68 teams, and you can only pick one? But in the process you have to narrow down 67 different games?
I have been doing brackets for over 15 years, and each time I do them badly. I follow the same pattern, and each time the result is less than ideal. But I'm here to give you some pointers - rather, I'm here to tell you the stuff I used to do, and tell you not to do it that way!
Step 1: Take Your Time
I always was so eager to get to my bracket, I would fill them out right away Sunday night or Monday morning. I even managed to draw out my own brackets so I could fill it out right away!
But that was always a mistake. I never wanted to change my picks after I made them ("first instinct" rule), but as the week went on, players would get hurt, shots would be tossed around by a player or coach, and sometimes even momentum would shift from the power team to the underdog. Then I'd look back at my schedule on Thursday morning and go, "Man, I wish I'd waited to fill this out."
It's a little different now, at least for brackets that include the Dayton Tuesday games as part of their contest. That takes away two days of wondering and tinkering. Other online bracket contests may just skip those four games and wait till Thursday, and in those cases it's best to wait until right before tipoff of the first game to send in your picks.
Step 2: Ignore the Records
I got mildly irritated if I printed out a bracket that didn't have team records on them. If a team had 25 wins while another one had only 19, well it was only natural to select the team with more wins, right?
Not entirely. Sometimes I would get so focused on the records that I would forget that some teams played mostly second-tier squads, while those who had a few more losses than most had tough schedules.
Step 3: Follow Momentum
If a team has made a tough run in their respective conference tournament, especially a team that wasn't favored to win (Ole Miss, for example?), it doesn't hurt to pick them to get through the first weekend of play.
Case in point: in 2011 Connecticut was the #9 seed in the Big East Tournament. But they won that tournament, and then blew off six straight wins to take the whole NCAA tournament. Momentum is huge.
Step 4: Your Favorite Team Won't Last the First Weekend
It is common to have young children pick their favorite team to go all the way - forget the fact that their favorite team is a 10-seed and their second round opponent is probably going to be Duke. Kids don't care about that.
Usually I don't pick Michigan to get past the Sweet Sixteen. I remember having friends who picked Michigan, and I just shake my head. Don't let loyalty sway your picks.
Step 5: Don't Pick too Many Upsets
One year I decided to have three brackets: one of my normal picks, one where I had all upper seeds winning, and one where I had all lower seeds winning. I knew the lower seed bracket wouldn't have too many wins, but I was shocked to see how few I had! But I think what really surprised me was that my upper seed bracket did a lot better than my normal bracket.
It's savvy to pick the upset teams, but make sure to keep it to the few that have a shaky top seed. More importantly, the brackets tend to burst on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, so pick those upsets in the second round. That's when the top seeds will fall. (VCU over Michigan, anyone?)
Step 6: Have Your Champion in Mind
I used to pick game-by-game, and then I'd get to the championship with the same two teams four years straight! Now, I try to have my Final Four in mind when I make my picks. Every other pick revolves around those Four teams, but doesn't affect what I pick in the long run.
So there you have it: all the stuff that I used to do that I'm trying to get you to avoid. No need to make the same mistakes as me, eh? Of course, you may have your own methods: coin flip, best colors, mascots, or more technical thoughts, but the most important step to consider in all of this:
Step 7: Don't Think Too Hard.