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16 tips for filling out your 2021 NCAA tournament bracket

Always trust in first round Roy. Never trust in a 5-seed.

NCAA East Regional Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

My Louisville-fueled sorrow hasn’t allowed me to bring myself to fill out a bracket just yet, but I will. You probably will too.

When we get there, here are the ruled we’re following (or at least keeping in mind) for 2021:

1. Believe in at least one power conference underachiever.

One of the longest active March Madness streaks that isn’t discussed enough is that a power conference team seeded 9th or worse has reached the Sweet 16 in every NCAA tournament since 2008.

Teams that fit that description this year:

Missouri (9)
Wisconsin (9)
Georgia Tech (9)
Maryland (10)
Virginia Tech (10)
Rutgers (10)
Michigan State (11)
UCLA (11)
Syracuse (11)
Georgetown (12)
Oregon State (12)

So choose your favorite sort of underwhelming big brand program and take the farther in your bracket than they probably have any business going.

2. Pick North Carolina over Wisconsin in round one.

One of the wildest stats in college basketball remains the fact that Roy Williams has never lost a first round game as a head coach. Twenty-nine NCAA tournament appearances, 29 NCAA tournament first round wins.

There’s no reason to believe that anything is going to change in appearance No. 30, even if the Tar Heels are only a 1.5-point favorite over Wisconsin.

3. Believe in at least one “First Four” team.

Even though the “First Four” — those four games typically played in Dayton on Tuesday and Wednesday featuring the lowest-seeded four teams in the field and the last four at-large teams to get in — has been fairly controversial and often mocked since its inception in 2011, a team coming out of Dayton has won at least one game in the tournament’s “main draw” in every year but one since the First Four became a thing. The only time it hasn’t happened was in 2019.

Overall, the First Four — which will take place on Thursday this year — has produced four Sweet 16 squads and a Final Four team in VCU. The winner of Michigan State/UCLA seems like a particularly good bet to win at least one game in the main draw this year.

4. Don’t pick a No. 5 seed to win it all.

There’s always a lot of chatter this time of year about how “anything can happen in March,” and that message has been even more amplified than usual given the bizarre circumstances surrounding this year’s tournament. A lot of things can happen in March, but a 5-seed winning the national title doesn’t seem to be one of them. Every seed line from 1-8 has produced at least one national champion besides the 5-seed line. No. 5 seeds have made it to the title game three times (nearly four after Auburn’s narrow loss to Virginia in the 2019 Final Four), but have never been able to be the last team standing.

5. Get a little wild with one Final Four pick

Sure it’s scary to take one team that could easily lose in the first round and advance it all the way to the Final Four, but it’s also probably smart. Every single Final Four but one since 2012 has featured at least one team seeded No. 7 or worse. Since 2011, a total of nine teams seeded seventh or worse have crashed the season’s final weekend.

The only recent season in which a 7-seed or worse hasn’t made a Final Four was 2019, and even then, you had a 5-seed crashing the party. So take the three teams you like the most to the Final Four, and then maybe throw a dart in the region where you feel like the top seeds are the most vulnerable.

6. Pick at least one 12 seed to win in the first round. The 12/5 upset has a reputation for a reason.

The 12/5 upset is a March Madness tradition unlike any other. In 30 of the last 35 years, at least one 12 seed has advanced out of the first round of the tournament. Over the last 12 years, 12 seeds actually own a highly respectable overall record of 22-26 against five seeds. In the most recent tournament (2019), 12-seeds went 3-1 in the first round, with Oregon ultimately winning two games and advancing to the Sweet 16.

7. Take a close look at the 13/4 matchups as well.

We just talked about the frequency of the 12/5 upset in the NCAA Tournament, but how about some love for the work the No. 13 seeds have been putting in recently? At least one 13 seed has won a game in the tournament in nine of the last 12 years. Most recently, it was UC Irvine getting the better of Kansas State back in 2019.

This year’s 13-line is pretty scary, with Ohio over a potentially shorthanded Virginia team seeming to receive the most early love from tournament prognosticators. Liberty has tournament experience and won a 12/5 game two years ago, UNC Greensboro has one of the best players in the tournament in Isaiah Miller, and North Texas is the highest-ranked of all the 13-seeds on Ken Pom.

