It’s time to dance! March Madness is here, which means casual fans and serious observers alike will spend the week in a bracket-filling frenzy. Let them struggle with their picks; we are going to instead take a calm, sophisticated look at the NCAA men’s tournament field — and then determine which teams offer the most value in bracket contests. In other words, we are going to help you (potentially) win your pool by highlighting selections that have excess value relative to conventional wisdom. As a result, the entry detailed below is not intended to have a “perfect” record in picking individual games, despite the headline above. Instead, it seeks to (potentially) be the highest-scoring bracket at the end of the tournament, thanks to a clever selection of teams that are more valuable than they appear on paper. It all leads to the Perfect Bracket, which, as always, is guaranteed* to win you your pool.
The perfect bracket to win your March Madness men’s pool
(* As we note every year, this might be more like a Patrick Ewing guarantee than a Joe Namath guarantee.)
Of course, you could also fill out 9,223,372,036,854,775,808 brackets and guarantee a win in your pool by accounting for every possible outcome or trim that down to 128 billion combinations by factoring in ratings and seedings, but that’s time better spent reading our coverage on other issues of the day — or this look at college basketball’s fallen dynasties.
As in previous years, the Perfect Bracket intelligently selects upsets by projecting each individual matchup from the ground up, starting with an estimated number of possessions for each team and taking into account any additional possessions to be had via offensive rebounds and turnovers. Then, estimated scores are derived by adjusting each team’s points scored and allowed per 100 possessions for strength of schedule. Once we know the projected scoring margin, we can infer an implied win percentage. For instance, teams that are favored by two points would have an expected win probability of 57 percent. That rises to 77 percent if the predicted scoring margin is seven points. Finally, these win rates are compared to what we would expect by looking at seed matchups in a vacuum, with teams providing stronger upset potential given more weight. Strong teams that are likely to be overlooked by your competitors are also given extra weight.
We also look at how similar teams performed in the tournament, using a weighted blend of the four factors — shooting, turnovers, rebounding and free throws — and comparing that to what’s expected of an average seed. For example, Kansas, the No. 1 seed in the West Region, is similar in performance to the 2015 Kansas squad that, as a No. 2 seed, flamed out in the round of 32. The Jayhawks also appear similar to Ohio State in 2012 (a Final Four team) and in 2013 (when the Buckeyes reached the Elite Eight). Yet some other matches — 2013 Kansas, 2016 Xavier, 2022 Auburn and 2017 Louisville — didn’t advance past the Sweet 16; three of those teams actually lost in the second round. In other words, it’s tough to trust Kansas in this year’s tournament, and you are probably better off selecting a different national champion.
So who can you trust? Below is a region-by-region breakdown of this year’s Perfect Bracket, filled with first-round darlings, Sweet 16 party crashers, a Final Four surprise (or two) and a very worthy national champion.
(See also our best bets to win it all, some tasty first-round upsets, an argument against picking Alabama to win it all, and the full bracket.)
Coach Matt Painter of No. 1 Purdue runs a disciplined ship, and no team is better at avoiding sending its opponents to the free throw line than Purdue. The Boilermakers are also adept at getting second-chance opportunities off offensive rebounds (their offensive rebounding rate is third in the country). Both traits serve to limit the upset potential from lower-ranked opponents — and help explain why Purdue is our first Final Four selection.
One team that could prevent a deep Purdue run is No. 3 Kansas State. Another defensive stalwart, the Wildcats allow just 94.2 points per 100 possessions after adjusting for strength of schedule, giving them a top-20 defense. Good luck hitting your three-point attempts against Kansas State, which has held teams to about 30 percent shooting from behind the arc, which also ranks in the top 20.
Tennessee, the No. 4 seed, has the second-best defense in the country, per Ken Pomeroy, thanks to forcing opponents into ill-timed three-point attempts rather than higher efficiency shots near the rim. It’s possible an opposing team gets lucky and starts to make those outside shots, but Tennessee’s opponents have only managed to shoot a miserable 26 percent from long range this season, so that doesn’t seem likely.
