What's the right way to win bracket pools? Bold Moves. Here's a novel idea: Pick against Duke.
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We all want to win our March Madness bracket pools by any means necessary, but deep down, we all want to win our bracket pools The Right Way. Namely, we want to nail the upset no one saw coming, predict the Final Four run that comes out of nowhere and defer to chalk picks only as a last resort. We want to make Bold Moves.
But where to begin? As SI's chief contrarian predictor (I have the regret-free last-place finish in this year's college football expert picks standings to prove it), allow me to equip you with four of my favorite Bold Moves. Deploying any one of these—but maybe not all of them at once—will give you the clear conscience of knowing you really went for the throne this year.
Don't pick Duke—to reach the Elite Eight
I hate to break this to you, but you will not be the only person in your pool predicting success for Zion Williamson and his merry band of fellow future first-round picks. In years like this when the national title favorite is so clearly defined—as of Tuesday morning Duke was the champion in 41% of completed ESPN Tournament Challenge brackets and in 49.9% of Yahoo! brackets—only the people who call the wildest upsets and make the fewest mistakes in the early rounds in addition to correctly picking Duke might have a shot at winning a standard pool.
Be honest with yourself: You are not going to be one of those people. You're human. But if everyone is on the Blue Devils' bandwagon, you have a chance to atone for several early misfires elsewhere with the points swing that would follow if Duke doesn't make the Final Four and your pick does. It's not even that hard to picture: The Blue Devils could face a Virginia Tech team it lost to in February (albeit while both teams were missing one of their best players) in the Sweet Sixteen. In any other year, picking Michigan State to make the Final Four would be seen as conservative. Now you can feel like a rebel for riding with Tom Izzo.
Invoke George Costanza to pick the No. 8 vs. No. 9 matchups
Full credit for this piece of advice (and for a lifetime of Seinfeld references) goes to my dad, who annually agonizes over these four games between, in theory, the most evenly matched first-round opponents in the field. Since the games are toss-ups on paper, getting them all right could set your bracket apart from the pretenders. On the other hand, so little separates these teams that the closer you look, the less likely you are to get the full picture.
My bold approach: Pick the opposite of the team I believe in my heart is going to win the 8 vs. 9 games. ("If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite must be right.") Thoroughly researching these games the same way you do for the other 28 first-round matchups is the tuna-on-toast of bracket construction.
Take one first-weekend tournament site and turn it upside-down
Chaos can be contagious in March, and nearly every bracket features a sub-regional in which both top seeds are upset on the same day, leading to a battle of double-digit seeds for a Sweet 16 spot. If you nail that pair of upsets, you'll be off and running heading into the second weekend—especially if your pool uses a seed bonus to reward upset picks. The trick, of course, is correctly guessing which foursome will go haywire. My cursed site of choice this year: San Jose, where No. 12 Oregon and No. 13 UC Irvine hold some significant geographic and schematic advantages on No. 5 Wisconsin and No. 4 Kansas State.
Pick a No. 5 seed to win it all, and make it Auburn
A 5th-seeded team has never won a national title in the field-of-64/68 era (since 1985), most recently coming closest in 2010 when Michigan State made the Final Four and Butler came a half-court heave from winning it all. Meanwhile, seeds No. 1–4 and 6–8 have all cut down the nets. That seems ... odd, doesn't it? If you want to go off the grid for a national champion pick that will all but ensure you bracket pool glory if it hits, there are worse places to look than the back end of the nation's top 20 teams. That's where the Tigers sit after shooting the lights out in the SEC tournament. Fifth-seeded teams went a surprising 4–0 in last year's first round; maybe that was just the beginning. — By Eric Single
• Buzzer beaters may seem like one-off miracles, but they never just *happen.* (By Greg Bishop)
• March Madness sleeper watch: Who are the under-the-radar teams most likely to crash the Final Four? (By Michael Shapiro)
• Gambling: Which NCAA tournament teams are the best value futures bets? (By Max Meyer)
• Madness at midnight: Who are the most likely Cinderella teams to bust your bracket? (By Tristan Jung)
• If history repeats itself... momentum, balance and ball security could help predict how far teams go in March. (By Molly Geary)
• Tuesday's newsletter: Introducing the Trustworthy 10, the teams that will assuredly walk away victorious in the first round. (By Dan Greene)
Best Thing We Saw
This one's for all my Doctor Thunder and Mountain Lightning fans out there. Screenshot via Greensboro News & Record writer Brant Wilkerson-New.
Pick 'Em: First Four and South Region
SI's Eric Single makes his picks for the second set of First Four games and the opening slate in the South Region.
No. 16 North Carolina Central over No. 16 North Dakota State: NC Central coach LeVelle Moton may not want any part of Zion Williamson and Duke, but he's getting the whole thing after the Eagles learn from the mistakes of their past two First Four losses and shut down the Bison.
No. 11 St. John's over No. 11 Arizona State: Red Storm guard Shamorie Ponds should be the best player in Dayton this week.
No. 1 Virginia over No. 16 Gardner-Webb: The Runnin' Bulldogs recorded wins over two ACC teams (Wake Forest and Georgia Tech) this season, and we should celebrate that before the Cavaliers tear them limb from limb.
No. 9 Oklahoma over No. 8 Ole Miss: Remember what I said above about not trusting your gut in 8/9 matchups? I'll thank myself later.
No. 12 Oregon over No. 5 Wisconsin: The Badgers just aren't explosive enough on offense to run and hide from anyone, and it feels like the Ducks got new life from their Pac-12 tournament run.
No. 13 UC-Irvine over No. 4 Kansas State: The Anteaters allow the lowest two-point field-goal percentage in the country on defense, and the Wildcats don't love shooting threes. Hmm...
No. 6 Villanova over No. 11 Saint Mary's: Every time I start to talk myself into the Gaels, I realize that I can't imagine Wildcats senior Phil Booth ending his roller-coaster college career with a first-round exit in Hartford.
No. 3 Purdue over No. 14 Old Dominion: Are we going to see Very Good Carsen Edwards or Very Bad Carsen Edwards in the Big Dance?
No. 7 Cincinnati over No. 10 Iowa: The Hawkeyes turned in some truly hideous performances against the best defenses in the Big Ten. Cincy makes you arm-wrestle for every bucket.
No. 2 Tennessee over No. 15 Colgate: It's never a good idea to sleep on the Patriot League, but the memory of losing to Loyola-Chicago is still too fresh for the Vols to get caught looking past anyone.
Because I treasure the CBS broadcast crews, many of which have become March Madness mainstays, I have been visited by three premonitions about their first-round games this week. Before Thursday's coverage is over...
1. Ian Eagle will call a buzzer beater.
2. Kevin Harlan will have the call for the best dunk of the day.
3. Bill Raftery will make a joke about another member of his booth (probably Jim Nantz) avoiding picking up a dinner or bar tab.
At the Buzzer
Here’s a look at our March Madness preview from 20 years ago. If this doesn’t scream Nineties, nothing does. Duke could only evade the SI Cover Jinx ™ for so long, falling to UConn in the finals of the 1999 tournament. Because you were wondering, Zion Williamson wasn’t even born yet.