The perfect bracket to win your March Madness pool

After an uncomfortably long hiatus, March Madness is back. Wall-to-wall basketball will resume in earnest Friday, giving us weeks of (almost) nonstop entertainment. The bracket pools you know and love will also return, offering a chance at bragging rights and perhaps some winnings to help ease pandemic doldrums.

If you want to guarantee a win in your men’s NCAA tournament pool, you’ll need to fill out 9,223,372,036,854,775,808 brackets. If that doesn’t sound daunting enough, consider if you filled out one bracket every second it would still take you 292 billion years to cover all the possibilities. You could trim that down to 128 billion combinations by factoring in ratings and seedings but that’s time better spent reading great journalism. Instead, just study up on this perfect NCAA tournament bracket that is guaranteed* to win you your pool.

(* As we note every year, this might be more like a Patrick Ewing guarantee than a Joe Namath guarantee.)

[2021 NCAA tournament cheat sheet: Bracket tips, upsets picks and more]

The Perfect Bracket is more than just a bunch of game-by-game predictions — it also seeks to differentiate your picks from others in your pools by highlighting selections that have higher potential value relative to conventional wisdom. 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 multiplying those respective possessions by the team’s raw offensive rating found at Ken Pomeroy’s site. 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 in the bracket.

So, what does perfection look like? Here you go.

West
East
South
Midwest

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 and a very worthy national champion.

East

East

Michigan got the nod as the top seed in the East despite falling to Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament semifinals. Senior forward Isaiah Livers missed that game after suffering a stress fracture in his right foot. Livers had started every game this season, averaging 13.1 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists while shooting 43.1 percent from behind the three-point line. He was worth 10.7 net points per 100 possessions based on those stats, the second-highest figure on the team. Without him, Michigan would be diminished on both sides of the ball.

The injury also allows No. 2 seed Alabama to take center stage in this region. The Crimson Tide has the country’s second-best defense, per Pomeroy, and is the most likely team to represent the East in the Final Four. (That doesn’t mean you should take Alabama, though. Read on.)

[March Madness bracket pool tips: A beginner’s guide to the 2021 NCAA Tournament]

Maryland, a No. 10 seed, is back in the tournament for the sixth time under Coach Mark Turgeon. The Terrapins’ heavy utilization of a “small-ball” lineup — Donta Scott is the tallest player in that mix at 6-foot-7 — doesn’t lead to many offensive rebounds (the Terps rank 330th in the country) nor do they create many turnovers (305th), two hallmarks of underdogs that go far in the Big Dance. Plus, Maryland often underwhelms this time of year. The Terps have been a single-digit seed five times since 2011 and have just four NCAA tournament wins to show for it, never advancing past the Sweet 16.

Don't overlook Colorado when sizing up the East's Final Four threats. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Don't overlook Colorado when sizing up the East's Final Four threats. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The team in this region no one will be talking about is No. 5 seed Colorado. Coach Tad Boyle’s roster has experience (2.3 years per player) and his team is ranked 17th in offense and 29th in defense per Pomeroy’s ratings. The Buffaloes excel in the half court (93rd percentile for raw offensive efficiency) and their pick-and-roll flourishes with McKinley Wright IV handling the ball. In these situations, the team scores nearly half the time (49 percent), averaging more than a point per possession. Michigan, a potential opponent in the Sweet 16, is underwhelming at defending ballhandlers on pick and rolls (21st percentile, per Synergy Sports). Colorado has a chance to slip by Alabama in a regional final, a result few of your competitors are likely to predict.

[The NCAA tournament’s most vulnerable top seeds that could make early exits]

Also, take a close look at No. 13 UNC Greensboro, part of a historically strong group of 13 seeds. The Spartans finished first in the Southern Conference, their first regular season title since 2018, and they did so with defense. The Spartans led their league in adjusted points allowed per 100 possessions (96.0) and in blocked shot percentage. Their transition defense is top notch (less than a point per possession allowed, putting them in the 86th percentile nationally) and they don’t give up easy baskets. Opponents shot just 27 percent against UNC Greensboro on catch-and-shoot attempts classified as “guarded” by Synergy Sports.

