March Madness is here and, with it, once again begins that elusive quest for a perfect bracket. How elusive is it? Well, it’s never been done. But you’re about to change all that and it’s because of our amazing madness tips. Well, ok. You probably won’t have a perfect bracket. And we can’t even say for sure that you’ll win your own pool. They call it madness for a reason. This is the most utterly unpredictable event in all of sports. But we’ll give you every possible advantage with these 11 Tips for a Brilliant Bracket.
Believe it or not, one guy almost had a perfect bracket last year. But it’s not what you think. According to SB Nation, the 2018 tournament saw one remarkably un-clairvoyant bracketologist pick an improbable zero of 20 games correctly before finally landing his first punch with Nevada's Day 2 victory over Texas. We didn’t follow up, but we’re guessing that dude didn’t win his pool.
Picking the first 20 games wrong isn’t easy to do, even if you’re doing it on purpose. In fact, getting the whole first day of the tournament wrong is actually harder than picking perfectly. In 2018, ESPN reported that only 6,306 of 17.3 million brackets remained perfect after Day 1: .04% of players went an incredible 16-0. On the opposite side of the coin, a mere 18 brackets actually went 0-16. Some of those respondents were probably family pets.
Going 0-20… that is really hard to do.
Of course, it’s also not really your goal. Your goal is to win your pool, or failing that, to at least have a rooting interest in the most exciting annual event in all of sports.
Your bracket is supposed to make an exciting event even more exciting. And of course, there’s always that tantalizing improbability of a perfect bracket.
The odds of filling out a perfect bracket aren’t as bad as you think. I mean, they’re really, really bad, but not as bad as you think.
We’ll get to that, and we’ll get to a whole bunch of awesome tips for your month of madness. We’ll do everything in our power to help you prognosticate the outcome of this year’s tournament, short of inventing a flux capacitor and traveling a few weeks into the future. We tried that one year, and while it was awesome for our bracket, the implications of time travel are simply too dangerous.
We’ll just have to rely on a combination of Lady Luck and Madame Probability.
Now, as for that perfect bracket…
So You’re Saying There’s a Chance?
Well, not really. But don’t let that stop you from dreaming. The numbers may not be as bad as they say (“they” being a vaguely-defined collection of experts and internet folks).
According to statistical wizard Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, the oft-quoted statistical likelihood of hitting a perfect bracket — 1 in 9.2 quintillion — is not exactly accurate. This number treats every single game — 63 of them to be exact — as a 50/50 coin flip. This approach is not very useful when you consider actual win probabilities per individual game. Consider, for instance, the infrequency with which #16 seeds have defeated #1 seeds in history. This has occurred in substantially less than 1% of all such matchups, meaning these first-round games are hardly a coin-tosses.
Using the far more sophisticated FiveThirtyEight March Madness predictions, we find that the odds of a perfect bracket vary from year to year based on the difficulty of predicting individual games according to relevant and ever-changing variables. But within that variance, FiveThirtyEight says your chances of nailing it on every pick would be roughly 1 in 2 billion. Not too shabby.
But still, maybe set your sights a little lower. Just focus on winning your office pool and we’ll go from there. FiveThirtyEight certainly doesn’t rule out putting together a flawless first round. And there’s an outside chance that the luckiest and most knowledgeable among us could even bring a full dance card to the Sweet 16.
I mean, you’d have to be pretty freakin’ smart, but you could do it.
And if you do those things, you’ll be a pretty strong contender for the win. Follow the tips below and at the very least, you’ll raise your odds of being crowned a local March Madness champion. If you don’t own a basketball hoop, we suggest getting one so you can cut the net down in front of your friends, classmates, or co-workers.
With that, here are 11 Tips for Mastering March Madness and Building a Brilliant Bracket!
1. Follow Pool Rules
It’s both the size of the pool and the motion of the ocean.
Every pool has a different scoring system. Some pools award points straight up for correct picks, regardless of seeding: 1 point for each win in the first round; 2 in the second round; 4 in third round, and so on.
