This is the year. That's what you're telling yourself as you stealthily print out your blank NCAA tournament bracket from the office printer — yep, the color printer — and head back to your desk to fill out the best sheet you've ever competed. Sheila in sales is going down, and this is the year you win it all.
Perhaps there's no greater feat a sports fan can accomplish. Winning a fantasy title is great, but taking the crown in the office basketball pool, rising above the hundreds of participants — friends and relatives and ringers and multiple-bracket-players — is among life's sweetest victories. It's also among the most elusive tasks in sports gambling that, while at least somewhat illegal, is sort of accepted by society like pot used to be tolerated prior to being legalized in Colorado, Washington, and Alaska. Everybody knows you are lighting up a bracket on company time, but there's nothing they can do to stop you. This is the year, right? Maybe. Hopefully. God, I hope so.
So ignore all the noise this week. Because there is a lot of it. It will be easy to get distracted and do something stupid like pick your mid-major alma mater to go to the Final Four. Don't do it. Forget everything you know and follow these five simple steps and at the very least, get you out of the first weekend still in contention.
1. Pick the teams with balls (or some pedigree)
The most important thing to remember when you draw out your tournament map is that this is single elimination; survive and advance. Established brands may not always be the sexiest pick, but winning the early rounds takes balls, miles of heart, big game experience, and passion and pissed-off-ness that makes young men fearless with the game on the line. This is the playoffs. Lose and you go home. Bring your sack, and you may have a chance to live to fight again. New Mexico State, Michigan State, and Georgetown all own this quality.
2. Two is better than one
In the NCAA tournament, it's better to have two guys you can lean on instead of one who the opposition can shadow all the way out to the concession stand. This is the reason MacGuyver carried a Swiss Army knife instead of a Rambo blade. Versatility is everything, so having a second or third dependable option presents matchup problems and offers a built in X-factor that can power a mediocre 12-seed through the first weekend like a little pair of tweezers when you need it most. It can be the difference between rising in the office standing and shredding your bracket next Monday morning. The Georgia State Panthers have three guards in R.J. Hunter, Ryan Harrow, and Kevin Ware (the guy who broke his leg with Louisville in 2013) that are primed to break out this March, and LSU is as good as anyone in the paint with Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin working the post.
3. Momentum is everything
The key to any deep playoff run is peaking at the right time. This typically means doing well to close out the season and then going on a serious tear from the conference championship and into the big dance. For an example, look no further than VCU, which became the first team to go from the play-in round to the Final Four in 2011. Of course, this works in the reverse when a team coasting into the tournament through an easy winter schedule and seems primed for disappointment. For this reason, you might want to stay away from putting too much faith in a deep run from Stephen F. Austin, which hasn't lost since before Thanksgiving, or the enticing Villanova Wildcats, who haven't dropped a game since mid-January. Teams that have had to slug it out against tough conference foes like St. John's, Oregon, and Wyoming might be worth picking.
4. Do Your Homework
Any intern can read through the all the "expert picks" and "guaranteed upsets" they can digest between Selection Sunday and Thursday's games. But getting yourself up to speed on this season's stats and trends will help you steal a few points when the match-ups are close. Rule one of basketball: You can't score when you don't have the ball, so rebounds and size, especially when teams are tired in close games, can make all the difference. And while the big guys bang underneath, sharp shooters with high three-point percentages on the corners can also propel the right team (think Steph Curry at Davidson) to a title. Still, it's not called March Foregone Conclusions. It's called March Madness, so sometimes you have to throw all that data out the window and go with the fox hole guys you know and trust, otherwise you might end up listening to tales of someone else's Cinderella run at the water cooler.
5. Get Your Head In the Game
Yes, sometimes you have to go with your gut, just don't be blindly stupid about it. Don't find your alma mater on the bracket and give them a clear path to the Final Four because you think Maryland looks like the second coming of Juan Dixon, or North Carolina has Dean Smith is smiling down on them from courtside seats in heaven. Wake up, remove the pom-poms from your eye and be cool, calculating, and as far from delusional as possible about every pick you make. Because nothing will ruin your bracket faster than writing the word "Albany" anywhere on it.
Now get back to work. The boss is coming.