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Tips for picking a winning bracket

By: NBCSports.com
By: NBCSports.com

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1. The team with the most individual talent does not always win the national championship. In fact, in recent NCAA Tournament history, it only seems to happen about half the time. North Carolina won in '05 with Sean May, Ray Felton, and Rashad McCants. UConn won in '04, led by Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon, but Syracuse upset Kansas to win in '03. Two heavyweights, Maryland and Duke, made the title game in 2002, but it was the more team-oriented Terps who emerged victorious. Duke won in '01 behind NBA-level stars Shane Battier, Jayson Williams, and Mike Dunleavy, but Michigan State won behind its teamwork in 2000, while more talented Duke and Arizona made early exits. But given UConn's loss to George Mason last year, the pattern would suggest that talent-laden Florida, North Carolina, Kansas, or Ohio State will be this year's national champion.

2. Don't pick all four No. 1 seeds to reach the Final Four. (This one's for March Madness rookies.) It's never happened, and it won't happen this year either, with parity at an all-time high.

3. Historically, 7-10 affairs have been almost as evenly matched as 8-9 games. Don't be afraid to pick two of the No. 10 seeds to get to the second round -- or more (see item No. 4).

4. No. 10 seeds make great sleepers. Even office pool veterans might find this one surprising -- I'm not sure why it doesn't get the same amount of media hype as the ever-reliable 5-12 upset. Last year was the first time since 1996 that at least one No. 10 seed didn't reach the Sweet 16. Kent State and Gonzaga have even made the Elite Eight as a No. 10 in relatively recent memory. I'm taking Georgia Tech to re-start the trend year, but Creighton is also an excellent option.

5. It's not just mid-major Cinderellas that do well with double-digit seeds. Like their little brothers, major-conference schools among the last at-large teams selected also have an uncanny record of winning at least one game in the NCAA Tournament. Examples: Texas A&M 2006, NC State 2005, Auburn 2003, Missouri 2002, Georgetown 2001, to name a few. This year's candidates: Illinois (12), Arkansas (12), Stanford (11).

6. Free throw percentages matter. What all of your favorite buzzer-beating highlights from previous tournaments DON'T show is the number of times the losing team has missed one or more free throws prior to the victors' heroics. Villanova (1) and Butler (6) are among the best in the country (78 percent and 76 percent respectively) as a team, and three of Texas' key players (Kevin Durant, D.J. Augustin, A.J. Abrams) shoot well over 80 percent. Among the worst teams in the field: Winthrop (63 percent), Illinois (63 percent), and Memphis (61 percent).

7. Teams that get to the charity stripe can save themselves on a cold shooting night. If the shots aren't falling, who can get to the rim? Among the national leaders in free throw attempts: Memphis (hey, it's quantity over quality with the Tigers), North Carolina, Oral Roberts, and Texas.

8. Pick Duke to reach the Sweet 16 -- at least. Love 'em or hate 'em, the Blue Devils have made the third round of the Tournament nine years in a row. Coach K is a terrific in-game coach. And this year's team matches up really well with both Pittsburgh and Wright State if it can get past VCU in the first round.

9. Look for teams with clutch players. Texas A&M's Acie Law IV, Texas' Kevin Durant, UCLA's Arron Afflalo, Georgetown's Jeff Green, and Oregon's Aaron Brooks make up my "All-Clutch" Starting Five. And don't forget that mid-majors can have these guys, too -- VCU's Eric Maynor, Butler's A.J. Graves, and Wright State's DaShaun Woods are just a few mid-major stars who have been unbelievable in late-game situations this year.

10. Remember that the Midwest and South Regional Finals, as well as the Final Four, are played in massive domes. After playing in traditional college gyms all season, it's often difficult for players to adjust their depth perception when shooting in a supersized arena that seats 40,000+. Florida, which returns its entire starting lineup from last year, has a leg up on the rest of the field here. The Gators won their region at the Metrodome last year and, of course, won the national championship at the RCA Dome. Lee Humphrey, Corey Brewer, and the rest of Florida's perimeter shooters also have a ton of experience at the Georgia Dome in particular (site of this year's Final Four), having played a number of SEC Tournament games there over the course of their careers.

11. The Pac-10 is better than it's been in a decade, and it's better than fans who are just tuning in to March Madness probably realize. There's not a single Pac-10 member that I'd be completely surprised to see in the Final Four, including Stanford. Every team in the "Conference of Champions" has faced a number of different styles of play within the conference, and all of the teams selected for the Tournament have won at least one road game against a major opponent this year.

12. Don't drive yourself crazy picking the early round games -- it's far more important to get the Final Four correct. In a traditional bracket pool, you'll earn the same number of points for picking two Final Four members than for predicting all of the first-round games combined. Spend most of your time analyzing who's going to make an extended run rather than obsessing about one or two 8-9 or 5-12 matchups.

13. Look at your predicted national champion's schedule to see if it has won six-plus games in a row during the regular season. If it hasn't, there's little reason to believe that team can win six straight games with everything on the line.

14. Defense doesn't always win championships in college hoops, but it can certainly win you a couple of games. Texas A&M, Kansas, Georgetown, Michigan State, and Memphis are among the best in the country in terms of field goal percentage defense. Take MSU's and Memphis' rankings with a grain of salt, however, as their competition to date likely hasn't been as adept at scoring as their potential NCAA Tournament foes.

15. The final score of the championship game is often lower than you might expect. I'm throwing this one in because the combined final score is the traditional tie-breaking method in most office pools. Nerves often lead to poor shooting and increased turnovers, especially early in the game, so err a few points on the low side of your initial guess.

16. If all else fails, ask your spouse or significant other whom he/she would pick. (That is, unless you're in the same pool.)

Good luck, everyone, and enjoy the games!

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