Other pools award more points for picking upsets. So the further one of your Cinderella picks goes, the further you lurch ahead of the competition. Correctly pegging a #12 to make the Sweet 16 would be worth a lot more than choosing a #1 pulling off the same feat.
So before you start meting out wins and losses, figure out how you’re likely to be rewarded in your particular pool. Know the rules and use them to make tough decisions.
The size of your pool matters too. If it’s just you and your extended family — including that one aunt who went to Duke and gets really competitive, talks a lot of trash, maybe even steps over the line and says something kind of offensive, to the extent that you really want to win just to shut her big mouth — pick a top-seeded contender with strong odds of winning it all. The fewer the contenders, the likelier it is that picking the correct champion will win you the whole bracket.
If you’re in a company-wide pool, and your company occupies six floors of an office building, and there are 90 contenders, and the only one you know is that guy from accounts receivable who thinks your name is Larry, even though you’re name is definitely not Larry, pick a sleeper. With bigger pools, there is a much higher risk of overlapping champions. That means that you could pick the correct #1 to win it all, but still lose the pool on overall points. A lot of people picked Villanova to win it all last year, which means a lot of people got it right but went home empty-handed. Use the bigger pool to take the leap of faith on a sleeper pick. Show that dude from accounts receivable, and all those other people you’ve never met, just how smart you are.
If you’re not sure how to navigate your decisions based on the rules and size of your pool, get your cheat codes from Bracket Voodoo’s Bracket Optimizer.
2. We’re #1 for a Reason
Teams that get the top seed aren’t there by accident. So says history. Dating all the way back to the very first year the tournament used seeding — 1979 — there have only been four tournaments in which a No. 1 seed didn’t make it into the Final Four.
As it happens, last year — 2018 — was one of those years. But still, the chances are good, based on both history and the real-deal implications of being crowned a #1 seed, that at least one of these four teams will be with you for the duration of the tournament.
Of course, that doesn’t give you any guarantees. You still have to pick the right ones. And you have to be prepared for unplanned early departures as well. The #1 seeds may be there for a reason, but that doesn’t mean they get any free rides. As rare as it is to enter the Final Four without a single #1, it is yet that much rarer for all four #1s to face off. This happened only once ever, in 2008.
If your Final Four contenders are all #1 seeds, you probably aren’t trying hard enough.
3.Don’t Get Attached to that Quirky #16 Seed
Deciding when your #1s should make their exit is a tough call, but here’s one pro-tip; it probably won’t be in the first round. In fact, until 2018, it had never happened.
But in 2018, the Golden Retrievers of UMBC shocked the world, shattered brackets, and became the answer to a brand-new trivia question with their unprecedented first round defeat of the top-ranked Virginia Cavaliers. It is the first and only time that a #16 seed has ever knocked off a #1 and advanced to the second round. And they didn’t just beat Virginia. They humiliated them, surging to a 20 point victory.
So it finally happened last year and it was bonkers. Once again, they call it madness for a reason. But if you think you can predict that happenstance again…well, just don’t get too clever. That upset may have busted a billion brackets right out of the gate last year, but I wouldn’t stake the farm on it happening again. Historically, sixteen seeds still boast a rate of victory that is notably less than 1%.
4. Pick Upsets…#10, I’m Looking in Your Direction
So you'll probably want to avoid #16 seeds. But, you do have to pick some upsets. That’s what gives March its reputation for Madness. Lower seeds beat higher seeds. It happens right there under the bright lights. But picking the right one and predicting a magical run is catching lightning in a bottle.
The NCAA defines an upset as a team being ousted by a competitor at least two slots lower in tourney seeding.
According to the NCAA, going into the 2018 tournament, 26 of the prior 33 seasons had seen somewhere between 10 and 16 upsets across all 63 games. The outlying years might have seen more or less, but generally speaking, that’s the sweet spot. You’re looking to peg somewhere between 10 and 16 upsets throughout your bracket.
The annual average number of upsets per tournment, going into the 2018 bracket, was just under 13% of games. Lucky 13%.
