A complete March Madness bracket guide: Key trends and tips for filling out your bracket

March Madness NCAA Tournament
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Ricky Dimon

NCAAB

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Since graduating from Davidson (The College That Stephen Curry Built), I have been writing about sports--just about any and all you can think of!--and coaching tennis in Atlanta, Ga. Beyond the four major sports, I am an avid tennis fan and cover the ATP Tour on a daily basis. If I'm not busy writing, you can generally find me on a tennis court or traveling the world wherever a sporting event takes me.

Why is March Madness the sporting phenomenon that it is? Well, it comes down to the widespread participation of March Madness Bracket competitions. It is estimated that 70 million brackets are filled across America each year in advance of the men’s basketball NCAA Tournament. Sure the dream is to fill out a perfect bracket, but the main goal is to beat the competition in whatever pool – or more likely pools plural – in which you choose to participate.

The odds of predicting a perfect bracket are literally astronomical. Because of certain variables involved in sport, it’s impossible to calculate the exact odds of making a perfect bracket. However, scholars have estimated it anywhere between a 2.4 trillion and 9.2 quintillion to 1 chance.

Good luck!

It is no surprise then that a perfect bracket has never been achieved, and probably never will be. That is good news for at least 1 person: the world’s 4th-richest man, Warren Buffett, who famously offers an enormous prize of $1 billion each year to anyone who can predict a perfect bracket.

As for the bracket, it is pretty much a schedule of the entire tournament – mapping every team’s potential route to the Final Four, championship game, and ultimately the title. The selection committee meets for a final time on “Selection Sunday,” the Sunday before the NCAA Tournament, to set up the bracket. That committee decides on the 36 teams to accompany the 32 automatic qualifiers (conference champions) in the prestigious field of 68.

But before the first round of the NCAA Tournament tips off on Thursday afternoon, the First Four takes place on Tuesday and Wednesday. Four games are held to dwindle the field from 68 to 64: 2 featuring the 4 lowest-rated automatic qualifiers and 2 featuring the 4 lowest-rated recipients of at-large berths. The 4 winners of the play-in games progress into the traditional field of 64 (2 as No. 16 seeds and the other 2 usually as No. 12 seeds) for the opening round. That’s when the bracket madness begins.

After the teams are seeded and put into regions to finalize the field of 68, how do I go about filling out a bracket of my own?

Most people will enter a March Madness bracket at work, with friends, or into paid competitions. And as a result, this sporting extravaganza’s intrigue extends beyond the hardcore sports fan to the casual sports fan. More than a few bracket filler-outers have probably heard of the Longwood Lancers or South Dakota State Jackrabbits, but that doesn’t mean they can’t achieve Bracketology success. Just because you may not be as much of a college basketball as someone else doesn’t preclude you from mastering the bracket competition.

Some advice in this piece could help, and perhaps you will be more of an expert after reading it!

South Dakota State

1. Trust the ratings, to an extent….

Hours and hours – and days and weeks, in reality – are spent by the selection committee analyzing statistics and data to decide who is seeded where, but it’s by no means an exact science. Upsets are a big part of March Madness; in fact, they are really what makes March mad. At the same time, the “experts” are rarely too far off. Top-seeded teams have won 22 of the 35 Championships since 1985, and when you throw in No. 2 and No. 3 seeds that jumps to 31 of 35 National Champions since 1985.

It’s worth noting that since the 64-team format’s inception in 1985, only once has a No. 16 seed team defeated a No. 1 seed team in the opening round. The four No. 1 seeds are usually a mortal lock in round one.

Simply put, the top seeds are the best teams and are the most likely to advance into the Final Four, but only once have we seen the four top seeds fill monopolize the Final Four. More often than not, only one or two reach college basketball’s promised land.

2. Be adventurous with your upset picks in the later rounds

Once upon a time you could just lock in the Final Four with picks from the top 3 seeds and work backwards, but those days seem long gone. In the last 11 NCAA Tournaments, at least one team seeded No. 4 or lower has reached the Final Four. From most to least recent, (2021 back to 2010) here are the lowest-seeded teams in the Final Four: 11, 5, 11, 7, 10, 7, 8, 9, 4, 11, 5. What this tells us is these mid-range teams really do have a shot of at least getting this far, so find a sleeper or someone with a nice route and take a chance.

3. At the same time, don’t get carried away when choosing your champion

While lower-ranked teams have been closing the gap in the NCAA Men’s Tournaments and as likely as ever to make the Final Four, it hasn’t led to long-shot teams winning it all. Since 1998, 24 tournaments have been held and just one team outside of the top three seeds (No. 7 seed Connecticut) has won the National Championship. Across that same period, we have also seen 16 first seeds, three second seeds, and three third seeds crowned champions. While underdogs often do damage early, history strongly suggests fading them in the big games.

4. First-round upsets — 5 vs 12 games

March Madness upsets are a mainstay of the tournament, and it’s worth picking a few of them in your bracket in the early rounds. While lower-ranked teams have a poor record in the latter stages of March Madness — with no team seeded 12 or lower ever reaching the Final Four — they are usually worth chancing in the first two rounds.

The 12 vs. 5 upset is one of the more popular options in brackets each year, and for good reason. There have been 36 installments of the NCAA Tournament since it expanded to 64 (and now 68) teams in 1985 (the 2020 event was cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic). In those 35 tournaments, at least one No. 12 seed has advanced into the second round in all except five. Since 1985, No. 12 seeds have a 48-92 record against No. 5 seeds, equating to a 34.3 percent win rate – just over a third. By comparison, No. 13 seeds have a record of just 30-110 (21.4 percent) against No. 4 seeds; there is a big drop-off for just one seed either way.

5. Work backwards; find your champion first

A lot of Bracketologists will work in reverse, and this is not a bad method to adopt with strong trends around who is most likely to win it all. Do you like a particular team or two to make the Final Four? Have you already decided on your National Champion? If so, lock those picks in and work backwards. Bracket scoring works exponentially, so a correct March Madness Prediction in the championship and even the earns you considerably more points than the first couple of rounds.

Pickswise is the home of March Madness Predictions. Check out all of our March Madness Picks, including daily March Madness Parlays throughout the NCAA Tournament.

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