Twenty years worth of Tournament pool advice from a College Hoops junkie (or stuff I learned the hard way)

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I’m no genius at this.

Well, I am, but lemme clarify. For almost thirty years now, I’ve followed College basketball about as closely as humanly possible. Anyone who has ever witnessed my Rainman-like ability to rattle off the Alma Maters of any and all NBA players or name the Starting Fives of all the prior NCAA Champions (from 1980 to now. I mean, I am human) can tell you this. Up until very recently, I loved College hoops above all.

That said, my NCAA Tournament Pool history is a checkered one, part cautionary tale, part story of unfulfilled potential. Yeah, I’ve won some money in the past, but for someone of my knowledge, the overall performance has been spotty. See, for all these years I made it a habit of performing an intense bracket-filling ritual on an annual basis. I’d go into full Bomb shelter mode with about four different local and national newspapers, the Sports Illustrated Tournament issue and a recorded copy of every tournament-related TV on the airwaves and still, I ended up fairing no better than someone who couldn’t tell you the difference between a three point shot and a tetanus shot or whatever. I am the living embodiment of the phrase “paralysis by analysis”, and it ain’t pretty.

You see though, that’s the beauty of the tournament pools. You don’t really have to have any fucking clue what you are doing to win. In theory, those with knowledge would have the edge, but in practice, it takes more luck than anything. I’ve seen plenty of people win thousands of dollars by picking the the school they went to, or choosing the winner by who had the cooler mascot. You name the wacky selection method and I guarantee you it’s won somebody a bunch at some point.

This year I’ll be letting my dog Bootzilla make my picks. She couldn’t do much worse than I have in recent years.

Still, all of that doesn’t mean there isn’t any benefit to having a little wisdom and experience on your side with this, and that’s what I’m offering here. I’ve gained my knowledge the hard way, and I’ll pass it on in the “do as I say, not as I’ve done” vein.

Don’t fill out too many brackets

This is a yearly operation for me, sadly. Every time out I’ve got access to at least three money pools, and I’ve never been able to say no. Once you get into picking favorites in one and underdogs in another and genuinely silly shit in the third you’re pretty much fucked in terms of logic and continuity. It’s like being immersed in that horrible confusion that comes from rooting for your fantasy team’s running back to rack it up against your favorite team, but not so much that your team loses, only ten times more confusing.

Now, I’m sticking to one set of picks, and another for the ESPN contest that will consist of the wackiest shit I can muster. That’s what it’s probably gonna take to win a contest with millions of entrants, I reckon.

This is a coaches game

2003994375Much like with College Football, NCAA hoops is all about the coaches, the style they employ and their ability to recruit guys that fit what they do. Look back through the list of teams that have won it all and it reads as something resembling a coaching Hall of Fame, especially in the last decade. Krzyzewski. Knight. Calipari. Pitino. Self. Williams. Boeheim. Donovan. Absolutely no scrubs on that list. Unlike in the pro game, there’s no chance of a coach being hamstrung by a GM who can’t evaluate talent or a cheap owner who won’t spend for players. Here, the great coaches get the great players, and are either smart enough to coach them to victory, or wise enough to get out of their way and let them do what they do. Go back through the list of tournament champions dating back at least thirty years and every one of them had a great coach, with the only exceptions being guys that inherited great teams from genius coaches and didn’t mess them up. See: Steve Fisher’s 1989 Michigan team, the 1998 Kentucky Wildacts.

Seriously, this is a big one. When picking your champion you absolutely have to ask yourself, “is this coach good enough to win the tournament?” In most cases, the answer is gonna be no.

Picking with your heart is a bad idea

You have that Spock gene if you want to make any money at this, or if you don’t want your bracket to burst into flames on the first weekend. Not a problem for your average college basketball neophyte, but a big fucking problem for someone like me whose spent the last 30 years forming all manner of of loud opinions and biases and shit. You know how many times I picked Duke to lose because they are fuckfaces, only to have it come back to haunt me? Alot of times, brother. Or how many years I let my utter hatred of the Big Ten’s ugly, caucasian-infested “football masquerading as basketball” style of play influence my picks, even though the Big Ten has a well-worn history of success in the tournament? It hurts to relive it, let me tell you.

Point is, put your feelings in your pocket and pick the winner of every game, emotion-free. If you can, anyway. Still working that one out myself.

Stay away from the Johnny-Come-latelies

Send this picture to any Iowa State alum and see what happens.

Every year, there’s some suddenly great squad that has no players with tournament experience and has gone from being lousy the previous year to being a super high seed this one. The beauty of the tournament is that it only takes one bad game and yer done. Often times, just a bad first half spells curtains for these kinds of teams, ill-equipped to handle this kind of pressure and unfamiliar with the do-or-die nature of it. For teams that are used to playing home games in front of packed houses and rabid crowds, the sleepy environs of those early first round games, where the arena is half full, can be jarring. If you are thinking about taking one of these out-of-nowhere teams, Google the 2001 Iowa State, 1997 Mississippi and ANY Vanderbilt team that ever made the tournament and have a look at how it turned out for them.

Here’s a hint.

Heed the old Jim Valvano “beware of the directional schools” rule

That shit is real. If you are all prepared to pick some heavily favored team and you notice their opponent is Northern-something or Western-Whatever, you might wanna rethink it. If you go through the upset annals, you’ll find a whole pile of these, including a few that knocked off teams that were consensus favorites to win the whole thing, like Kansas was a few years ago before they ran into Northern Iowa and some dude named Ali Farokhmanesh.

This years’ prime suspects: Middle Tennessee State, South Dakota State and the scariest of all schools names, a University simple named SOUTHERN.

 And while you’re at it, be on the look out for State schools that aren’t named after a state, like Norfolk (who beat 2 seed Missouri just last year) or the always dangerous Wichita State, whose nickname is actually THE SHOCKERS. Oh, and this years field features a school that is both directional AND a fictional state, the dreaded Northwestern State Demons. If I was Florida, I’d be shitting myself right this minute.

And most importantly…Don’t let anyone “smarter” than you change your mind about anything

it’s your fucking bracket, after all. So what if you wanna pick Western Kentucky to win, even though no 16 seed in the history of the tournament has ever won against a 1 seed? Who gives a fuck if you think it’s a groovy idea to pick nothing but California schools or teams with Animal mascots? Sometimes, listening to people who ‘know what they are talking about’ can fuck up your whole program. Point is, if you aren’t a basketball expert, don’t try to be. let your ignorance and naivete work for you.

And don’t forget to break me off a piece of your loot when you correctly pick  Southeastern Slippery Moutain A & M to win the whole thing.

-JH

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One thought on “Twenty years worth of Tournament pool advice from a College Hoops junkie (or stuff I learned the hard way)

  1. Good advice all around. I always pick at least one 12/5 upset. I didn’t do a bracket this year for the sake of my sanity.

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