Abilene Christian’s stellar defense similarly could make the Wildcats a threat against No. 3 seed Texas, and they’re an intriguing first-round upset option. No. 11 UCLA could also emerge from the First Four and give No. 6 seed BYU some trouble. UCLA has an efficient offense (26th per Pomeroy) that doesn’t rely heavily on the three-point shot, making them less vulnerable to scoring volatility. That doesn’t mean they aren’t a good three-point shooting team. They are, making 36.7 percent from behind the arc. The Perfect Bracket has UCLA advancing to a Sweet 16 meeting with Alabama.

Midwest

Midwest

The Big Ten has been the best conference this season, producing two No. 1 seeds and two more No. 2 seeds. Illinois, the top seed in the Midwest, defeated Iowa and Ohio State in consecutive days to earn the tournament title. Even without that result, the Illini would be a top-tier national championship contender, and are clearly one of the best bets to win it all.

The Illini are one of three teams in the country with offenses and defenses ranked in Pomeroy’s top 10 (Michigan and Gonzaga are the others). Missing star Ayo Dosunmu for a regular season game against Michigan? No problem: Illinois won in a rout, 76-53. Dosunmu returned and the Illini went on the road to the Schottenstein Center and beat Ohio State, 73-68, with Dosunmu hitting the go-ahead shot in the final minute.

Houston is a solid second seed, while the No. 3 seed in this region, West Virginia, is winning with offense these days, scoring 116.1 points per 100 possessions, per Pomeroy’s rankings. Most of that scoring comes via three-point shooting; West Virginia manages just 46 percent shooting from inside the arc, a mark that ranks 292nd in the country. With so much offense coming from long range, the Mountaineers’ scoring volatility is high, making them a shaky bet to go far.

[The best first-round upsets to pick for your NCAA tournament bracket]

No. 4 Oklahoma State is also vulnerable. Freshman Cade Cunningham, the likely top overall pick in the upcoming NBA draft, led the Big 12 in scoring (20.2 points per game) and was named the conference’s player of the year, becoming just the fourth freshman to earn the award. However, he has been dealing with an ankle injury and one wrong step could make it difficult for Cunningham to help this team overcome its shortcomings. The Cowboys cough up the ball at an alarming rate (a 22 percent turnover rate, fifth-worst among tournament teams) and lack a second reliable threat outside of Cunningham to stretch the defense from beyond the arc.

Coach Brian Dutcher and San Diego State will be a tough out this month. (David Becker/Getty Images)
Coach Brian Dutcher and San Diego State will be a tough out this month. (David Becker/Getty Images) (David Becker/Getty Images)

San Diego State has no such issues. According to the average of 54 different ranking systems, the sixth-seeded Aztecs are the 15th-best team in the country. San Diego State holds opponents to 89.5 points per 100 possessions after adjusting for strength of schedule, the 11th-best defensive mark. They should fare better than their predecessors from the Mountain West Conference, a collection of schools that, since 2000, has won 17 fewer games than expected based on seeding over 47 tournament appearances. It has also been the third-worst performing conference since 2011, with nine wins fewer than expected based on seeding over 21 tournament appearances. Still, the Perfect Bracket puts the Aztecs in the regional final against Illinois.

South

South

This is not a friendly draw for top-seeded Baylor, one of the two heavyweights of the regular season. No. 2 seed Ohio State, defeated by Illinois in the Big Ten championship game, and No. 9 seed Wisconsin are both ranked in Pomeroy’s top 10. No. 4 seed Purdue and No. 5 Villanova, the best team in the Big East, are not far behind at No. 13 and No. 12, respectively. No. 3 seed Arkansas and No. 6 Texas Tech are also ranked among Pomeroy’s top 25 teams. That’s a tough regional field for any team, even one as talented as Baylor.

Things could be looking up for No. 2 seed Ohio State. (Michael Conroy/AP)
Things could be looking up for No. 2 seed Ohio State. (Michael Conroy/AP)

Ohio State’s chances to reach the Final Four (19 percent) are almost twice what people expect from an average No. 2 seed, making the Buckeyes an interesting pick. Arkansas could also be dangerous. The Razorbacks are a top-10 team per the average of 54 different rating systems; they can shoot and play defense; and they closed the regular season with 11 straight SEC wins, the best run in the league this season and tied for the best conference winning streak in school history.

