Let the ‘Madness’ begin: How to fill out a better bracket

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American business magnate Warren Buffett announced in January that he is offering $1 billion — that’s billion, with a ‘b’ — to anyone who fills out a perfect NCAA basketball tournament bracket. According to Quicken Loans, the company partnering with Buffet on his offer, Buffett would pay a potential winner 40 lump sums of $25 million.

Wichita State players after their victory in the championship of the Missouri Valley Conference men's tournament in St. Louis. A Cinderella story last year, the Shockers will enter this year's tournament as a No. 1 seed. (AP Photo/Bill Boyce)
Wichita State players after their victory in the championship of the Missouri Valley Conference men’s tournament in St. Louis. A Cinderella story last year, the Shockers will enter this year’s tournament as a No. 1 seed. (AP Photo/Bill Boyce)

Although Buffett certainly has the means to pay up, chances are that he won’t have to. Based on mathematics, businessinsider.com figures the odds of filling out a perfect bracket are one in 9.2 quintillion. But for someone who knows anything about college basketball, most games are not purely 50–50 guesses. With likely wins such as a No. 1 seed beating a No. 16 seed and a No. 2 seed beating a No. 15 seed, the odds become relatively better — say, one in 128 billion. One might be better off buying a lottery ticket, but the thrill of the tournament and the promise of a Cinderella story keeps fans coming back every year.

As fans across the country eagerly await Selection Sunday on March 16, here are a few things to know about filling out a better NCAA bracket.

Understand the numbers game

The tournament selection process can be confusing even for seasoned basketball fans. Here are the basics: the tournament consists of a 64-team field, in addition to four play-in games that take place right before the official tournament starts. These four games, played on March 18–19 this year, are dubbed the “First Four” by the NCAA.

Teams who win their conference championship (32 in total) receive an automatic bid to the tournament.

The other 32 teams are determined by the NCAA’s selection committee, made up of athletic directors and conference commissioners throughout Division I basketball. Men’s and women’s basketball have different selection committees for their respective tournaments.

These selection committees award the remaining spots to teams by giving them an at-large bid to the tournament. Usually, teams ranked in top-25 polls receive a bid even if they do not win their conference tournament. The selection committee then determines the seeding of each team, working to create equally strong regions that result in a competitive tournament.

Before conference tournaments begin, the tentative No. 1 seeds, according to ESPN, are Arizona, Florida, Kansas and Wichita State.

Root (wisely) for the underdog

Everybody likes a good old-fashioned upset, but it would be wisest not to go all out and predict the No. 1 seed falling in the first round. In the history of the current format, a 16-seed team has never beaten a 1-seed in the NCAA tournament.

However, the most recent David and Goliath story was that of a No. 15 seed beating a No. 2 seed: Florida Gulf Coast University in last year’s tournament. This upset rarely happens (seven times in history, to be exact), but FGCU defied the odds in the second round as well, becoming the first No. 15 seed ever to make it to the fabled Sweet Sixteen in 2013. Their story, from holding open tryouts at the beginning of the season and welcoming walk-ons, to coming out of nowhere to take March Madness by storm, had much of the country rooting for the underdogs.

When it comes to favorable upsets, odds of a No. 12 seed beating a No. 5 seed are a good bet. Two of the four No. 12 seeds pulled off upsets in 2012 and three out of the four pulled off upsets in last year’s tournament. If this trend continues in the 2014 tournament, it is safe to say that the No. 12 seed is the way to go when looking for a solid underdog. The No. 10 seed vs. No. 7 seed games are also a strong competitor for pulling off unsuspecting upsets.

Go with your gut

If instincts say pick a team for a crazy reason, go for it. Here are some strange traditions, that may or may not work:

Fashionistas pick winning teams according to the teams’ uniforms. Whoever looks the best, wins — in style, if not the actual game.

Loyal fans often pick their favorite team and have them winning it all, even if their team hasn’t had a great season.

Take a unique approach: for every game, choose the winner based on which team’s mascot would win in a fight.

When in doubt, pick the blue team. The four winningest basketball programs in NCAA history are blue — Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke and Kansas. In the past 10 years, every NCAA champion team except the 2013 champion, Louisville, have blue as their primary school color.

When it comes down to it, no one can predict the twists and turns that March Madness will come up with this year. Warren Buffett will get to keep his billion dollars, and life will go on. However, bragging rights from winning your family or office pool will last forever.

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