The Casual Fan's Guide To March Madness

Basketball is my favorite sport to play, and my second favorite to watch. Yet every year I’m somehow clueless when March Madness, arguably the best sporting event of the year, rolls around.

“Clueless” may be a bit strong, but I do think it’s how many sports fans can feel during Madness. Of course I know the huge stars. I know what teams are the big dogs on campus, and I watch most of the marquee matchups. Mix in some random, flipping-through-the-channels on a Saturday games too. Still, the sheer amount of teams/games makes it difficult for the casual fan to be an expert when filling out a bracket.

Despite that, us casual fans would never miss out on the fun of filling out a bracket with our friends. For my fellow fans with B- or C+ knowledge of college hoops, I’ve complied a few general rules to help you emerge victorious from your pool this March.

Don’t Be Afraid To Be Chalky

We all have a fear of being “that guy” who was too generic with their picks. You know the feeling… you finish your bracket, realize how many high seeds are in your Elite Eight, and then throw your gut feelings in the trash. Then you decide to pop a few schools you’ve never watched play in there instead. It’s okay; we’ve all done it.

Don’t give in to the desire to be edgy this year. Trust your instincts and be chalky if you want to.

Trusting Coach K in March isn't exactly risky. (Ellen Ozier/Associated Press)

The juggernauts are at the top of the totem pole for a reason. Duke has six wins against ranked opponents. They have Marvin Bagley III, who is the simultaneous ACC Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year. They have Coach K, for the love of God! Picking them to win it all isn’t “chalky.” It’s logical, and it has a great chance of happening.

Michigan State didn’t end up ranked #2 in the nation by way of luck. Two of their four losses came to #1 Duke and #15 Michigan. They took down three top-10 teams. Not to mention the Spartans' X-factor in Cassius Winston, who is third in the nation in three-point percentage at 52.6%. Winston creates his own points as a deadly sniper from deep and also facilitates the MSU offense with grace. He is ninth in the nation with 6.8 assists per game. What’s even more impressive? Of the top ten in APG, Winston’s 9.8 assists per 40 minutes are second only to Trae Young. He’s poised for a giant March, and so are the Spartans. Don’t get unnecessarily creative… put this team in your Finals.

Sure, there’s a chance an 8th seed makes it to the big game. There’s a better chance a powerhouse will be there.

Pick Underdogs Who Have Game-Changing Talents

Naturally you’ll need to mix in some upsets for your bracket. Picking trustworthy ones is easier said than done. It’s tricky predicting where the underdogs that’ll actually have legs are going to come from. NCAA basketball stats can be misleading. A team ranked #14 could have been #23 a few weeks ago. A 13th seed sitting at 28-4 looks appealing on the surface, until you realize they barely played any truly talented competition.

This is where you look for players with intangible skills that are not dependent on who is across the court from them. If a player is an assassin with a filthy jumper, that skill can translate to any game. At the end of the day, a pure shooter’s focus lies with the net, not the guy guarding him. Get him the rock and he’ll launch it home.

Jaylen Adams and St. Bonas could make serious noise. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

So, when you’re choosing your lower seeds, look for the natural scorers who will find a way to eat. St.Bonaventure's Jaylen Adams is a prime example. Not only is Adams 14th in the nation in three point percentage (47.7%), he is also 40th in points per game. He gets to the line too, making 85.4% of those charity shots.

According to Joe Lunardi's March 3rd bracket, Adams’ projected 11th seed squad would take on TCU. The Horned Frogs are only 9-10 since their hot 12-0 start. A scoring machine versus a middling, struggling team… there’s one of your upsets. Now look for a handful of other low-seeded schools with lesser-known studs.

Pick One Or Two Cinderellas, No More

There is a drastic difference between an “upset pick” and a “Cinderella.” An upset pick is a 12th seed that beats a 5th seed, then gets bounced in the next round. They’re a vanilla squad who took down slightly more vanilla one. On the other hand, a Cinderella is a team you’re riding with for the long haul. You need to be confident they will bust thousands of brackets. They’re the faceless, pesky 14th seed that will somehow end up in the Elite Eight, or maybe even the Final Four.

There is usually only one or two Cinderella teams in a given March Madness (Florida Gulf Coast, George Mason, etc.). In the same vein as being afraid to be chalky, don’t go the other direction and try to overcompensate by putting three double-digit seeds in your Final Four. The odds of that happening are slim to none, and you’ll almost certainly be dead in the water by the end of Day One.

Middle Tennessee has improved like a fine wine this season. (Associated Press)

Arizona State and Tra Holder were early darlings this season, and Holder is just flat-out talented. Middle Tennessee has clawed their way to #24. They’re only projected as to be an 11th seed (per Lunardi), but they were on an 11-game winning streak before Marshall took them down 76-67 on Saturday. Hitch your wagon to one or two frisky teams like this. Teams that have shown bright flashes at some point, even if those flashes were a few months ago. There’s a chance they could recapture that lighting and harness it throughout March.

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