NEW YORK -- The delicate art of picking an effective NCAA tournament bracket revolves around picking the proper upsets, not the most upsets. Pick too many lower-seeded teams to win, and your bracket doesn't stand a chance. Too much chalk, and your bracket will eventually get broken.
The key is to lock in on high-seeded teams that have little chance to reach the second weekend and eliminate them early. That will hopefully keep your bracket from lining your parrot cage by sundown on Friday.
One macro bracket thought to keep in mind is that the conference tournaments were riddled with upsets in the one-bid leagues this year. That means NCAA tournament fixtures like Davidson, Vermont and Belmont aren't around to be potential upset menaces. And that should translate to less axis-shifting upsets from No. 13, No. 14 and No. 15 seeds this year.
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On to the picks:
The Bison have won 14 of 15 and boast the type of efficient, veteran and productive roster that has the ideal makeup to pull a Round of 64 upset. North Dakota State leads the country in field goal percentage (50.9 percent), thanks to the effective tandem of 6-foot-7 wing Taylor Braun (18.2 ppg) and skilled 6-9 center Marshall Bjorklund (13.4 ppg). The Bison have a few decent skins on their wall, with wins at Notre Dame (in which Bjorklund scored 26 points) and against fellow NCAA teams Delaware and Western Michigan.
With San Diego State a weak No. 4, expect some chaos in the West bracket. This is a low-risk upset pick and North Dakota State may be worth exploring as a Sweet 16 selection.
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No. 12 N.C. State over No. 5 Saint Louis
The Billikens won the Atlantic 10 regular season but come into the NCAAs having lost four of their last five games. Picking N.C. State is a smart move because neither of these teams is getting by Louisville in the Round of 32. The Wolfpack also have plenty of talent, led by ACC Player of the Year T.J. Warren, who entered the Big Dance averaging 24.8 ppg and then scored 25 against Xavier in a First Four win.
Saint Louis head coach Jim Crews is a much better bench coach than N.C. State's Mark Gottfried, but it's worth a gamble on the Wolfpack's Jimmys and Joes against the Billikens' Xs and Os in this one.
Dayton has just three losses since Jan. 29, and all are to Saint Joseph's. The Flyers have quietly cobbled together a strong finish after an erratic season in which they beat Saint Louis and Gonzaga and lost to Rhode Island and Illinois State. Which Dayton is going to show up? Who knows?
The Flyers are 11-deep, prefer a fast tempo and hope to wear teams down. They're balanced, which will help because Ohio State can shut down opposing guards with the defense of Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott. Expect a fun and close game with the Flyers hitting some 3-pointers and pulling the upset.
One of my favorite all-time NCAA tournament statistics involves Texas coach Rick Barnes: He's 0-5 in No. 8 vs. No. 9 games, which is an incredible stat in so many different ways. Who coaches in that many 8-vs.9 games? On the other hand, most coaches don't even get to five NCAA tournaments.
Anyway, this isn't a No. 8 vs. No. 9 game, but that nugget reveals Barnes' struggles in the NCAAs when the talent is equal.
Barnes has done a great job revitalizing the Longhorns program and saving his job. But this Texas season appears to be sputtering to an end, as the Longhorns have lost five of their final eight games. Star Jonathan Holmes has battled knee problems, point guard Isaiah Taylor has been inconsistent and Texas shoots just 32 percent from 3-point range.
Whoever wins will be chum for Michigan. So an upset pick is wise here.
George Washington coach Mike Lonergan won a Division III national title at Catholic University in 2001 and is known as a sound bench coach. Memphis coach Josh Pastner is 1-3 in NCAA tournament games and is still fighting the reputation that he is more of a talent collector than a molder.
In an even game like this, go with the better bench acumen. GW has Indiana transfer Maurice Creek and Villanova transfer Isaiah Armwood, giving them the type of high-end talent needed to advance. The Colonials might have to play without their second leading scorer, Kethan Savage, who only played briefly in the Atlantic 10 tournament after sitting out since Jan. 18 with a broken left foot. A source says Savage, who averages 12.7 points per game, is "touch and go" to play against Memphis, but GW knows how to play without him, so expect the Colonials to advance.
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