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Rhys Sosnowski/the Gauntlet

Breaking down the March Madness

A beginner's guide to NCAA bracketology

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Every March, brackets are penciled in, jerseys are dusted off and talk of upsets is in the air, yet many have little idea of what’s taking place. The March Madness hype can be confusing if you aren’t a basketball fan. However, knowing the basics can make keeping up with the insanity of March Madness a pretty great time.

Sixty-eight teams from the National Collegiate Atheletic Association Division I men’s basketball are selected to play in the championship tournament, which takes place each year from late-March to early-April. The teams come from 32 conferences and are organized into four geographical regions — South, West, Midwest and East. Each conference champion wins an automatic bid, leaving 36 spots for the Selection Committee to award among the over 300 other teams in the division.

Historically, UCLA, Kentucky, Indiana and North Carolina have won the most titles, but the favourites vary each year. This year the number one seeded — or ranked — teams from each region are Arizona, Florida, University of Virginia and Wichita State. The rankings are done by the committee on Selection Sunday, the Sunday before the First Four, when the tournament selections are broadcast live.

March Madness begins with the First Four, a round played by the four lowest-seeded conference champions and the four lowest-seeded teams who were offered spots by the Selection Committee. These games determine who will make it into the round of 64, which is where the bracket selection and the real fun begins.

At this point the seasoned pros have studied the all of the statistics and carefully placing their bets, while the newbies are trying to figure out how a Cinderella story has anything to do with college basketball. Rest assured, if it’s your first season participating, making a bracket doesn't have to be difficult and with a few basic tips you can be reasonably competitive in your pool.

A bracket is essentially choosing who you think the winners of each game will be, and how those winners will fare against the other winners in future games all the way up to the final game. The biggest rookie mistake is picking all four number-one teams to make it to the Final Four. That has only ever happened once, in 2008, and is pretty unlikely to happen again. Another mistake is sticking to home team loyalties. Unless your team happens to be a great one, it’s best to go with the teams who show promise according to predictions being made by sports analysts and betting experts. Trust them. They have money riding on this too.

As a first-time bracket selection technique, choose some top-seeded teams and some of the stronger teams who were stuck with lower seeds to make it to the Elite Eight. If you’re feeling up to it, choose a few underdogs to round out the group. Keep in mind that although the Selection Committee aims to rank the teams equitably, it’s not always smart to soley rely on tournament standings.

Regardless of the fact that there is an estimated $80–90 million bet within office pools and leagues, many people simply play for bragging rights with their friends and families. In these cases it can be much more fun to pick teams based on their names, colours or even which mascot you think would win in a real battle.

Whichever way you choose your bracket, just taking part is the real fun. College basketball can be pretty unpredictable and beginners tend to make some surprisingly accurate picks. March Madness brackets are ultimately about tuning in to cheer on your teams and having a really great reason to procrastinate for three awesome, basketball-filled weeks.

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