For a first-round upset, look at No. 12 Oral Roberts, which faces Duke, the ACC champion. The 30-4 Golden Eagles don’t turn the ball over on offense much (13 percent, the best mark in the nation), don’t send opponents to the line that often and are a very good shooting team both in front of and beyond the arc. Duke is the No. 5 seed most often picked to make a deep run, and it isn’t close, which means there could be value in siding against the Blue Devils early.
No. 11 Providence upsetting No. 6 Kentucky isn’t as far-fetched as it looks on paper. Pomeroy projects this as a two-point victory by Kentucky, which gives us more than enough wiggle room to go with the lower-seeded team. Plus, teams similar to both Providence and Kentucky average about a win in the tournament, another reason to go with the projected value offered by the lower seed.
This is by far the toughest region, with No. 4 Connecticut possibly the cream of the crop — and our first surprising Final Four selection. The Huskies are good on both sides of the ball and are the country’s best team at grabbing offensive rebounds, hauling in more than 39 percent of their misses for second-chance opportunities. The Huskies also don’t allow many three-point attempts against them (they give up the 14th-lowest rate in the nation) or assists (41 percent of field goals made), which helps keep opposing scoring at manageable levels. They also had the second-best net points per 100 possessions against teams in Quadrants 1 and 2, as defined by the NCAA for use in the NET rating. Only No. 1 seed Houston was better against that group of teams.
While we have the top four seeds advancing to the Sweet 16 in this region, there were quite a few teams that in any other region would have been candidates to make a deep run. No. 10 Boise State limits its opponent’s offensive rebounds and clean looks behind the arc, two ingredients many dark horses have used to bust brackets in the tournament. No. 12 VCU won’t ring any alarm bells, but the relentless Rams are built for an upset or two. They have a tenacious defense (17th best, per Pomeroy) that generates a lot of turnovers. They also get to the free throw line often, which, when mixed with those turnovers, means extra possessions. St. Mary’s, another popular mid-major, could be in trouble in the opening round against VCU.
No. 13 Iona isn’t flashy, but the Gaels do take care of the ball on offense (their 15 percent turnover rate is 28th best) and keep opponents from getting many good looks behind the arc (with just a 29 percent three-point rate against them this season, top 10 in that category). If they weren’t playing Connecticut, they would have been a great pick to win at least one game and perhaps two.
One team to shy away from here is No. 6 TCU. The second half of the season was not kind to the Horned Frogs. Boosters will argue that quality road victories against high seeds Kansas and Baylor, plus home wins over Kansas State and Texas, are proof they are legit. Don’t buy it. Not even their ball-hawking defense (22 percent forced turnover rate, 24th best in the country) gives them the feel of a Sweet 16 team. Look for No. 11 Arizona State to survive a play-in game with Nevada and knock off TCU.
No. 1 Alabama has a solid résumé as a top seed, yet I can’t help but wonder if this tournament is going to end in disappointment for the Crimson Tide. It shouldn’t be a disaster, but a majority of teams similar to this year’s Alabama squad have not advanced further than the Elite Eight, with six of the 10 most similar teams losing in the Sweet 16 or second round. And yet Alabama is by far the most popular national championship pick among people filling in brackets at ESPN. So if you are looking for a popular but vulnerable No. 1 seed to fade, this might be it — and the Tide could lose as early as the second round against No. 8. Maryland. The Terrapins are excellent in the pick and roll, a troublesome play for Alabama’s defense, and the Maryland defense slows down the tempo significantly, which could force the Crimson Tide into late shot-clock attempts, which have resulted in fewer points per possession for the Tide after accounting for the difficulty of the shot.
Instead of a deep Alabama run, consider an overlooked alternative such as No. 5 San Diego State to make it to the Elite Eight or beyond. A top-10 defense has the Aztecs looking like an intriguing dark horse pick, even as a No. 5 seed from the Mountain West. The Aztecs slow their opponents down quite a bit (the average possession length for their opponent is 18.5 seconds, 348th out of 363 teams) and force them into inefficient three-point attempts. If No. 13 Furman knocks off Virginia — Furman has the highest two-point shooting percentage in the college ranks this season and one of the best half-court offenses in the country (98th percentile, per Synergy Sports) — San Diego State could have a path all the way to the Final Four.
