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The Do’s and Don’ts of Helping Kids Fill Out a March Madness Bracket

Time to teach kids about upsets, seeding rules, and how to properly hate Duke.

It’s that time of year again. The time for office pools, bracket busters, for setting up live streams at work and three-hour “lunches” at the sports bar around the corner with the best TVs. That’s right, it’s March Madness. The NCAA men’s college basketball tournament inspires all sorts of insanity each and every year, and the 2018 edition of the tournament promises more of the same. As the bracket was announced on Sunday night, the initial reactions — why is Syracuse invited? Why is Middle Tennessee not? — poured in, but by Monday morning, hearts and minds had shifted focus into trying to win  brackets.

Elsewhere, March Madness is an opportunity for parents to introduce their kids to the world of bracketology in a simple way that makes sense. No, you don’t have to teach your child about RPI, WTEff rankings (that’s a real thing), or about Virginia’s suffocating advanced defensive stats. But, there are very simple ways you can teach your kid not only fill out a bracket, but also have a pretty good shot. Who knows, if they win a family pool, they might become lifelong basketball fans, or at least, fans of filling out brackets every year. Here are six simple tips, ranging from when to pick upsets, to not trusting one part of the country to do well.

DO: Hate Duke, But Pick Duke

Let’s get this out of the way: no one likes Duke, except – maybe – people who went to Duke. Whether due to their continued success, or because they have players like Grayson Allen, Duke is no one’s preferred choice. Teaching your kid to like Duke will make them a pariah later on in life, but you should teach them that Duke is almost always good-to-great. Sure, they’ll have a hiccup here or there — remember when they lost to CJ McCollum’s Lehigh as a two-seed? That was great.

However, you can generally pencil Duke into, at least, the Sweet 16, if not further. This year, they’ve drawn a relatively easy road to an Elite Eight matchup with one-seed Kansas; sure, you can pick them to lose to a fun Rhode Island side, but if you want your kid prepared for the brackets in his future, teach them not to love, but believe in the Blue Devils.

DON’T: Trust the Northeast Teams

While UConn, when actually in the tournament, has been known to ride a star player to a title (see: 2004, 2011, 2014), the rest of the Northeast generally underperforms. Georgetown perennially crashes out early. Although they’re not in the tournament this year, you know they would lose in the first roundf they were.

Villanova is another generally a safe pick to get upset at some point, as well. Sure, they might have had a great regular season, and might have shaken off some of this stigma with their amazing 2016 title. But Alabama in the second round or Wichita State in the Sweet 16 could prove their undoing. And Syracuse…well, Syracuse shouldn’t have made it to the tournament at all, so don’t expect them to perform once they’re there. If you’re looking for a Northeastern team that could inspire some goodwill, look at the aforementioned Rhode Island, who are primed for an upset if things break right. Too bad they have to play Duke so early.

DO: Pick a 5-12 Upset

If you teach your kid one thing this March, it should be this: the 5-12 matchup has historically proven to be the best place to pick a big upset. Usually, a 5-seed is a weaker big conference side, and the 12-seeds tend to be spunky mid majors with a lot to prove. Case in point: Kentucky, having a bit of a down year, is facing Davidson, who just won the Atlantic-10 tournament and is riding off a great end to the season on the way to the Big Dance.

Does that mean Davidson will surely win? No, but you need to teach your child that risk is part of March Madness, and this is an easier risk to take than, say, South Dakota State toppling Ohio State. Usually, you want to pick one or, at most, two of these upsets, so if you’re looking for a second, Murray State over West Virginia also looks tasty. In later years, you can teach them about the 7-10 matchup, or how to spot 3- and 4-seeds vulnerable to being toppled. For now, though, 5-12 will be your bread and butter lesson.

DON’T: Ignore Some Basic Math

While your kid may not want to learn math to fill out a bracket, there are some simple lessons to teach every March. For example, if the seeding difference is under four, it’s not really an upset. So, 6-11 matchups in the first round are probably worth looking at for upsets, but 7-10 showdowns are usually just a result of seeding.

The same applies for later rounds; if a seven seed makes it to the Sweet 16, they’re likely to be a big underdog against the two-seed on the other side, so be careful about your choices there. Seeding isn’t perfect, but keeping these rules of thumb in mind when filling out a bracket could help your kid feel like a winner when he picks a 3-6 upset in the second round. We’re looking at you, Miami-Tennessee.

DON’T: Pick All #1 Seeds

Here’s a fun trivia question: Since the current seeding system was put into place back in 1979, how many times have all four 1-seeds made the Final Four? Time’s up. The answer? Once, back in 2008, when Mario Chalmers and Kansas toppled Memphis for the title. Before and after that anomalous year, there has always been at least one gate-crasher that has stopped the four favorites from convening in the Final Four.

There appear to be two 1-seeds prime for an upset this year. Xavier is good but probably got luckier than they would have normally, due to the lack of dominant teams in 2018. And Virginia, despite being the #1 overall seed, plays a hyper-defensive game that works well over a full season, but is prone to be toppled by one player on the other team going supernova for 40 minutes. All of the defensive scheming in the world can unravel if one player hits shots no matter what, and no event is more receptive to that type of heroic performance than March Madness.

DO: Pick the Better Mascot (or Color, or City, or…)

When in doubt, teach your kid that March Madness is just fun. Sure, they might later on get looped into money pools, but for now, all of the math tips, research, and history won’t matter if they don’t have fun. So, let your kid pick his favorite teams based on whatever they want. Do they love dogs? Let them take the Gonzaga Bulldogs all the way. Is red their favorite color? Roll Tide. Sure, the above tips might help their brackets look good at the end of the day, but if they’re not having fun rooting for specific teams, it’s not really worth it. And if they have a previous attachment to a team? Encourage them to pick them to go all the way to the title! You never know what might happen; if a kid that lives in Connecticut picked UConn as a nine-seed back in 2014, they would have looked like geniuses when Shabazz Napier dragged the team to the title.

Whatever happens, just don’t let them pick Duke.