CINCINNATI - Allow me to preface this by saying: I am not a college hoops expert. I created a March Madness bracket last year and had my Ohio University Bobcats winning it all. I was doing well until that ill-fated Sweet 16 game against USC. My previous year's bracket? Bobcats, all the way! You get the picture.
But I do know someone who is somewhat of an expert: our own Larry Smith. Larry has a system that involves a lot of time, research, careful observation, and turning his wife into a "sports widow" for a few weeks each year.
With Selection Sunday coming on March 17, he shared his wisdom for the novices of the March Madness world.
1. I only follow one or two teams—how can I possibly make a smart bracket?
It can seem intimidating to look at a bracket with 68 teams and try to pick a winner. There will be an overload of articles online that will break down the field, give you information on the teams, and even predict winners. If you have more time to devote to this and want to go a little deeper, I can guarantee you that all of the ESPN networks will spend dozens of hours on this beginning Sunday night.
2. Who determines whether or not a team is "favored" to win, and what does that actually mean?
Right up the road in Indianapolis, in a tightly secured hotel ballroom, there is a committee pouring over volumes of data to fashion the 68-team field. Thirty-one teams will receive "automatic" bids as winners of their respective conference tournaments. Regular season champ Harvard will represent the Ivy League, which does not stage a tournament. The other 37 teams, determined by the committee, will receive "at-large" invitations to play in the tournament. Once the teams are set, the committee will then "seed" them into four regions, with the four favorites to reach the Final Four in Atlanta receiving a number one seed in each region.
3. So, I know there's a lot of research involved—but isn't there a benefit to just going with my gut (or superstitions) when making my bracket selections?
In the end, it is a gut feeling whether team A will beat team B. But use common sense and you'll put together a competitive bracket. Beware of long shots: no double-digit seed has even won the NCAA Championship.
4. How can I possibly research all the teams? Are there any online resources that can make it a little bit easier?
You can research all the teams, but it can be very time-consuming and in the end, may not get you very far. My work starts in mid-January and I'll put in 15 to 20 hours over this weekend, but I'm exceptionally crazy. Collegerpi.com has a lot of background information on teams and their NCAA tournament histories. ESPN.com, CBSSports.com, SI.com, and SportingNews.com are a few of the sites that will have information on each team's current season. The CBS Sports site has great info in their Bracketology section on how each team has fared against the best teams in the nation.
5. Be honest: is it really more luck than anything else?
There is luck involved, and that's why anyone can win an office pool. North Carolina won the 2005 NCAA title, but they faced the easiest path to the title game in tournament history. The Tar Heels never faced a top four seed until the championship game. There's no way to predict something like that happening. This is why the "smartest" or biggest sports fan in your office doesn't win the bracket pool every year. A former boss made fun of me for refusing to put number one overall Pitt in my Final Four. When Pitt was upset in the second round, he didn't have much to say. Your picks are your picks and you don't have to explain them. If you happen to like a certain team's uniform, go for it. You just never know what might happen.
6. You said something about a "white jersey" theory once you get down to the Sweet Sixteen—what does that mean?
It's hard to explain, but suffice to say if a double-digit seed upsets its way to the Sweet 16 or the second week of the tournament, their run usually stops there. The favored teams – the teams wearing white in the NCAA tournament – find a way to get wins and advance once the field narrows and as the Final Four gets closer.
7. Is there a website or online tool that can just make a solid bracket for me? Do I really have to do all this work on my own?
Not that I have seen, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Most office pools now are run through a website, which makes it easier to fill out your bracket or even make changes before the games begin. Again, I find the CBS Sports site to have really good information and it's easier to navigate than the ESPN site.
8. Are there any factors that determine if a team could potentially upset a higher-seeded team, or is it totally random?
It's hard to say without seeing the matchups, which won't be announced until late Sunday afternoon. Some teams just match up better with certain styles. More than ever before, we have a number of smaller schools that have tournament experience and play really good schedules and are dangerous come tournament time. Teams like Gonzaga, New Mexico, Belmont, and the Atlantic 10 teams that Xavier battled this season--Butler, VCU, St. Louis, and Temple--can play with and beat anybody on any given night. Keep in mind that no number one seed has ever lost to a number 16 seed, and last year's upset by number 15 Norfolk State over number two seed Missouri was extremely rare.
9. Why basketball? Why don't fans go as crazy for creating college football or baseball brackets?
It's the original reality show. It's the ultimate in pure drama, because anything can happen and there's no tomorrow. Because of office pools, everyone is paying attention and has some interest--if not a small stake--in the outcome. At the 2006 Final Four, one team's souvenirs sold out hours before the games: George Mason, an 11-seeded commuter school from suburban D.C. that knocked Goliath number one UConn in the regional final to reach the Final Four. The Patriots became instant legends and opened the door for schools like Butler and VCU to reach the Final Four and even the championship game in recent years. That's the reason we watch--even if our favorite team isn't playing.
All of this despite a society that is football crazy. College basketball's NCAA tournament is inclusive and, in my opinion, it will be the best event in sports until college football comes up with a similar format.
Look for more March Madness brackets from the 9 On Your Side team! And, enter our "Pick your college bracket" contest to win cool prizes. Want to follow Larry Smith's March Madness? Find him on Twitter @LarrySmithWCPO. If you have bracket buildings tips for Jenny Bak, connect with her on Twitter @jennyfromthebak.