Another surprising squad could be No. 10 Utah State, another Mountain West entrant. Junior Steven Ashworth helps lead an efficient offense (13th best in the country, per Pomeroy) and an experienced group (2.9 years on average, 27th) that is searching for its first first-round win since 2001. The Aggies have also been on the rise over the past 10 games, improving their Torvik power rank from 35th to 26th since a loss to San Diego State in early February. The Perfect Bracket has the Aggies knocking off Missouri and Arizona, upsets that would seriously differentiate you from your competition.
Worth noting: It’s unusual to see two teams from the Mountain West tabbed for so much tournament success. After all, conference teams are 12-26 collectively in the tournament since 2011, winning fewer games than you would expect based on their Pomeroy rating and seeding alone. Yet this year’s teams must be evaluated on their own merits — and Utah State is actually the favorite in that first-round matchup with Missouri, according to oddsmakers. In other words, real money is backing the Aggies to win at least one game, despite their No. 10 seeding.
There is so much to like about No. 2 Texas. Coach Rodney Terry, who took over after Chris Beard was arrested on a domestic violence charge in December and was fired in early January, led the Longhorns to a huge win over Kansas in the Big 12 tournament final. The recipe should be the same in the tournament: Force opponents to hold the ball and settle for less-than-ideal attempts near the end of the shot clock. On offense, senior Sir’Jabari Rice leads Texas in points per 100 possessions (28.4), followed closely by fellow senior Marcus Carr (26.9). Carr and sophomore Tyrese Hunter are also the ones to watch behind the arc, shooting a combined 35 percent on three-point attempts this season.
The rest of this bracket is lackluster — No. 3 seed Xavier and No. 4 seed Indiana aren’t particularly grabby — which makes Texas an even more appealing pick. No. 1 Houston is solid on both sides of the ball, yet after an injury to top player Marcus Sasser, the Cougars lost the AAC tournament final to Memphis by double digits. Yes, Memphis went 6 for 12 from beyond the arc when Houston typically allows just 28 percent outside shooting, but that’s the problem with allowing so many three-point shots (44 percent of field goal attempts against Houston are three-pointers, one of the highest rates among tournament teams) — a team just needs a little lucky shooting to spring an upset. Plus, despite Sasser’s injury, there figure to be a lot of brackets with Houston in the Final Four or championship game, limiting your margin of error elsewhere. (Houston is the second most popular pick to make the Final Four among ESPN users.)
No. 11 Mississippi State was one of the last at-large teams into the field, but the Bulldogs are the pick over Iowa State, after they take care of Pittsburgh in a play-in game. And No. 5 Miami, which lost to Duke in the ACC semifinals, is our only pick from the ACC to make the Sweet 16. Good shooting teams are tough to discount in the tournament, and Miami is one of the best shooting teams in the nation with an effective field goal rate of 55 percent (20th in the country). The Hurricanes are the choice to face Texas in the Elite Eight.
Final Four and beyond
Remember, this bracket is intended to potentially win your pool, not rack up easy points as window dressing for a losing entry. That’s why you only see one No. 1 seed, Purdue, in the Final Four, along with unconventional picks No. 2 Texas, No. 4 Connecticut and No. 5 San Diego State.
The Longhorns carry a lot of the freight here as the eventual winner. They are the sixth-best team in the nation, per Pomeroy, with a lot of qualities you want in an eventual champion, such as efficiency on both sides of the ball and plenty of Division I experience. Plus, teams similar to Texas have won 3.4 games, on average, in the tournament. That’s enough to get to the Elite Eight — at which point you want to remain in the game, with enough differentiation to win.
Taking San Diego State over Purdue is also a calculated risk. The Aztecs have an elite defense that forces opponents into difficult three-point attempts rather than allow them to get easier second-chance opportunities. Purdue is already a poor three-point shooting team that also relies on offensive rebounds for easier baskets. If those are taken away, an upset is much more manageable for the Aztecs — and if Texas is playing San Diego State in the final, your March Madness experience will be just about perfect.