Not us, though. We are going to go step by step to help you to potentially rise to the top of the leader board, no matter your experience level with college basketball. And the best thing is, it won’t take long.
Here are 12 simple tips to help you construct a strong NCAA men’s tournament bracket.
(See also, our Perfect Bracket, some tasty first-round upsets, the best bets to win it all, and why to avoid Alabama. The full bracket can be found here.)
Worry about the Elite Eight and beyond, not the first and second rounds
It’s always nice to have a few early upsets on your bracket, but they aren’t necessary to win your pool. According to research done by the NCAA using data from its Bracket Challenge Game from 2011 to 2019, winners of those (very large) pools have gotten, on average, just 25 of 32 first-round games correct.
Plus, most scoring systems increase the points awarded per round, sometimes exponentially, which means you might get the same number of points for picking the national champion as you would get if you went a perfect 32 for 32 in the first round. 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 those consensus ratings has won 67 percent of matchups this season.
There is also evidence suggesting you should pick the teams to reach the Final Four or the Elite Eight first, before you complete any other parts of your bracket. That strategy tends to outperform brackets that start with the either the first round or the eventual champion. In short: Worry about the end of the bracket, not the beginning.
Favor teams that did well in conference tournaments
There was a time when you wanted your eventual title team to have won its conference tournament, but that’s no longer necessary. From 1999 to 2010, eight out of 12 national champions won their conference tournaments. In the 11 tournaments since, just four conference champions won the national championship.
However, every national championship-winning team over the past 28 years — with the exception of Arizona in 1997, which didn’t have a conference tournament — has lasted at least to the semifinal round in its conference tournament. So plan on avoiding teams that made an early exit. This year, No. 3 seeds Kansas State and Baylor, No. 4 seed Tennessee, No. 6 seed Kentucky and No. 7 seeds Michigan State and Northwestern all lost in the quarterfinals of their conference tournaments.
Be selective picking upsets. Focus on teams similar to previous bracket-busters.
The upsets — defined here as a win by a team at least two seed lines below the losing team — get much of the attention, yet the truth is there aren’t that many each year. Since 1985, when the men’s field expanded to 64 teams, there have been, on average, 12 upsets per tournament. Sometimes there are more — there were 17 last year — and sometimes there are fewer — 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 as mentioned above, aren’t especially important anyhow.
So how do you decide which teams are capable of busting brackets? If you are comfortable with sports betting, check out the point spreads for each individual game and find lower-seeded teams that are either smaller underdogs or favored outright. Some of those this season include No. 10 Utah State (which faces Missouri), No. 10 Boise State (which faces Northwestern) and No. 12 Drake (which faces Miami).
You could also check out the consensus rankings and make decisions accordingly. Remember, the higher-rated team has won 67 percent of the time this season, giving us a good indicator of potential upsets.
For early upsets, look at promising 11 seeds, not 12 seeds (and definitely not 16 seeds)
As soon as the brackets come out, fans often target No. 12 seeds for first-round upsets, because past 12 seeds tend to stick out in everyone’s mind. However, teams seeded No. 12 have a 23-44 record since 2011, when the tournament expanded to 68 teams. No. 11 seeds, on the other hand, have gone 46-44 over that span, a huge contrast to their more sought-after bracket-busting brethren. In fact, No. 11 seeds actually have better records over the past 11 iterations than single-digit seeds such as No. 5s, No. 6s, No. 8s and No. 9s.
No. 11 Providence — which faces No. 6 Kentucky in the first round — appears to be the best choice among this seed group. The Friars’ Pomeroy rating (a popular efficiency measure) is on par with that of two No. 7 seeds, Northwestern and Missouri, and they have the 16th most efficient offense in the country.
Don’t be scared of the ‘First Four’ teams
The First Four play-in participants — the four lowest-seeded automatic qualifiers and four at-large teams — need to play their way into the field of 64 with games on either Tuesday or Wednesday. And yet in 10 of the past 11 tournaments, at least one First Four team has survived until the second round. Four First Four teams have managed to make it to the Sweet 16. Two, VCU in 2011 and UCLA in 2020, made it all the way to the Final Four.
