A beginner’s guide to the 2022 men’s NCAA tournament

(Greg Kletsel For The Washington Post)
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It’s time to grab your bracket and get ready for March Madness. Whether you have filled out hundreds of NCAA men’s tournament brackets or are just starting out, these clear guidelines can help you maximize your chances in any pool.

There are plenty of strong contenders to win the national championship, which is a fine place to start. Gonzaga, despite a late-season hiccup, has looked every bit the favorite, leading the way for most of the season in almost every ranking system. Blue-blood programs such as Kansas, Duke and Kentucky also figure to be in the mix, giving anyone plenty to puzzle over when staring at an empty bracket.

But don’t feel overwhelmed. Here are 12 simple tips to help you construct a strong NCAA men’s tournament bracket.

1. Don’t stress too much over the first and second rounds

No one gets every game right, so a few losses in the early rounds won’t make or break your bracket. According to research done by the NCAA using data from its Bracket Challenge Game, recent winners of those (very large) pools have gotten, on average, just 25 of 32 first-round games correct.

Plus, most scoring systems reward later rounds so handsomely that it simply isn’t necessary to dominate in the early rounds — or to excessively worry about them. That doesn’t mean you want to blindly pencil teams into the next round. A quick look at analyst Kenneth Massey’s consensus ratings will give you a good idea of which team is most likely to move on in every pairing. The higher-rated team in the consensus ratings has won 72 percent of matchups this season.

2. Downgrade teams that exit early from their conference tournaments

Want evidence the March Madness landscape is always evolving? Look no further than the teams that win their conference tournaments. From 1999 to 2010, eight out of 12 national champions previously won their conference tournaments. Since then, the results have been less encouraging: three champions in 10 years.

However, every national championship-winning team over the past two decades has lasted at least to the semifinal round in its conference tournament, so plan on avoiding teams that made an early exit. No. 1 seed Baylor, No. 2 Auburn, No. 3 Wisconsin, No. 4 Providence, No. 4 Illinois and No. 5 Houston each lost in or before the quarterfinals of their conference tournaments.

Year
National champion
Conference tournament result
2021
Baylor
Lost in the Big 12 semifinals
2019
Virginia
Lost in the ACC semifinals
2018
Villanova
Won the Big East tournament
2017
North Carolina
Lost in the ACC semifinals
2016
Villanova
Lost in the Big East final
2015
Duke
Lost in the ACC semifinals
2014
Connecticut
Lost in the AAC final
2013
Louisville (vacated)
Won the Big East tournament
2012
Kentucky
Lost in the SEC final
2011
Connecticut
Won the Big East tournament

3. Be selective picking upsets

Since 1985, when the men’s field expanded to 64 teams, there have been, on average, 12 upsets per tournament. (An upset is here defined as a win by a team at least two seed lines below the losing team.) Sometimes there are more — there were 19 in 2014 — and sometimes there are less — there were only four in 2007. As you would expect, the deeper you get into the tournament, the fewer upsets occur. So if you are going to be especially bold, the time to do it is usually in the first and second rounds.

Which upsets are the most lucrative? Start by reading our first-round upset guide. If you are comfortable with sports betting, check out the point spreads for each individual game and find lower-seeded teams that are smaller underdogs. Some of those include No. 10 San Francisco (which faces Murray State), No. 10 Loyola Chicago (Ohio State), No. 10 Miami (USC), No. 10 Davidson (Michigan State), No. 11 Michigan (Colorado State) and No. 13 South Dakota State (Providence).

4. Look for promising 11 seeds, not 12 seeds (and definitely not 16 seeds)

As soon as the brackets come out, experienced March Madness fans annually target 5-vs.-12 matchups for first-round upsets. After all, the No. 12 teams are 51-93 against No. 5 teams in the first round, a respectable showing considering the seed differences. But No. 11 seeds have a 54-90 record against No. 6 seeds and generally advance further than No. 12 seeds, albeit narrowly (0.64 wins vs. 0.52 wins).

The teams on the 11-seed line look strong this season. As a group, the 11 seeds are ranked 40th per analyst Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, which on par with the No. 10 seeds (44th on average), and much stronger than the average rankings of the No. 12 (59th) and 13 (75th) seeds.

Iowa State could surprise. The Cyclones have the 10th-best defense in the country heading into the tournament and are three-point underdogs vs. No. 6 seed LSU in the opening round. Michigan is another 11 seed worth a close look. The Wolverines are stellar offensively (115 points per 100 possessions, ranking 18th) and don’t rely on a large share of three-point attempts for their scoring, limiting the ups and downs we might see with other teams.

Whatever you do, shy away from picking a No. 16 seed over a No. 1 in the first round. The novelty might be tempting, but this year’s No. 16 seeds are almost 16 points per game worse than a No. 1 seed on average, putting their win probability around one percent.

5. One of the ‘First Four’ teams is likely going to surprise you

The First Four play-in participants — the four lowest-seeded automatic qualifiers and four at-large teams — need to play their way into the main draw of the tournament. And yet in nine of the past 10 tournaments, at least one First Four team has survived until the second round (there were none in 2019). Four First Four teams have even managed to make it to the Sweet 16. Two, VCU in 2011 and UCLA last year (a team we highlighted in last year’s beginner’s guide), made it to the Final Four.

This year, consider No. 12 Indiana, a four-point favorite over Wyoming in their First Four matchup. Indiana’s defense sets up nicely for a run in the tournament. The Hoosiers allow a field goal rate of 43 percent on two-point attempts, forcing opponents to rely more heavily on three-point shooting to score. That imbalance causes offenses to become less efficient, and gives Indiana — which narrowly lost to Iowa in the Big Ten semifinals — plenty of potential.