As for how best to distribute your upsets, the idea is to pick roughly half as many upsets in each round as you did in the previous round.
So where to start? Conventional wisdom says look to the #12 seeds for your likeliest upset. People love 12-picks, and if you’re playing in a pool that rewards greater points for more mathematically improbable upsets, it’s easy to see why. Between 1985 and 2017, #12 seeds bested #5 seeds in 35.6% of games.
Going into the 2018 tournament, USA Today pointed out that #12 seeds have achieved an outstanding 9-11 Round 1 record over the prior 5 seasons.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that #12 gives you the best odds of picking an upset. That crown actually goes to the unheralded #10 seed, with a 38.6% rate of victory in recent tournament history.
For a sense of how upsets have broken down over history, the NCAA offers this table, which marks the frequency of certain upset probabilities based on outcomes between 1985 and 2017.
First Round Upset:
- No. 10 seed over No. 7 seed/38.6%
- No. 11 seed over No. 6 seed/37.1%
- No. 12 seed over No. 5 seed/35.6%
- No. 13 seed over No. 4 seed/19.7%
- No. 14 seed over No. 3 seed/15.9%
- No. 15 seed over No. 2 seed/6.0%
5. Factor Jet Lag Into Your Coin Flip
So now that you know which seeds to lean on, how do you know which matchups to target? Well, you could learn a thing or two about the teams themselves. Teams with higher foul shot and three-point percentages tend to do better, as do teams that have won their conference title during the regular season.
You could also take into account injuries, experience, and a host of other variables that suggest you’ve really dedicated the time to get to know these 64 teams. Good for you. I haven’t got that kind of time.
So I need to consider a few intangibles, especially when I’m torn on those ever-elusive #8 vs. #9 matchups. That’s where home court advantage comes into play. Technically, nobody really has home court advantage, but there’s often one team that had to travel a little farther to get there.
Know where the game is being played, how far each team had to fly or drive, and therefore, which team is also likely to carry a few fans into the stands on game day. In other words, look at a map and see who is playing in closest geographic proximity to their real home court. In a coin flip, give this team the advantage.
Here’s a look at the March Madness schedule with projected locations for the the 2019 tournament:
ROUND: SITE/2019 DATES
- Selection Sunday: N/A/March 17
- First Four: Dayton, OH/March 19-20
- 1st/2nd Rounds: Hartford, CT/March 21/23
- 1st/2nd Rounds: Salt Lake City, UT/March 21/23
- 1st/2nd Rounds: Des Moines, IA/March 21/23
- 1st/2nd Rounds: Jacksonville, FL/March 21/23
- 1st/2nd Rounds: Tulsa, OK/March 22/24
- 1st/2nd Rounds: Columbus, OH/March 22/24
- 1st/2nd Rounds: Columbia, SC/March 22/24
- 1st/2nd Rounds: San Jose, CA/March 22/24
- South Regional: Louisville, KY/March 28/30
- West Regional: Anaheim, CA/March 28/30
- East Regional: Washington, D.C./March 29/31
- Midwest Regional: Kansas City, MO/March 29/31
- Final Four, National Championship: Minneapolis, MN/April 6/8
6. Ignore Momentum
Apparently, there’s absolutely no connection between a team’s end-of-season momentum and their chances of tournament success. According to Bracket Voodoo, a look at tournament outcomes in the years between 2012 and 2017 revealed zero correlation between regular season hotness and tournament dominance. The takeaway, says Bracket Voodoo, is that you should be wary of over-valuing red-hot upstarts as well as discounting rusty-looking stalwarts. Take a team’s full-season performance into consideration as well as the recent history and experience of its players, coaches, and program.
7. Get Cinderella Home Before Midnight
So, thanks to a few super-savvy upset picks, you came out of the first round strong. But this Round of 32 is always where things get a little dicey. And it’s where you have to really decide how far your Cinderella teams are going this year.
We love a good fairy-tale as much as the next hopeless romantic, but as the story goes, Cinderella generally has to get home before midnight. I don’t remember how the story ends but it’s not useful to our analogy so let’s just take it from here.