No. 11 seed Pittsburgh won its First Four game Tuesday night, while Arizona State faces Nevada on Wednesday night.
The Sweet 16 is the time for Cinderellas to shine. Here’s who might make a run.
Cinderella teams, those low-seeded teams few believe in at the start of the tournament, help make this tournament enjoyable. It’s even sweeter when you correctly identify them on your bracket. Only once in the past 37 tournaments (1995) has there not been a team seeded No. 7 or worse in the Sweet 16. Last year, we saw four double-digit seeds, including No. 15 Saint Peter’s, make it that far.
As mentioned, two No. 10 seeds look strong this season, No. 10 Boise State and No. 10 Utah State. Boise State doesn’t allow many second-chance opportunities and Utah State has one of the most efficient offenses in the country, which also shines on the offensive glass. Those are historically good indicators for March success. Both teams play in the Mountain West Conference, which has a poor recent NCAA tournament track record, but we’re examining these teams on their merits, not their conference’s history.
Consider value plays in the final rounds
The most frequent Elite Eight seed matchup over the past 10 years has been a No. 1 seed against a No. 2 seed (nine times), followed by a No. 1 seed vs. a No. 3 seed (six times). Those matchups can be tough to decipher, with top 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 some teams that are picked on fewer brackets, per ESPN’s Who Picked Whom data. If you are in a smaller pool, it’s okay to take more of the top seeds. This year, No. 2 seeds Arizona and Marquette lag behind the other top seeds in the public picks, which could indicate some value.
But No. 1 seeds have staying power
The No. 1 seeds got that honor for a reason — so be careful discounting them too much. Over the past 11 tournaments, No. 1 seeds have averaged 3.3 tournament wins while accounting for more than half of all national title game participants (12 out of 22). They are 139-36 in the tournament since 2011, a 79 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 in any given year are about 67-1.
Purdue is the least popular No. 1 seed in public picks, but that might be a miscalculation. The Boilermakers are great at rebounding on both sides of the court, incredibly disciplined, and tall, with an effective height (the average of the center and power forward position) of 78.6 inches. That means their frontcourt is able to dictate terms in the post and restricted area.
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 6 percent of the public but have made up about 11 percent of Final Four teams. No. 3 Gonzaga might have a lot of value here. The nation’s top offense scores 124 points per 100 possessions after adjusting for strength of schedule and features senior center Drew Timme, one of 10 semifinalists for the national player of the year.
Take a powerhouse to win it all (but not Houston or Alabama)
Over the past 24 tournaments, every national champion except one — Connecticut, a No. 7 seed in 2014 — was a No. 1, 2 or 3 seed. This year, though, be wary of No. 1 seeds Alabama and Houston.
Why? Houston’s star guard, Marcus Sasser, suffered a groin injury in the conference tournament. Sasser has been worth 12.7 more points per 100 possessions than an average collegiate player on an average college team. Only three other players were more valuable this season. Take him away and Houston might not be a contender. His primary backups, guards Terrance Arceneaux and Emanuel Sharp, are far less effective, worth 4.3 and 1.5 more points per 100 possessions, respectively.
Avoid Alabama, too. Circa Sports, one of the sharpest sportsbooks in the country, is offering a price of +700 (wager $100 to win $700) for Alabama to win the national title. That translates to a 12 percent chance Alabama cuts down the nets at the end of the tournament. That’s significantly less than the 20 percent of entrants who are picking them at ESPN. Remember: You want the best chance to win; not the best chance to be correct.
Instead, consider No. 2 Texas. The Longhorns are solid on both sides of the court and have a ton of experience. In fact, only three tournament teams — No. 10 Penn State, No. 4 Virginia and No. 6 Iowa State — have rosters with more court experience than Texas, according to kenpom.com.
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 145 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).
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. You could use the historical average or median (148) and get close, although scoring was down this season, continuing a trend.
And finally … get lucky
If you find yourself battling hundreds, thousands or even millions of other entrants, you are going to have to get some lucky breaks along the way. The average winning score in the massive contests offered by ESPN, CBS, Yahoo and others has varied from 164 to 181 over the past few years, with the average winner earning 90 percent of the total points available. If you had a system that could pick games with approximately 70 percent accuracy, 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.