6. Pick a Cinderella (or two) to make the Sweet 16

Watching a school defy the odds and progress in the tournament is part of what makes March Madness so enjoyable. That joy is amplified when you correctly advanced them on your bracket. Only once in the past 36 tournaments (1995) has there not been a team seeded No. 7 or worse in the Sweet Sixteen.

Since 2011, No. 11 seeds have provided the best value, making a combined 12 Sweet 16 appearances over 10 seasons. That’s more than any other seed lower than No. 4. A No. 7 seed has made the Sweet 16 10 times over the past decade.

This year, you might lean toward some 13 seeds: Chattanooga, South Dakota State or Vermont.

Chattanooga, much like Indiana, forces opponents to take three-point attempts rather than find more efficient plays around the rim. South Dakota State is the best shooting team in the country. Vermont doesn’t allow many offensive rebounds or second-chance opportunities and is one of the best shooting teams near the basket.

7. Use this strategy to separate teams in the Elite Eight

The most frequent Elite Eight seed matchup over the past nine years has been a No. 1 seed against a No. 2 seed (11 times), followed by a No. 1 seed vs. a No. 3 seed (seven times). Those matchups can be tough to decipher, with the teams more evenly matched, requiring us to get creative with our picks.

Generally speaking, a No. 1 seed will be about two or three points per game better than a No. 2 seed and about four points per game better than a No. 3 seed, implying win rates of 55 and 64 percent, respectively. If you are in a larger pool (100 or more people), go with the team that is picked on fewer brackets per ESPN’s Who Picked Whom data. If you are in a smaller pool, go with the higher-rated seed.

There is also evidence suggesting you should pick the teams that reach the Final Four or the Elite Eight first, before any other parts of your bracket are filled out. That strategy tends to outperform brackets that start with the either the first round or the eventual champion.

8. No. 1 seeds have staying power

You don’t want to send a No. 1 seed home too early. Since 2011, No. 1 seeds have averaged 3.2 wins in the tournament while accounting for more than half of all national title game participants (11 out of 20). They are 128-33 in the tournament since 2011 against all other seeds, a 79.5 percent win rate. This doesn’t mean you should send all four No. 1 seeds into the Final Four, something that’s only happened once (2008). The odds of it happening again this year are 66-1.

Besides using your normal benchmarking to see which team is worthy of a coveted Final Four spot, you could look at the tournament performance of each coach. Gonzaga’s Mark Few has won almost four more games than you would expect after factoring in his teams’ seed and Baylor’s Scott Drew has won two more games than expected. Bill Self of Kansas, by comparison, has won three fewer games than we would expect based on seeding alone. This is Arizona Coach Tommy Lloyd’s first NCAA tournament so no data is available on him, but he is a longtime assistant to Few.

9. A perfect Final Four is nice, but not essential

In some years, as few as one out of every 33,000 brackets had a perfect Final Four, so don’t sweat getting every team right even at this stage. You should, however, focus on getting two Final Four teams right: the two teams that will face each another in the championship game. Putting one or two No. 1 seeds in the Final Four is the most likely scenario.

If you are in a large pool (100 or more people), it pays to be bold here in an effort to differentiate your entry. No. 3 seeds are often underplayed as Final Four contenders relative to how often they appear in the Final Four; they’ve historically been picked by about six percent of the public but have made up about 11 percent of Final Four teams. No. 3 Texas Tech has a lot of value here. The nation’s top defense allows just 85 points per 100 possessions and generates a lot of turnovers (a 24 percent rate, ranking10th). That could provide a great alternative to Gonzaga in the West Region.

10. When picking a national champion, stick with the top teams (but not Gonzaga)

Over the past 10 years, every national champion except one — Connecticut, a No. 7 seed in 2014 — was a No. 1, 2 or 3 seed. Whatever you do, don’t pick Gonzaga to win it all.

Why? Even if you believe Gonzaga is the best team in the tournament — and the Bulldogs have done little to dissuade anyone from that view — this exercise is about winning your pool, and seeing Gonzaga exit early would likely clear about a third of your rivals from the competition. Remember: Getting the national champion right is worth 32 points in most formats, the same as going 32 for 32 in the first round.

No. 2 Kentucky, No. 1 Arizona and No. 1 Kansas are viable alternatives. All are highly ranked by the analytics and none are expected to make an early exit from the tournament.

11. Don’t just guess at the tiebreaker total

The tiebreaker most often used — total points scored in the championship game — is often treated as an afterthought. It doesn’t have to be.

Since 1985, when the men’s tournament expanded to 64 teams, the national title game has averaged 143 total points when decided in regulation. The four overtime games in that span averaged 157 total points. The most total points scored in regulation was in 1990, when UNLV beat Duke, 103-73 (176). The fewest total points came in 2011, when Connecticut beat Butler, 53-41 (94), the same year the tournament expanded to 68 teams.

How many points you choose should be influenced by which teams you have in the final, since pace of play and offensive efficiency help determine how many points a team might score. See this guide for further help.

12. Want to win one of the big bracket pools with millions of entries? Get lucky.

If you find yourself battling with millions of other entrants, you are going to have to get some lucky breaks along the way. The average winning score in the contests offered by ESPN, CBS, Yahoo and others has varied from 164 to 181 over the past five years, with the average winner earning 90 percent of the total points available. If you knew you could pick games with 70 percent accuracy, which is how well analyst Kenneth Massey’s consensus ratings performed this season, the chance of that same system then picking 90 percent of tournament games correctly is 0.004 percent, or 25,000 to 1. In other words, good luck. You might need it.

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