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March Madness Contest Guide, With a Little Coaching from Bracketologist Brad Wachtel

final four in houstonMarch Madness serves as the ultimate sports equalizer. The seemingly infinite number of outcomes, and the requisite unforeseen upsets, annually level the bracket playing field. Even the most uncoordinated and uninformed Tournament rookies can -- and frequently do -- conquer the cocky braggarts who spend months poring over trends and statistics. And with myriad options of tracking the tournament online -- from Hooters to ESPN -- anyone with a Web connection suddenly becomes a powerful March Madness maven.

But, ambitious participants with lofty hoop dreams should certainly rely on more than just blind luck. And no one, in terms of accuracy and enduring reliability, provides guidance like the preeminent bracketologist Brad Wachtel. Wachtel joined the Rutgers coaching staff this year, so "a conflict of interest" prevents him from providing his full, round-by-round bracketology breakdown. However, he was generous enough to bestow our readers with his remarkable insight, and -- most graciously -- his essential tips for filling out a competitive, successful bracket on some of the great Web options out there.

Take his advice, and take ours: we've rounded up the ten best free bracket sites, so once you've gotten your Wachtel-approved strategy, you can hit the courts. Digitally, of course.

Nothing Is Sure-fire
Despite claims from some tourney die-hards (and blowhards), Wachtel believes there is no surefire system for filling out a winning bracket. While the unpredictable nature of the tournament makes it such an exciting and unrivaled amateur event, there are a few techniques to ensure "at least moderately successful" picks. Wachtel says, "First of all, plug in all of your 1-and-2-seeds to advance to the second round. A 1-seed has never lost in the 1st round and a 2-seed losing happens only once every few years."

Aside from those top two seeds, players should definitely mix it up a little bit in the early rounds. Wachtel believes it's "a good idea to sprinkle in a few potential upsets (11-13 seeds, like Cornell or Murray State, last year), but do not have "those selected 1st round upsets advance too much further."

Don't Settle for the Easy Lay-up.
Wachtel contends that "the cardinal sin committed by newbies is that they tend to pick all of the favorites." Automatically going with the favored team may be a "safe" move, but players definitely shouldn't rely on a higher-seed strategy. And that's not just because the practice doesn't necessarily result in successful picks.

Group challenges, with their community feel and open atmosphere, provide excellent fodder for both friendly exchanges and snarky trash-talking. But, no one likes a by-the-book bracket killjoy. Wachtel warns, "picking all the favorites pretty much means you have no sense of adventure and are a boring person. Do this and nobody will like you. Picking all the top seeds will give you a chance, but you won't win anything if you do this. And again, nobody will like you."

Go With Your Gut
One of the best parts about picking online is that you can make your guesses in private. With log-ins and dedicated sites, no more passing around the wrinkled sheet, hearing snide water cooler remarks about where you put Virginia Tech. Wachtel even asserts that analyzing other brackets -- before making your own picks -- often leads to problems. "I NEVER like to see anyone's picks before I make mine," Wachtel says. "It is very easy to get influenced by others even when you don't realize it." So, if you truly believe one team will win, then go with it.

2011 Tournament Wide Open
For this year's tournament, Wachtel believes "there are a bunch of very good teams, but not one team has truly separated themselves from the rest of the pack." He does point to Ohio State as a worthy pick to win it all, although "by a very slim margin." With three excellent outside shooters, a "really good" point guard and "one of the best players in the nation" playing down low, Ohio State "might be the most balanced team in the country." After the Buckeyes, Wachtel favors the Big East conference representatives, as he "can see 4-5 teams making a really deep run," although the individual "matchups are key."

If All Else Fails
When forecasting "the greatest tournament in all of sports," Wachtel says the bottom line is to just "have fun with it." Don't over analyze or get too tricky, because great picks don't always have to do with rhyme or reason. In fact, Wachtel remarks, "When it comes to making selections in the NCAA tournament, there are no experts. You have as good a chance of winning your pool as your co-worker's grandmother."
So, our tendency to make picks based solely on who would win in a mascot fight doesn't seem quite so ridiculous now. Wachtel even found no problem with that "interesting strategy," although he did implore us to not do that with our first picks, because "you will lose interest in the tournament real fast!" Well, that quick loss of tourney interest does tend to happen on an annual basis, but perhaps Wachtel's coaching can inspire a little bracket longevity this year. Really, though, we're just glad he called our strategy "interesting" and not "absurdly idiotic."

To the Contests

"Selection Sunday" arrives March 13th, but the actual tournament officially tipped off yesterday. The primary games begin two days later, so the final deadline to submit brackets (aside from the round-by-round challenges) will be Thursday morning prior to the first game's tip-off. CBS and ESPN, which provide excellent online coverage of the games, also feature highly popular bracket challenges. And, as with its killer online Masters coverage, CBS bestows users with a crucial, cut-away "boss" button (just so the workplace slacking won't be quite so blatant).

