Forecasting the NCAA men’s basketball tournament has become an American tradition, a fun activity for fans of all ages as winter fades and three weeks of March Madness begins.

It’s easy to drift off course, however, so here are seven mistakes to avoid when filling out your bracket.

1. Following your heart, instead of your head

Of course you want your school to win the national championship. The NCAA tournament is a popular and entertaining event because every team starts off six wins removed from clipping the nets. Don’t let loyalty cloud your judgment, though, and foolishly project your squad into the Final Four or, even worse, pencil them in as the national champion. Be honest in your assessment of their chances to survive-and-advance. Nobody knows your team better than you do, you’ve watched them through the good and bad all season. Try to make a sober and rational decision when deciding how long they’ll enjoy the Madness.  

2. Picking a No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1

No. 1s and No. 16s have met 132 times in the NCAA tournament. And the No. 1s have won every time. Sure, there have been close calls. No. 1s Georgetown and Oklahoma escaped with one-point victories in 1989. Purdue nipped Western Carolina by two points in 1996. UNC Asheville pushed Syracuse to the brink in 2012 and Western Kentucky made Kansas nervous in 2013. One day a 16 will stun a 1. We’re certain, and perhaps this is the year. As fans of college basketball, we’ll watch and enjoy (unless it’s our team that loses). Still, good luck correctly forecasting it. Guess wrong and you lose a valuable No. 1 seed entirely too early and give away easy points to your fellow bracketeers.  

3. Advancing a 14 or 15 seed into the Sweet 16

No. 14 and No. 15 seeds have an all-time NCAA tournament record of 32-262. Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 only three teams seeded 14th or 15th have reached the Sweet 16 - No. 14s Cleveland State (1986) and Chattanooga (1997) along with No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast (2013). If you decide to pick a 14 or 15 seed to win in the opening round, understand that it’s a high-risk prediction. These teams are tournament champions from conferences ranked in the bottom third of Division I. They may not have even been the regular season champion in their conference. They are at a size, skill and experience disadvantage and coming off what's likely the greatest sports moment in school history. Expecting these schools to win consecutive NCAA tournament games is unrealistic.  

4. Picking a No. 4 or No. 5 to win the national title

The 1997 Arizona squad, featuring Michael Dickerson, Mike Bibby, Jason Terry and Miles Simon, is the only No. 4 or 5 to maneuver this dangerous route to their One Shining Moment. It was a remarkable run by a special team that somehow lost nine regular season games, including two in the three days prior to Selection Sunday. The Wildcats erased any disappointment and defeated three No. 1 seeds - Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky to give coach Lute Olson his lone national title. It helps to have guards like Bibby and Terry, who combined to play 30 seasons in the NBA.

Otherwise it’s a gauntlet. Why? Here’s a theory. First, teams seeded in those slots open the tournament with a game that history reveals is anything but a guaranteed victory. (No. 4 seeds have won 80 percent versus No. 13s, while No. 5s have won 64 percent versus No. 12s). Then, they have essentially a toss-up game in the second round (4 vs. 5). Survive that and the No. 1 seed in the region is likely awaiting. OK, great upset. So far the No. 4 or 5 has reached the Elite 8, where a No. 2 or 3 is likely waiting and that game must be won simply to reach the Final Four. 

5. Putting only No. 1 seeds in your Final Four

It happened in 2008 - UNC, UCLA, Memphis and Kansas. But those four teams were also selected No. 1 thru No. 4 in the Associated Press Top 25 preseason poll. So, even in early November it was clear that those teams were elite.

The odds of it happening again, according to one study, are 57:1.  

Beginning with the 2000 NCAA tournament, No. 1 seeds comprised 37.5 percent of the Final Four (27 out of 72 teams). Last year's Final Four was comprised of two top seeds (North Carolina and Gonzaga), a No. 3 (Oregon), and a No. 7 (South Carolina).

Also worth noting: only 22 of the 132 teams to reach the Final Four since 1985 were seeded outside the top four.

No. 11 seed UNI celebrates its buzzer-beating upset of No. 6 seed Texas in 2016.
6. Advancing all those early Cinderellas deep in the tournament

Pick upsets early, then turn to the heavyweights. Look closely at those 6 vs. 11 or 5 vs. 12 games and identify a team or three that has veteran guards capable of engineering an upset. Don’t be afraid to slide one into the Sweet 16. But be careful after that. It’s better to make conservative selections as the tournament unfolds. Talent seems to win out in the latter rounds. While three No. 11 seeds have reached the Final Four (LSU, 1986; George Mason, 2006; VCU, 2011), only one No. 12 has made it as far as the Elite 8 (Missouri, 2012).

It’s not a bad idea to fill out your bracket backward - starting with the Final Four and working toward the opening rounds - to ensure you have the right teams alive at the end, when it matters most.

7. Overthinking

Data is great. We live in the information age, where every statistic, result or trend is only a click or two away. But in the time between Selection Sunday and the opening games, you can fry your brain cells and drown in a sea of analysis, unless you’re careful.  Sure, past performance matters. Still, this tournament comes down to matchups, confidence and a little luck. The unexpected - and the inexplicable - is bound to happen. It’s part of what makes the NCAA tournament fun to follow. So, give yourself a break, have some fun, and remember that in 2013, more than eight million people filled out a bracket at and only 47 correctly predicted the Final Four.