They could be tripped up in the second round, though. Utah State is more than twice as likely to make a run to the Sweet Sixteen as a typical 11 seed (16 percent), making the Aggies a nice value play. The Aggies have the eighth-best defense in the nation, per Pomeroy’s ratings, and they don’t allow many offensive rebounds. They do create second-chance opportunities for themselves (with the 16th-best offensive rebounding rate), giving them a decent chance to surprise both Texas Tech and Arkansas.

[Need an upset pick? No. 13 seeds are the new No. 12 seeds.]

No. 8 North Carolina’s chances likely hinge on how well former five-star prospect Caleb Love fares. The Tar Heels are 7-0 this season when he records 15 or more points. But if there’s a Cinderella run from a lower seed in this region, it might very well be courtesy of No. 9 Wisconsin. The Badgers limped into the Big Ten tournament, losing three straight and five of their final six games. They then lost to Iowa in the tournament quarterfinals. If you value momentum, look elsewhere. However, Wisconsin is one of the best teams in the nation at limiting turnovers on offense and has plenty of experience (with an average roster tenure of 2.4 years in college basketball), two traits that could serve the Badgers well during a potential run to a regional final against Big Ten rival Ohio State.

West

West

Gonzaga boasts an unblemished résumé (26-0), a sparkling 7-0 record against Quadrant 1 teams and the most efficient offense in the country after adjusting for opponent (126.1 points per 100 possessions). However, that hasn’t always led to success. Just once since 2011 has the best offense cut the Final Four nets down (Villanova in 2018). Only one other time since then was the best offense featured in the national title game (Wisconsin, 2015). Gonzaga entered the tournament with the best offense in 2019, too, and got no further than the Elite Eight before running into a defensive marvel in Texas Tech. Plus, the Bulldogs are such big favorites that their value to you is mostly gone.

SeasonMost efficient offense per PomeroyNCAA tournament result2011No. 1 Ohio StateLost in Sweet 162012No. 2 MissouriLost in the round-of-642013No. 1 IndianaLost in Sweet 162014No. 3 CreightonLost in the round-of-322015No. 1 WisconsinLost in the final2016No. 2 Michigan StateLost in the round-of-642017No. 10 Oklahoma StateLost in the round-of-642018No. 1 VillanovaWon championship2019No. 1 GonzagaLost in the Elite Eight2020Tournament canceled2021No. 1 Gonzaga???

No. 2 seed Iowa, meantime, should fly under the radar. The Hawkeyes had the second-most efficient offense in 2021 (123.5 points per 100 possessions after adjusting for opponent) and like their superhero namesake they are accurate from long range, shooting almost 39 percent from behind the arc (13th in the nation). Luka Garza, a Wooden Award contender, leads the team, averaging 23.7 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game. Plus, Iowa doesn’t send its opponents to the line very often, limiting one mode of scoring. Iowa hasn’t reached the Sweet 16 since 1999 but don’t let that deter you. This is a deep team that can go deep in the tournament.

No. 5 Creighton has been a top 20 team all year per Pomeroy’s ratings, peaking at No. 10 after a victory over St. John’s in January. Plus, the Bluejays led the Big East in effective field goal percentage (56 percent) and were second to Villanova in offensive efficiency (109.7 points per 100 possessions). Despite the solid résumé, don’t pencil Creighton too far in your bracket, because Coach Greg McDermott has a puzzling trend of underwhelming performances in the tournament. In 2018, he saw his squad lose in the opening round as a No. 8 seed, a year after bowing out in the first round as a No. 6 seed. In 2014, the Bluejays, a No. 3 seed, lost to No. 6 Baylor by 30 points in the second round.

Creighton’s opening opponent, UC Santa Barbara, might be the region’s best chance at producing a Cinderella. The 12th-seeded Gauchos won the Big West regular season title for the first time since 2010 and are in the tournament for the first time since 2011. JaQuori McLaughlin, the Big West player of the year, leads the Gauchos in scoring (16.2 points per game) and assists (5.2). He also shoots 40.4 percent from behind the arc.

JaQuori McLaughlin and UC Santa Barbara are a 12 seed to watch. (Sam Morris/Getty Images)
JaQuori McLaughlin and UC Santa Barbara are a 12 seed to watch. (Sam Morris/Getty Images) (Sam Morris/Getty Images)

If Coach Joe Pasternack can get past Creighton, he and his squad would face the winner of No. 4 Virginia and No. 13 Ohio. Virginia is terrible at creating second-chance opportunities off missed shots (343rd in the country) and the most recent national champions don’t force many turnovers on defense (333rd). Ohio allows a significant portion of field goal attempts to come from behind the arc (40 percent, 264th). UC Santa Barbara, meanwhile, is strong on putbacks (converting 54 percent) and hits 40 percent of uncontested threes on the catch-and-shoot. Could the Gauchos and Ohio meet for the chance to tangle with Gonzaga?