Dozens of other sites also provide free -- and lucrative -- tournament contests, so players shouldn't fling just one or two desperate half-court heaves. If you take enough shots, you're bound to eventually nail one, right? Why not sign up for all?

CBS Sports, 'Mayhem Bracket Challenge' and 'Round by Round Challenge'
Prizes: Grand Prize winner (randomly-selected from the top 10-percent of entries) receives four tickets to the 2012 Final Four in New Orleans, and a check for $6,000.
Style: CBS provides a particularly user-friendly bracket service, and it also offers enticing perks like live-streaming and the "boss" button. Allows group creation so you can split your earnings amongst your partners. Open to residents of the U.S. and Canada (Sorry Quebecois), 18 and over.
Scoring: In the Bracket Challenge, players receive one point for each correct pick in the 1st round. Points then double for each following round (Traditional style). Individual round competitions are based on correct number of picks.

ESPN, 'Tournament Challenge'
Prizes: The $10,000 Grand Prize goes to the entry with the most overall points. The entry with the 2nd most points receives $5,000.
Style: With ESPN's excellent and instant live-stat options, die-hards can follow every point swing -- both on and off the court. Allows group creation. U.S. residents, 13 and over.
Scoring: Players receive 10 points for each correct pick in the 1st round. Points double for each subsequent round.

Coke Zero, 'NCAA Bracket Challenge'
Prizes: Coke Zero's collaboration with Chili's features a bevy of enticing prizes, including a trip to -- and tickets for -- the 2012 Final Four, "Food for a Year" at Chili's (a $2,500 gift card), an LG 42" HDTV, and four LG Blu-Ray players. Players can also win instant prizes (look for the "Instant Win Game" link after you register), including NCAA t-shirts and basketballs, and free appetizers and soft drinks from Chili's.
Style: Players can complete up to three brackets. Open to U.S. residents, 18 and over.
Scoring: Winners are selected from each round's individual leaders.

NBC Sports, 'It's Madness'
Prizes: NBC hasn't announced the 2011 'Madness' gear yet, but previous prizes have included a $2,000 check, LCD TVs, Blu-Ray players, Apple gadgets and NBC swag.
Style: Allows group creation. U.S. residents, 18 and over.
Scoring: Traditional.

Yahoo! Sports, 'Yahoo Tourney Pick'em'
Prizes: Yahoo! features the big money, $1 million perfect bracket challenge. The best overall bracket wins $10,000.
Style: Yahoo! provides exclusive trash-talk from Kenny Powers, as well as excellent customizable features for Facebook users. Allows group creation. U.S. residents, 18 and over.
Scoring: Traditional.

Hooters/Fox, 'Bracket Challenge'
Prizes: Hooters and Fox are also doling out $1 million for perfect brackets. Other prizes include a 60" Westinghouse TV (with a one year supply of Hooters wings), a trip-for-two to Vegas (with one month of wings), and, er, one month of wings.
Style: The Hooters March Madness of meat serves up particularly mouth-watering prizes for wing lovers. Allows group creation. U.S. residents, 21 and over.
Scoring: Traditional.

Ruby Tuesday, '$1 million Perfect Bracket Challenge'
Prizes: $1 million distributed to perfect brackets. While this year's round-by-round details haven't been revealed yet, last year's prizes included 46" Sony LCD 1080p TVs, $1,000 gift cards and iPads.
Style: Played entirely on Facebook. One entry per person. U.S. residents, 18 and over.
Scoring: If multiple players submit a perfect bracket, the winners receive equal percentages of the $1 million. For the 50 other prizes, scoring starts at 2 points for each correct 1st round pick. The points then double for each following round. Winners will be randomly selected from the top overall finishers.

USA Today, 'March Mania Contest'
Prizes: Pretty straightforward: $1,500 for 1st, $250 for 2nd and $100 for 3rd.
Style: USA Today's prizes may seem meager compared to some other challenges, but it does provide a great option for playing it safe, picking outlandish upsets or backing a personal favorite regardless of their seed.
Scoring: Uses a formula that tabulates points based on seed and round., 'Bracket Buster'
Prizes: $100,000 for a perfect bracket, $10,000 for a bracket with only 1 or 2 incorrect picks and $1,000 for a bracket with either 3 or 4 incorrect picks. The top three overall finishers (barring any tiebreakers) receive -- in descending order -- $4,000, $2,000 and $1,000.
Style: One entry per person. Residents of the U.S. and Canada (sorry, Florida, New York, Rhode Island and Quebec), 16 and over.
Scoring: Traditional.

Sports Illustrated, 'Bracket Challenge'
Prizes: Last year, Sports Illustrated awarded a $5,000 Grand Prize.
Style: Players are allowed to submit four brackets, so this could be a good method for trying out more creative, and perhaps ridiculous, selection methods. Allows group creation, U.S. residents, 18 and over.
Scoring: Traditional

Now you've got your sites lined up, check out the sidebar above for tips and tricks from Wachtel to keep your (March Madness) game on track.

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