Nothing in the sports world brings people together quite like March Madness, particularly as it pertains to the filling out of brackets and the opening two days of the tournament. People who ignore college basketball 11 months out of the year fill out brackets for office pools that technically bend the laws of the land, and non-fans also fill out online brackets in attempts to maybe win some money or, if nothing else, shame friends who believe that they are experts and knowledgeable college basketball fans. It also doesn’t hurt that the tournament begins on back-to-back workdays when people are looking for any excuse to leave cubicles, desks and offices.

Everybody has his or her own method for filling out a March Madness bracket. Some may focus on one specific team and then build the rest of the bracket around that university. Others may choose to simply fill out a bracket without much reason or thought, in part because they couldn’t tell you where schools such as Gonzaga, Valparaiso, Hampton and George Mason are located. There is, of course, no one ideal way to fill out a bracket. If there was, some mathematician out there would have produced a proven way to fill out a perfect bracket year after year after year.

This does not, however, mean that you should just fill out your bracket blind or without any information. Luck is obviously needed if you are going to have the last bracket standing come the final Monday of the tournament, but there are numerous steps that you can take to give yourself as good a chance as possible to be in it to win it when the Final Four rolls around. Using even some of the following tips could make the difference between you having a reason to watch the Sweet 16 and your bracket being busted by the time the Round of 32 comes to an end.

12. Don’t Go Chalk 

John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Your first inclination, upon looking at your March Madness bracket, could be to write all No. 1 seeds into the Elite Eight or maybe even into the Final Four just to play it safe. Not only is this a boring way to fill out your bracket, it almost guarantees that you are going to experience a busted bracket at some point before the Sweet 16. All four No. 1 seeds reached the Final Four back in 2008. It never happened before, and it has not, as of February 2016, happened again. The first step toward building your March Madness bracket is to realize at least one No. 1 seed will probably fall before the Elite Eight.

11. Ignore the 16s 

Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

There will, eventually, come a time when the stars align, everything that must occur for such a miracle to happen takes place, and a No. 16 finally defeats a No. 1 on the first Thursday or first Friday of March Madness. Remember, though, that there is a good reason such an upset has never occurred heading into the 2016 edition of the NCAA Tournament. The gap that separates a No. 16 from a No. 1 is wide, so much so that these games are often over before halftime. Whoever correctly predicts this when the event occurs will be worthy of all of the praise he or she deserves. Taking this leap is, however, a risk that isn’t worth it.

10. Ignore the 15s 

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

“But, don’t you remember when No. 15 Hampton notched that huge win, and when No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast became the most popular team in the country?” Yes, we do. We also know March Madness history. There is, realistically, a better chance that the No. 2 seed that you would predict to fall to the No. 15 will make a run all the way to the Final Four than of that No. 15 winning a single game in the NCAA Tournament. Unless a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament loses a significant player to injury or suffer some other calamity, the safest bet is to assume all No. 15 teams will be one-and-done.

9. Follow the First Four 

Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The “First Four” refers to the actual opening round of the NCAA Tournament that takes place on the Tuesday and Wednesday before the traditional start to March Madness. Some winners of those games will earn No. 16 seeds and thus likely be doomed to lose once they enter the bracket. A team that earns a No. 11 or No. 12 seed, however, could be dangerous, especially if that team is impressive in its opening game. Momentum, as will be described later in this piece, means a lot when filling out a bracket, and a team that wins a “First Four” game in a NCAA Tournament is essentially playing with house money and with nothing to lose.

8. Use Your Head, Not Your Heart 

Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

This one may seem like an obvious tip for building your March Madness bracket, but realize that this does not have to do with just your favorite college basketball team (assuming you have one). People who root for Ohio State, as an example, probably watch a lot of Big Ten Basketball because that conference is affiliated with OSU. This could understandably lead you to overrate some teams in a conference. Take all biases that you may have acquired over the years and even during the season and toss them aside. Your basketball brain is usually right more often than is your March Madness heart.

7. The No. 1 Overall Seed 

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

The first team announced on Selection Sunday will be the No. 1 overall seed of the tournament. Kentucky earned that distinction in March 2015. History suggests that you can go ahead and pencil the No. 1 overall seed into at least the Sweet 16 before you fill out any other spots on your bracket. Every overall No. 1 seed since 2005 except for Kansas in 2010 has advanced to at least the Sweet 16. Seven overall No. 1 teams have made it all the way to the Final Four in that stretch. Don’t go too crazy with the gimmick, though, as overall No. 1 seeds have only won National Championships on three occasions since 2005.

6. Pick the Right National Champion 

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Most March Madness pools go by a scoring system similar to the following: First Round of the bracket (Second Round of the NCAA Tournament) games are worth one point apiece, Round of 32 games are worth two points apiece, Sweet 16 games are four points apiece, and so on and so forth. Thus, predicting the National Champion will net you the most overall points for one particular game. This makes predicting the champion just as important as getting the majority of the Final Four correct. Getting one Final Four team, one championship game team and the champion right could carry you to March Madness glory.

5. Conference Tournament Matters 

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Are you looking to pick a team that is not top-seeded to win the NCAA Tournament? Just remember this: No team that has lost its first game of a conference tournament has ever won the Big Dance. A team that gets upset in the first round of a conference tournament could go from a possible No. 4 or No. 3 seed to a No. 6 or No. 7 in the NCAA Tournament. There is a good reason for that. Momentum matters, and schools that Moonwalk their way into the NCAA Tournament are more likely be out by the Sweet 16 than they are to make it to the Final Four.

4. Momentum 

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe the worst thing you can do when filling out your March Madness bracket is focus too much on overall record. In fact, you can throw those numbers out the window. Instead, examine how well or how poorly a team has performed in its last ten games. Did the team gain momentum and earn some noteworthy victories in February? Was a different side struggling to retain its form during the final month of the regular season? Recency, as it is called, has, in prior NCAA Tournaments, been a better indicator of how a team will perform during March Madness than overall record. Also, look to see if a team you fancy has produced a noteworthy winning streak during the season. To win any NCAA Tournament, a school will have to notch at least six straight victories.

3. Away Record 

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

It is an easy thing to forget, in part because some teams are lucky enough to play in their own “region.” The majority of NCAA Tournament games are away games for every team, if for no other reason than people who have no affiliations with the schools playing at a venue get tickets because they like March Madness or they enjoy watching college sports. A top seed that has proven that it can get the job done on the road during the regular season should intrigue you, because it has shown that it does not need home court advantage and all that comes with it to win.

2. Strength of Schedule 

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Any team that is going to go on a run and make it to the Final Four of a NCAA Tournament will eventually have to defeat a top seed. A school that enters the NCAA Tournament with a great record but that accumulated that record by routinely beating up on cupcakes is likely on its way to a hurting once it plays against real competition. At the same time, a 19-11 team that challenged itself throughout the regular season and conference tournament will not be intimidated when playing against a talented side. Strength of schedule could, all things considered, be the most important stat for the majority of your March Madness bracket.

1. Defense Wins Championships 

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

There is a reason this adage is repeated time and time again in sports. It is proven true every year. A college basketball team that has a high defensive efficiency is able to control time of possession, dominate the boards, and win a turnover battle that could mean the difference in any game. Such a team should be able to hang with an opponent even if it is having an off night on the offensive end of the court. Momentum, away record, strength of schedule and defensive stats: Examine all of these when determining which No. 13 or No. 12 team to take, what No. 9 seeds you believe will advance, and what school will be left standing when the dust settles. Use the numbers wisely, and you could have a March Madness to remember.

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