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March Madness: Last-minute men's bracket tips to help your title chances

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We’re getting close to window lock for your 2024 bracket picks, which means it’s time for our last-minute tip sheet. You need some final swing thoughts on the NCAA men's tournament before you lock in your picks. Seasoned players will recognize many of these timeless tips, but it's never a bad idea to run through them one more time before you finalize your bracket.

Your late-round picks are usually most important

This is obvious to any experienced tournament player, but it’s still worth mentioning up front. Most contests stagger the scoring so that the points are heavily weighted to the end of the tournament. This means that if a non-Cinderella wins the whole thing, most likely, you will absolutely need to have that team on your final line, along with a few other shrewd picks. If a shocking team cuts down the nets, perhaps you can win your tournament without the title team properly selected. But more often than not, you'll need the winner.

Most years I put most of my energy on the later picks. That’s where the glory is. That's where the cheddar is, too.

But if a major favorite wins the title, early round picks gain importance

If you can't get past how dominant Connecticut looks, I get it. The Huskies look awesome to me, too. Just understand that if you have UConn cutting the nets again, you'll need to be terrific all throughout your pool if you want to come in first. Your path to glory is complicated and tangled as you're likely competing with several opponents — 34.8% of Yahoo bracket entries have UConn winning it all as of Wednesday morning. I don't want you to be discouraged, just know what you're getting into.

Let the point spread be your guide

If you simply focus on the NCAA seeding of each matchup, you’ll miss the perceived difference between some teams. Be aware, for instance, No. 10 seed Nevada is slightly favored over No. 7 seed Dayton. More notably, No. 11 seed New Mexico is a 2.5-point favorite over No. 6 seed Clemson. I'm going to pick New Mexico on every sheet, hoping some of my opponents mistakenly overrate Clemson because of its seed.

The size of the line helps differentiate between teams not playing each other, too. Consider the four No. 4 seeds: Duke and Auburn are both 12.5-point favorites in Round 1, while Alabama is a 9.5-point favorite and Kansas (minus star Kevin McCullar) is merely a 7.5-point choice. All seeds are not created equal.

Bottom line, we trust Vegas more than we trust the seeding committee. There’s a ton of interest in the NCAA tournament and the books have incentive to put out a solid line. Obviously sports are unpredictable and these games are played by athletes in their teens and early 20s, so some results will fall nowhere close to the projected outcome. But if you want a good sense of team strength, Vegas is your friend. We use this hack all the time in fantasy football, and it’s just as useful here.

Your contest might have discernible biases

One of my earliest bracket wins came in 1995, when UCLA cut down the nets. My angle on UCLA was simple — I thought the Bruins had a plausible chance to go deep in the tournament, and I expected almost no one in my East Coast-based group to play them. Early in the tournament, I realized that if the Bruins were the champion, I was going to win, no matter what else I got right on my sheet. It’s a nice feeling. You hope to find a plausible path that needs the fewest right answers possible.

In some bracket contests, you’ll know very little about your opposition and their likely picks and habits. That’s OK. But in an office or neighborhood contest, you might be able to sleuth out some of the expected selections. Use all the information you have available to you. Be mindful who the hometown team is. Be a good listener at the water cooler.

A Value-Grabbing Style: Secondary favorites with high upside

Generally I will not pick the first or second favorite on my tournament sheets; there’s so much crowding there. As I compose this article, Connecticut (34.8%), Houston (12.2%), Purdue (10.4%) and North Carolina (9.4%) are the four heaviest favorites in the Yahoo bracket game. That’s to be expected — they’re the No. 1 seeds. Even the most casual basketball fan realizes that Connecticut was the dominant team over the past five months.

But perhaps you’ll get more bang for your buck with a secondary favorite. Arizona (4.8%) and Kentucky (4.1%) will be going deep on many of my sheets.

The Arizona Wildcats aren't as popular a championship pick as some other high seeds, which makes them an intriguing team to consider. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)
The Arizona Wildcats aren't as popular a championship pick as some other high seeds, which makes them an intriguing team to consider. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images) (David Becker via Getty Images)

Remember college basketball is a coach’s game

If you peruse the list of recent NCAA champions, you’ll see plenty of blue-blood programs and plenty of big name coaches, the names you know by heart. Roy Williams and Coach K; Jay Wright and Jim Calhoun; John Calipari and Billy Donovan. And while the last four championship coaches skew a little younger, as a group they're certainly well-regarded: Tony Bennett (excuse the ugly loss Tuesday), Scott Drew, Bill Self and Dan Hurley.

If you want to feel good about your brackets, you better feel good about the people in charge of your key teams. And the best tournament coaches don't merely excel with in-game strategy and pre-game motivation, they're also masters at working the referees and cultivating a foul or free-throw advantage.

Final Words

Of course, it’s more likely than not that my picks will be wrong. There are a bunch of teams who can take down the nets. And while you’re welcome to consider any of my advice, at the end of the day, it’s your team, it’s your sheet, it’s your dance. Take your best shot. Embrace the madness. Have some fun.