The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

March 19, 2014

How to make your NCAA bracket strong

By Cam Huffman
Sports Editor

— The only question I’ve heard more this week than, “Who will be the concerts at The Greenbrier Classic this year?” — stay tuned, that information should be coming soon — is, “Who do you have in your Final Four?”

For some reason, people believe that sports writers have the inside track.

History, though, shows you’re better off listening to the woman working in the cupcake shop who hasn’t seen a game all year.

But if there are readers out there that still want my advice, I have a few tips for a successful bracket. Just remember, this is for amusement purposes only. Don’t send me the bill for any money lost.

Find the 5-12 upset.

The statistics show it happens every year. Twelve seeds beating five seeds no longer bring about a surprise. Often there’s more than one.

Again, I’m going against the popular pick of Stephen F. Austin over VCU. I like Harvard over Cincinnati.

Why?

For starters, Cincinnati is vulnerable.

The Bearcats have trouble scoring points — they’re averaging just 68.7 points per game — and they’re not a strong rebounding team like they were in the days when Bob Huggins patrolled the sidelines. They shoot just 43 percent from the field and have lost three of their last six games.

UC isn’t a team that is going to run away from anybody.

But Harvard? This isn’t an academic debate; it’s a basketball game.

Take a closer look at the Crimson. They have talent in the form of junior swingman Wesley Saunders, who’s averaging 14 points and 4.7 rebounds per game, and sophomore guard Siyani Chambers, who’s scoring 11.1 points and dishing out 4.7 assists per game.

The Ivy League schedule isn’t anything to write home about, but Harvard took a pair of tournament teams to the wire, losing to Colorado 70-62 and UConn 61-56.

Tommy Amaker has won everywhere he’s been, and he has plenty of NCAA experience. This is the Crimson’s third straight trip to the “Big Dance,” and it won’t be a short stay.

Pick a Cinderella.

Whether it’s George Mason, Florida Gulf Coast or VCU, there’s always a team that surprises everybody and makes a run to the Elite Eight or beyond. If you can identify that team, you’ll get a leg up on your competitors.

I would go with Harvard, but they could run into Michigan State in the second round. That’s a tough matchup.

Frankly, I don’t see a “mid-major,” making a run this year. And I don’t see a double-digit seed going deep either.

But if you can call a No. 7-seed a Cinderella, I like Oregon to make a deep run.

Again, that prediction has a lot to do with the bracket.

If the Ducks get past BYU in the opener, they’ll likely get Wisconsin, and that’s a team I’m not buying at this point.

Then would likely come Creighton or Baylor. Creighton is overrated as a third seed, and Baylor, although capable of beating anybody on any given night, isn’t consistent enough to expect three or four straight strong games.

Oregon is just the team to take advantage of those weaknesses.

The Ducks are hot, having won eight of their last nine games, including a win over No. 1 seed Arizona. They rank 11th nationally scoring 81.8 points per game, and a team that can light up the scoreboard is always dangerous in March.

Don’t go overboard with upsets.

Unless you’re very confident with your pick, try to avoid the 1-16, 2-15 or 3-14 upsets in your bracket. They just don’t happen very often. We’re still waiting for the first 16 to upset a 1, and 15s beating 2s happens about as often as Dick Vitale saying something negative about Duke.

Go with the odds and don’t get too crazy.

Pick an early exit from a No. 1.

Every year, it seems, a No. 1 gets bounced much earlier than expected. The key is identifying which top seed that will be.

The most popular choice right now is Wichita State. Despite the fact that the Shockers are 34-0, most people feel that the fact they haven’t been tested as much as others through the regular season will prove costly.

I’m not in that camp. I like what I saw from Wichita State a year ago, and I think this tam is even better. The Shockers are in a difficult bracket and may fall short of the Final Four, but I think they’re at least an Elite Eight squad.

The team I still question is Virginia. Don’t get me wrong, the Cavaliers have a good team. You don’t win 28 games and an ACC title without being a solid club.

But despite 16 wins in the last 17 games, I still believe UVA is very beatable. An awful Virginia Tech team almost did it a couple of weeks ago, and the ACC gauntlet that the Cavs went through this year is nothing close to the ACCs of the past.

Plus, there’s the draw. UVA should cruise past Coastal Carolina, and I don’t see the Memphis-George Washington winner giving the Cavaliers a whole lot of trouble. But then comes Michigan State. If there’s another key to a solid bracket it’s to not bet against Tom Izzo in March.

Identify the champion.

No matter how bad your bracket is early on, you always have a chance if you can get the champion right. If you can pick up points in every round — while others in your bracket are out of team — a late run is possible.

Picking the title winner, though, is no easy task. I’ll admit, I don’t have a clear favorite this year.

But if pushed to make a pick, I’d have to go with Arizona.

The Wildcats have been tested all season and are 12-3 against NCAA Tournament teams. They’ve beaten the likes of Michigan, Duke and UCLA and have   a deep squad with six players averaging more than eight points per game.

Sean Miller has proven himself as a bright coach, taking two different teams to the Elite Eight and winning nearly 73 percent of his games.

This could be the year he takes the final step.

— E-mail: chuffman

@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.