Your beautiful sleeper, that dream-come-true team with the tiny program and the obscure logo that bested its powerful first-round opponent…the whole thing is really sweet, but it’s just a fling. Don’t get too attached. Most of those teams are heading home come the witching hour, probably in a confrontation with a true top-seeded contender.
It’s fun to dream — Villanova was an #8 seed when they won it all in 1985. Beyond that, #11 seeds are the lowest to even breach the Final Four, and the three deep sleepers who did it back in the day all exited their tourney’s before seeing the biggest stage. None was victorious, and nobody with a lower rank has ever gone that far.
This means that most of the time, that moment will come when a magical run is at an emotional end. Make sure that emotion doesn’t also shred your bracket. Limit your upsets. Take Cinderella only so far, then get her back to the carriage before it all goes smashing pumpkins on you.
8. Look for the Usual Suspects
The truth is, as mad as March can be, there are some things you can set your watch to. The Sweet 16 may be rarified air for those ambitious upstart programs. It may mark a special occasion for the little boutique school with a miraculous and unlikely conference title. And it’s darn cute when an Ivy League team makes it past the first round. But the fact is that some teams simply go to the Sweet 16 likes it’s their freakin’ job.
There’s a reason some teams seem like a good bet almost every year. It’s because they get there almost every year.
Between 1985 and 2018, these programs have enjoyed the most Sweet 16 appearances:
- Duke (24)
- North Carolina (22)
- Kansas (22)
- Kentucky (20)
- Louisville (14)
Unless you see any red flags — like, say, an investigation into massive, program-wide corruption — these are teams that you can usually just pencil in through the first two rounds. I know I generally do every year.
9. Math up Your Seeds
Hopefully your bracket is still in contention by the time you get to the Final Four. You have to wait longer in between games — no more wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling, four-channels-at-once action — but the individual outcomes count for a lot more in your pool standings.
So looking forward, how can you determine if your Final Four picture is at least credible. USA Today offers a pretty good tip on this front. By this point, you should have shed most of your sleepers, Cinderellas and upsets. We’re looking for the big boys — the upper seeds; the ones with smaller seed numbers next to their names. You can have an outlier or two here if you really feel it in your heart. But all in all, the four different seeds represented here should add up to a number in the high single digits or low teens at most.
According to USA Today, only 8 times since 1985 has the sum total of seedings added up to more than 14. In 2016, for instance, #10 seeded Syracuse matched up with Villanova (#2), Oklahoma (#2), and North Carolina (#1) for a sum total of 15. That was on the higher end.
If you’re playing history’s odds, try to strike a number between 8 and 13. It isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it could help you pinpoint excessive reliance on upsets or top-seeds. Strike a slight balance in the sum total of seeds in your Final Four.
10. Winning the Title from Downtown
Hopefully you’ve done enough correctly at this point that there’s still a prospective champ on your bracket. So how to narrow this champ down from the others? There is one easily referenced statistic that can tell a big story.
According to USA Today, "Since 1987, only six teams have shot less than 35% on three-pointers and won the title."
The teams that get it done from downtown have a significant historical advantage on the path to the title. Once you’ve gotten to this point, measuring greatness against greatness, tilt the scales for the teams that do it from a distance.
11. Playin’ the Blues
If you don’t feel like reading stats, there may be one other x-factor to consider. In the last 15 seasons, every single winner of the men’s basketball NCAA championship tournament has worn blue as a school color with the exception of Louisville in 2013. Of course, Louisville was stripped of that title so…I don’t know…if you’re vacillating between a powerhouse in blue and, say, those plucky Golden Retrievers of UMBC, consult recent history.
All of the tips above come with the usual disclaimer. We at The Quad do not endorse gambling…poorly. So if you are filling out a bracket, take these steps and do it well.
And if you’re looking for even deeper insight into March Madness, check out our series of Fun Facts about March Madness, our updated look at college coaches who are breaking the bank, and our piercing investigation into perhaps that greatest intangible of them all, the college mascot.