It’s a safe bet that at least one of these four teams will create some March magic.

8. Don’t pick a team that went one-and-done in its conference to win it all.

No team has ever lost the first game of its conference tournament and gone on to win the NCAA tournament. If you’re backing a squad that went one-and-done in its league tourney to win the Big Dance, you may want to reconsider. Some top-seeded teams that fall under that umbrella this year: West Virginia, Purdue, Texas Tech and Villanova.

It should be noted that the Red Raiders very nearly broke this trend in 2019, but Virginia’s charmed run to the title simply wouldn’t allow it.

9. Don’t automatically move all four No. 2 seeds to the second weekend.

In 21 of the last 23 years, at least one No. 2 seed has been knocked out of the tournament before the Sweet 16. Straying from the chalk is always scary, especially before the second weekend, but you need to conquer that fear in at least one region.

10 (a). Be wary of the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed.

The NCAA tournament selection committee began designating a No. 1 overall seed in 2004. Since then, that team has gone on to win the national championship just three times — Florida in 2007, Kentucky in 2012, and Louisville in 2013. It’s not exactly news that the best team doesn’t always win this thing, but it is a bit jarring to see just how rarely the team most people believe to be the best going into the tournament actually winds up cutting down the nets.

10 (b). Gonzaga might be the exception

Each of college basketball’s last four national champions were a No. 1 seed the tournament before, and each of the last three national champions finished No. 2 on KenPom the year before.

Gonzaga was a No. 1 seed in 2019, and finished the 2019-20 season No. 2 on KenPom.

11. You need at least one “surprise” Elite Eight team.

Maybe you’re not comfortable getting too crazy with your Final Four, but at least make sure your Elite Eight has some flavor. In each of the last nine seasons, at least one team seeded fifth or worse has played in a regional final, and in eight of the last nine seasons at least one team seeded 7th or worse has advanced to a regional final. We’ve also seen at least one double-digit seed in the Elite Eight in three of the last four years.

12. Conference championships typically matter.

In the history of the NCAA tournament, there have only been four national champions (who participated in a conference tournament) that didn’t first win either their league’s regular season or postseason title. Villanova in 1985, Kansas in 1988, Connecticut in 2014, and Duke in 2015 are the only exceptions.

13. Be mindful of the Big Ten/West Coast drought.

One of the longest-running debates in college basketball is when a team from the West Coast or the Big Ten will win its next national title. It has reached a fever pitch this season with the runaway pre-tournament favorite being Gonzaga, and undisputed best conference in the sport being the Big Ten.

A team from the Big Ten team hasn’t won it all since Michigan State in 2000, and a West Coast squad hasn’t cut down the nets since Arizona stunned Kentucky in 1997. It’s not hard to envision one of those runs of futility coming to an end in a few weeks.

14. Syracuse is probably going to win at least one game.

Syracuse is not a very good basketball team and a lot of people (myself and probably you included) are very angry and annoyed that they were selected (comfortably) for this year’s tournament. Do not allow your selections to be fueled by this.

This is what Syracuse lives for. This is where Syracuse thrives.

When Syracuse disgusts you to the point that you can’t even envision them advancing them a single round on your bracket, that’s when you know they’re about to make a splash.

I don’t like it anymore than you do, but San Diego State is probably in trouble.

15. Avoid the trendy 8/9 team.

Every year on Selection Sunday, there is an underachieving major conference team that gets thrown into the 8/9 “death game” and leaves everyone predicting that they will upset the No. 1 seed in Round 2. That team, especially when they’re paired against a seemingly blah non-power conference team, almost always gets caught looking ahead (or just isn’t as good as people want them to be) and doesn’t make it out of the first round.

LSU is the prime candidate here, but Georgia Tech could also fit the mould.

16. Don’t feel bad about picking a No. 1 seed to win it all.

Even if you’re not going with the overall No. 1 seed (see rule No. 10), don’t let anybody shame you for picking a top seed to cut down the nets. Since seeding the field began, No. 1 seeds have won more national titles (23) than all other seeds combined (17).

A No. 1 seed has won each of the last three national titles, four of the last five, and six of the last eight.