you should regret as little as possible when you look back on how things played out. Enjoy the madness of March however you see fit; for me, that catching a little February Fever.