1. Choose an experienced team to win it all
The NCAA Tournament is nasty, brutish and short. One cold shooting night can destroy the title dreams of even the best team. So when filling out your bracket, put value in experience. Upperclassmen are more consistent and less prone to laying an egg. Young teams, on the other hand, can get lost in the moment of the tournament. They might press a little more, trying to make an impression on a big stage.
Lessons from recent history: This is especially important when picking your national champion. Over the last couple of seasons — except for Kentucky in 2012 (but let's face it: there are no teams this year as dominant as that team was) — star upperclassmen led the teams that won it all. Louisville won last year on the strength of junior Russ Smith and senior Peyton Siva in the back court. In 2010, Duke was nowhere near the most talented team in the country, but the Blue Devils were led by senior Jon Scheyer and juniors Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler to the school's fourth national title.
Experienced contenders: Florida, Creighton, Michigan StateInexperienced contenders: Kentucky, Kansas, Duke\
University of Virginia beat Duke University in the ACC Championship. Two UVA players were all smiles, while one Duke player sized up where his team went wrong. VPC
2. Do your medical research
The heart of the college basketball season tends to get lost in the commotion of the NFL regular season and playoffs, so you'll be forgiven if you haven't paid close attention to the college basketball injury report. Injuries can have a two-way impact on how you fill out your bracket. Be wary of the higher-seeded teams who built good resumes before losing a key player. And be sure to take note of lower-seeded teams whose resumes were damaged by losing good players for a stretch of time during the season.
Lessons from recent history: Last year, Oregon was 17-2 before losing talented freshman Dominic Artis for a nine-game stretch. The Ducks would lose four of those games and end up a 12-seed in the tournament. Artis returned to form in March and led Oregon to a surprise Sweet 16 appearance. In 2000, Cincinnati was the No. 1 team in the country before losing Kenyon Martin to an injury in the conference tournament. The Bearcats were given a two-seed but were upset in the second round.
Key injuries: Brandon Ashley, Arizona; Joel Embiid, KansasKey return: Adreian Payne, Michigan State
3. Pay attention to how a team finished the season
College basketball records can be deceiving. With the yearly turnover for college teams, it can take some time for a team to come together and to hit its stride. Teams learn to play together, coaches get to know their teams better and young players improve. A team could struggle through the non-conference season only to turn into a powerhouse down the stretch. The inverse could also happen. Sometimes a team was just lucky, got the right bounces or just fails to improve while the rest of the field passes them. Be sure to put more weight on what a team did in February and March while looking at early-season results with some skepticism.
Lessons from recent history: Last year, Indiana started the year 24-3 and was one of the favorites to cut down the nets in March. Then the team went into a funk and finished 3-3 down the stretch. As a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Hoosiers went out in the third round to Syracuse. In 2010, Duke looked like nothing more than a good team at the end of January. They then finished the regular season 10-1 before sweeping through the ACC Tournament. The Blue Devils rode that momentum to a surprise national title.
Heating up: Louisville, Iowa State, UCLATrailing off: Syracuse, St. Louis, Iowa
Coach Tom Izzo complimented his winning Michigan State team as they beat University of Michigan in the NCAA Big Ten Championship game. VPC
4. Don't rely on traditional statistics
With 351 teams playing thousands of games, it's nearly impossible to follow all of college basketball. Even the most passionate fans don't have the time to know the teams and players in every conference. Sure, there are statistics that can tell you a little bit about each team in this year's field, but traditional stats fail to put those numbers in their true context. Teams play vastly different schedules and play drastically different systems at varying paces.
Luckily for those of us who don't have the time to pay attention to even the biggest conferences, we live in an age of advanced metrics that can tell you as much about a team as you'd get from seeing every game. College basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy's metrics are used by experts across the country and are even used by college programs. His stats account for differences in pace and strength of schedule. His site, kenpom.com, requires a paid subscription for the more in-depth stats, but some of the major metrics are free on the homepage. Other sites, like statsheet.com, offer similar information and are worth a look when filling out your bracket.
Lessons from recent history: Pomeroy's tempo-free rankings have done a good job of predicting NCAA Tournament results in the past. Last year, Michigan was ranked in the top-10 of Pomeroy's ratings but ended up as a 4-seed when the bracket was revealed. The Wolverines ended up in the national title game. In 2006, the third-seeded Florida Gators were ranked first in his rankings — they were 11th in the AP poll. the Gators ended up winning it all.
Undervalued teams: Louisville, Harvard, Tennessee
Overvalued teams: St. Louis, Massachusetts, Michigan
5. Don't fall into the geographical trap
On Selection Sunday, a lot is made of where teams are sent to play their games. Some teams become trendy picks because they'll play close to home against teams that have to travel a ways. Logically, it makes sense. The closer the game, the more fans will be there to support their team, and players do not have to spend as much time traveling across the country. But over the last couple of years, where a game is played in the NCAA Tournament doesn't seem to make much of a difference when you get deeper into the bracket. The last three years, teams playing in their home state are 21-4 but most of those teams were one- or two-seeds in the first and second rounds. When you get to the Sweet 16, there have been a number of teams with a home-court advantage have lost to lower-seeded teams.
Lessons from recent history: In the last three tournaments, there have been plenty examples of favorites playing close to home and losing. Last season, La Salle upset Kansas St. in Kansas City, Harvard upset New Mexico in Utah and Colorado State beat Missouri in Kentucky. The previous year, Gonzaga beat West Virginia in Pittsburgh, and in 2011 two-seed San Diego State lost to seven-seed Connecticut in Anaheim.
Despite losing to the number one ranked Florida Gators in the SEC Championship basketball game, the Kentucky Wildcats said they walked away from the game feeling confident in their abilities to play together as a team. VPC