Filling out the bracket: Steps for the Big Dance

Five rules to follow when making your picks next week.

Josh Katzenstein

The term âÄúMarch MadnessâÄù is thrown around so loosely that it has almost lost its meaning. But with Selection Sunday coming up this weekend, I find it difficult to describe the NCAA Tournament with any other words. For two weeks, you argue with your friends. You cheer for teams you despise. You root for teams youâÄôve never heard of. You wake up knowing you will hear amazing commentary from Gus Johnson. You skip class (I am not condoning this). You eat, sleep and live college basketball. ItâÄôs fun, simple and excruciating madness. With that madness, of course, comes the bracket. Everybody does it. Pool entrance fees range from free to a monthâÄôs rent and include so-called experts and people whose picks are based solely on the teamsâÄô colors. Wherever you lie on the spectrum (except the steadfast red/blue/green lovers), I have some advice. LetâÄôs be clear: IâÄôm not an expert. IâÄôve seen enough, though, to hand down my five rules to live by when filling out your bracket. DonâÄôt pencil in all four No. 1 seeds Seriously. DonâÄôt be that guy. Seriously. I would like to think that this rule needs no explanation, but year after year, I find that these people exist. Winning a bracket pool shouldnâÄôt be about money. It should be about eternal bragging rights. Even if all four No. 1 seeds make it to the Final Four, you canâÄôt brag. IâÄôve heard all the reasoning: âÄúWell the guy on ESPN said it, so he has to be right, right?âÄù To put it bluntly, Jay Bilas , Andy Katz , Joe Lunardi and the gang are paid to pick the favorites. If one of them picks a team higher than a No. 5 seed to win it all and they are wrong, there goes that Christmas bonus. This might be a little hyperbolized, but if Bilas said 11th-seeded George Mason would make the 2006 Final Four team, what would have happened if the Patriots lost in the first round? He would have been ridiculed until he was relegated to the Big Ten Network. These guys have to make the safe picks. You donâÄôt. ItâÄôs like saying the Yankees will win the World Series every year. Nobody wants to see that, and you will gain little praise for being the guy who always picks the favorite. Pick a team, and stick with it For me, itâÄôs been Villanova in years past. I always see something in the Wildcats that makes me think, âÄúThis team is underrated and will shock everyone but me when it makes a deep run.âÄù Again, this cannot be a No. 1 seed, but this year the field is wide open for everyone to grab an I-told-you-so squad. Embracing this rule is how you earn your bragging rights. This is the team you discover in November, decide itâÄôs really good, tell your friends and rub it in their face in April. I have already had both of my hopeful teams fall out of that category this season, unfortunately. I think I decided last April that Purdue would be in the 2010 Final Four. Even if the Boilermakers had Robbie Hummel , they couldnâÄôt have been the I-told-you-so team, because they would have earned a No. 1 seed. But would I have taken credit for making this call a year in advance? You better believe it. In January, I decided the Ohio State Evan Turners fit the bill. As a No. 4 or No. 5 seed, they were a lock for me. Then they won too many games for their own good. ItâÄôs hard to reach the Final Four This rule has two parts. First, it means you donâÄôt go with your heart. IâÄôm talking to you, Gophers fans. Sorry to say, but a team has to prove it can win consecutive games over tournament-quality opponents in the regular season before it can accomplish the feat in the Big Dance. This is why Big East and ACC teams often shine, and why comparing wins over top-50 opponents actually has merit. The second part of this rule is simple. Only four teams can make the Final Four. The chances of making it to consecutive Final Fours are minute. Remember when everyone predicted No. 2 Memphis would play No. 3 Missouri in the Sweet 16 last year? Memphis had better players. Memphis made the championship game the season before. Missouri won. This is why Connecticut, Villanova and Michigan State are all unlikely to return to the Final Four and explains why Billy Donovan will never be fired from Florida after winning two straight national titles in 2006 and 2007. DonâÄôt judge a team by its best player To anyone who is watching the NBA this season, let me remind you that Kevin DurantâÄôs Texas team was ousted in the second round of the 2007 tourney. Meanwhile, Greg Oden marched on to the championship game that season. Is Oden better than Durant? No. Was Ohio State better than Texas? Undoubtedly. Anomalies exist that might indicate a great player can carry a mediocre team to the Final Four, the best example being Dwyane Wade and Marquette in 2003. But such anomalies are few and far between. If Ohio State wins it all, it will be because Turner has a suitable supporting cast. This rule explains why a guy like Tyler Hansbrough could win a title, but Durant could not. ItâÄôs about the team. Kansas will and should enter the tournament as the favorite, not because they have a great player, but because they have a plethora of very good players. No team with a player in the top five in scoring has advanced to the Final Four since at least 2002. What will make this change? Nothing. Sorry to people who think James Anderson can carry Oklahoma State to a title. Balance your upsets The final rule goes back to bragging rights. Everybody knows that a No. 12 will upset a No. 5 in at least one of the four regions. If you pick all four No. 12 seeds, however, you canâÄôt brag about picking an upset correctly. I picked 14th-seeded Northwestern State to beat No. 3 Iowa in 2006. It had nothing to do with Minnesota ties. I didnâÄôt think the Hawkeyes could make it far, and I wanted to see a 14-seed take an upset. I gloated plenty, because I took a shot and was right. This rule means you should take estimated risks and root for the underdog, something people without loyalties to either team should do automatically. ItâÄôs all about balance and knowing what an upset is. A No. 9 beating a No. 8 is not an upset. But if you pick that 9-seed to beat a No. 1 seed in the next round, you can brag to all your friends. And whatâÄôs more fun than that?