How you can rule your March Madness 2021 bracket pool

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In addition to the numerous betting opportunities involved with the 67 games of the NCAA Tournament beginning Thursday, you’re probably also entering a bracket contest or two (or several dozen in my case!). Here are some strategies I’ve accumulated over the years:

Pick the champion

This seems so obvious, but even though everyone loves the first two rounds to see who was smart enough to pick the right upsets and whose brackets got busted before even getting to the weekend, very few bracket contests are won or lost in the opening round.

Even if you totally kill it this Friday and Saturday, if you don’t have the overall champion on your bracket, it’s almost a certainty that you’ll be overtaken after the title game if not before. That’s because almost all bracket contests have weighted point systems that increase during the tournament, so no lead is safe. What most bracket contests come down to is who among those picking the champion did better in the early rounds. To a lesser degree, this also extends to the Final Four; even if you have the champion, if that’s your only team in the Final Four, you’re probably going to be beaten by someone who has more.

NCAA
Miles Norris (left) and Brandon Cyrus celebrate UCSB’s Big West title on Saturday. The Gauchos will be a popular first-round choice in bracket pools.
AP

Know your competitors

Here, I’m talking more about smaller office pools. If you live in Big Ten country, you’re certain to have a higher percentage of your competitors using Illinois, Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa to win the championship or fill multiple spots in the Final Four than we’ll see in other parts of the country. You can get an edge by correctly predicting which of those teams gets knocked out early.

Understand the trends but be prepared to fade them

Everyone knows that No. 12 seeds have a long-earned reputation of upsetting No. 5 seeds. While it certainly is important to know that type of information, don’t be so robotic that you’re doing what everyone else does; you need to handicap each game individually and let that steer your decisions. Now, you might end up coming to the same conclusions anyway, but don’t just pick a No. 12 seed just because it’s a No. 12 seed. Who knows? Maybe all the No. 5 seeds will win this year and all those people loading up on No. 12s will be behind early. Of course, if a 12 does beat a 5, you better have it or you’ll also be spotting a key game to a lot of competitors.

Don’t take your upset picks too far

We all love finding those first-round upsets and being able to say we knew Cinderella before she was the belle of the ball, but the truth is that midnight usually comes all too quickly. First-round upsetters usually come back to earth in the second round. Sure, we occasionally have a double-digit seed that sneaks into the Sweet 16, but it’s a rarity, so only pick that first-round upsetter to make the Sweet 16 if you’re willing to risk your bracket life on them.

Use brackets to hedge underdog bets

There are many ways to diversify your portfolio during the NCAA Tournament. If you’re playing multiple brackets, you can certainly flip-flop on games where you’re not too certain who will win.

But there’s another strategy I like to employ

Let’s say you like an underdog to cover the spread in a first-round game, but you’re not sure it can pull the outright upset. You can bet the ’dog plus the points but take the favorite in your bracket. It’s also a chance to “hit a middle” if the favorite wins to advance in your bracket but the ’dog covers the spread to win you some cash along the way. If you’re cashing a bunch of these ’dogs plus the points, you won’t be as upset if your chalky bracket is busted.

Last rule — have fun! This is supposed to be fun. But as I tell my kids, it’s more fun when you win!

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