Also look for No. 6 USC to advance to the Sweet 16 at the expense of No. 3 Kansas. USC is the 14th-best team per Pomeroy’s rankings (Kansas is 22nd), and no team is better than the Trojans at locking down the rim, forcing their foes to attempt more midrange and three-point shots. The Jayhawks, meantime, are a middling team from beyond the arc (ranking 173rd) and even worse from midrange (shooting 32 percent).

Final Four and beyond

Don’t stress about having a perfect Final Four. Almost no one does, and this season was unlike any we have seen, potentially allowing luck to play a larger role than normal. Over the past eight years, only a tiny fraction of people (0.25 percent) have gone 4-for-4 in predicting the Final Four, and that was even lower last year (0.1 percent). You’re much more likely (23 percent over the past three years) to get two teams right — preferably the two teams that will face off in the championship game.

[The five best bets to win the 2021 NCAA tournament]

Of course, Gonzaga will almost surely be the most popular Final Four pick this season. This model gives the Bulldogs a 67 percent chance of making it that far, almost double any other school in the tournament. But that still leaves a 33 percent chance Gonzaga won’t make it out of the West Region, and that’s an opportunity. No. 2 Iowa is a top-10 team according to the average of 54 different ranking systems and could make a run, possibly as far as to the national title game, which few of your rivals will forecast.

Colorado could also surprise in that wide-open East Region, especially with Michigan on its side of the bracket. The Buffaloes have a 12 percent chance to make the Final Four per this model, which is on par with Michigan (10 percent) and ahead of Texas (eight percent). The Buffaloes’ biggest hurdle might be Alabama (20 percent), but they wouldn’t face the Tide until the Elite Eight, and that contest would be close to a coin flip.

Look for the other side of the bracket to more closely follow the seeding. Two more Big Ten teams, No. 2 seed Ohio State (South) and No. 1 seed Illinois (Midwest), should emerge from their regions, with the latter looking every bit the title contender.

The Perfect Bracket points to Illinois as your best national title pick. (Michael Conroy/AP)
The Perfect Bracket points to Illinois as your best national title pick. (Michael Conroy/AP)

Over the past eight years, every national champion except one — Connecticut, a No. 7 seed in 2014 — was a No. 1, 2 or 3 seed. Since 1985, when the field was expanded to 64 teams, all but four of the 34 winners were a No. 1, 2 or 3 seed; 21 of the 34 (62 percent) were No. 1 seeds.

Winners have also typically played in one of the 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 17 winners have had their own, individual SRS rank in the top four nationally.

The qualifying conferences this year include the Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, Big East and ACC, indicating Illinois (Big Ten), Michigan at full strength (Big Ten) and Baylor (Big 12) are the best bets to become this year’s national champion. Perhaps you can add Iowa (Big Ten) to this list since they are one-tenth of one SRS point away from Baylor. Gonzaga, playing in the West Coast Conference (the ninth-best conference, per SRS) wouldn’t be considered, and Michigan is limited by the injury concern.

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That leaves Illinois and Baylor as the title hopefuls to consider. Baylor’s attempts to overtake Gonzaga as the top team in the nation were held back by an extended pause because of coronavirus protocols, but this is still very much a team that will get respect in this year’s tournament. Perhaps too much respect.

The Bears are vulnerable to a second-round upset against Wisconsin — the Perfect Bracket sides with Wisconsin — and despite a head-to-head win over Illinois, the Bears did their damage against the nation’s 78th toughest schedule, per Pomeroy’s rankings. Illinois, by comparison, had the third-toughest schedule and emerged as the postseason winner of the toughest conference. That’s what you want in a champion. Iowa, the seventh-best team in the country based on the average of 54 rankings, would be a fine contrarian choice, but the pick here is Illinois.

Neil Greenberg is a staff writer with The Washington Post whose beat is sports analytics. His analysis and insight can be found in the sports section, where he covers the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB as well as college football and basketball.