Think you can pick all the winners in the NCAA tournament? Probably not. There over nine quintillion different bracket combinations — that’s a nine, followed by 18 zeros, which, if filled out by hand and stacked on top of each other, would be enough paper to reach Pluto and back 60 times. You could trim that down to 128 billion-to-1 odds by factoring in ratings and seedings. Or, you can just copy this perfect NCAA tournament bracket that is guaranteed* to win your pool.
(* As we note every year, this might be more like a Patrick Ewing guarantee than a Joe Namath guarantee.)
Let’s start with the most important pick you will make in the bracket: the national champion.
In most scoring systems, choosing the correct national champion is worth the same number of points as going 32-for-32 in the first round, and, according to data from the past six years of the official bracket game of the NCAA tournament, every one of the last six winners had the participants and winner of the national championship game right. Luckily, there is a blueprint we can follow to find out who the last team standing will be.
Over the past 15 years, every national champion except one, Connecticut, a No. 7 seed in 2014, was a No. 1, 2 or 3 seed. Winners have also played in one of the top five strongest conferences per the Simple Rating System, a schedule-adjusted margin of victory rating that is expressed in points per game, with an SRS of zero indicating an average team. And all but three of the past 15 winners have had their own, individual SRS rank in the top 4 nationally.
The qualifying conferences this year include the Big 12, ACC, Big East, Big Ten and SEC, leaving No. 1 North Carolina (25.1 SRS, second-highest) and No. 1 Villanova (24.8 SRS, fourth highest) as our potential national champions. No. 1 Gonzaga, which has the highest SRS in the nation (25.8), is discounted due to playing in the West Coast Conference (3.5 conference SRS, 10th in the nation). West Virginia (24.8 SRS, third highest) is a No. 4 seed.
Top-seeded Kansas, the No. 1 team in the final AP poll, doesn’t qualify, but don’t let that worry you. Since the NCAA expanded the tournament field to 64 in 1985, only four teams ranked No. 1 in the final AP poll ended the season as the national champion. The most recent, Kentucky, was five years ago. Duke (1992 and 2001) and UCLA (1995) are the others. It is not even a lock the top-rated team makes it to the Final Four — since the bracket’s format changed to 68 teams in 2011, only Florida (2014) and Kentucky (2012 and 2015) have made it that far.
You also want to shy away from teams that rely too heavily on the three-point shot. According to Ed Feng, creator of the sports analytics site ThePowerRank.com, teams that rely on three-point shooting tend to have a wider variance in their point outcomes. Feng’s research shows that since 2002 only one eventual champion, Villanova in 2016, took a significantly higher percentage of field goals from beyond the three-point line than the collegiate average. However, Coach Jay Wright changed his strategy considerably in the tournament and had his team take an average rate of shots from behind the arc.
Villanova is taking 44.1 percent of their field goals from behind the arc this year (average is 36.4 percent) and could change its offensive mix again, but give your title vote to the Tar Heels, who are the best offensive rebounding team in the nation (42 percent), creating extra possessions for an offense that scores 122.1 points per 100 possessions (fourth-highest).
Plus, North Carolina has terrific spot-up shooters in Justin Jackson, the ACC Player of the Year, and junior point guard Joel Berry II.
Jackson is excellent around the basket (1.2 points per possession on runners in the lane, 1.3 points per possession on drives to the rim) while Berry has an effective field goal percentage of 69.2 percent on his no-dribble jumper.
A perfect Final Four is nice to have, but not essential. Less than half a percent of people that have filled out a bracket in the past six years have gone 4-for-4. You’re much more likely to get two right, preferably the same two teams that will be up against one another in the title game.
Joining North Carolina in the Final Four will be No. 1 Gonzaga, No. 2 Duke and No. 3 Oregon.
The Ducks share a bracket with No. 10 Oklahoma State, who is likely to upset No. 7 Michigan, and No. 11 Rhode Island, who should beat No. 6 Creighton in the first round. That makes it easier for Oregon to get to the Sweet 16, where it will move past No. 2 Louisville before an Elite Eight showdown with No. 1 Kansas.
Oregon, like any strong tournament team, is good offensively (117.7 points per 100 possessions, 19th in the country) and defensively (93.9 points allowed per 100, 22nd). But their “secret sauce” is discipline, giving up just 520 foul shots all season, with free throws accounting for just 26.6 percent of all shot attempts allowed, 18th lowest rate in the nation.
As for the early rounds: don’t stress too much over the first round and be conservative with picking upsets. Since 2011, no winner in the official bracket game of the NCAA tournament has had more than 25 points in the first round, which translates to seven incorrect picks on average. Plus, the higher seed has historically won 74.5 percent of first-round games while 74 percent of the higher-seeded teams have been victorious in second-round games, so go with the chalk, zeroing in on only a handful of upsets.
And don’t pick a No. 1 seed to be an upset victim in the first three rounds. Over the 426 games they’ve played in the first three rounds since 1985, top seeds prevailed 373 times. That’s a 87.6 percent success rate. Don’t advance the lower-seeded teams too far, either. The No. 14, No. 15 and No. 16 seeded teams have gone 32-379 (7.8 percent win rate) against opponents seeded at least four spots higher than them.
The double-digit seeds most likely to advance from the first round? Look at No. 12 Middle Tennessee, No. 10 Marquette, No. 10 Oklahoma State and No. 11 Rhode Island as the best bets, and look for No. 6 Cincinnati to make an appearance in the Sweet 16.
Cincinnati is another team with good rebounding skills (offensive rebound percentage of 35.8 percent, 19th in the nation) and takes care of the ball (15.2 percent turnover rate, 10th best). Plus, the Bearcats are opportunistic on defense, creating turnovers on 20.8 percent of defensive possessions.
And don’t try to score on forward Gary Clark in the low post. The 6-foot-7, 230-pound junior is holding opponents to a 30 percent field goal percentage in the post with a 31.6 percent forced turnover rate. In other words, you are more likely to turn the ball over than you are of making a shot with Clark acting as the primary defender.
So, what does perfection look like? A little something like this.