Is There a Method to the Madness? How to Pick the Optimal March Madness Bracket

By Ryan S. ’22

There are few events in American society that galvanize the friendly competition of coworkers, families, and friends quite like the NCAA Basketball Tournament every March. Around the start of Spring every year, around 20 million people scramble to fill out a bracket in hopes of being the first ever to have the perfect one. However, year after year most people seem to be disappointed on the first days of the tournament, as their bracket is “busted” and has no chance of winning their bracket pools, let alone making it out perfect. I was one of these unfortunate people again this year, with one of my Final Four picks, #2 seed Kentucky out on the first day of the tournament. This made me question all elements of my decision-making process and do more research into how to go about picking the best bracket. 

2014 NCAA March Madness leaves brackets busted | Sports |

The first objective in filling out your bracket is picking the tournament champion, which should be a #1 seed. In 64% of NCAA Tournaments a #1 seed has ended up winning the championship and it is, therefore, the most reliable selection. As for which of the #1 seeds to pick, it largely remains up to you, but there are some predictive metrics to understand. Teams that rank inside the top 50 in both offensive and defensive shooting percentage are a great indicator. It is also worth noting that you should not pick a team to win it all, that has been eliminated in the first round of their conference tournament or the defending champion of the previous year’s NCAA Tournament. Both of these metrics would have eliminated people from picking #1 seed Baylor to win this year’s tournament (Baylor was eliminated by #8 seed North Carolina in the second round). As for picking the champion from the remaining #1 seeds, it would be best to select a team with the greatest positive “leverage” or the difference from a team’s likelihood of winning the tournament and what percentage of people picked them to win it all. In this year’s bracket, #1 seeds Gonzaga, Arizona, and Baylor all had negative leverage, with a greater percentage of people picking them to win the championship, than their actual chances according to 538’s March Madness probabilities. This left only #1 seed Kansas as a desirable champion under this model, who in fact reached the Final Four.

Kansas races past Miami in 2nd half, reaches 16th Final Four - The San  Diego Union-Tribune
#1 seed Kansas advanced to the Final Four for the 16th Time

Bracket experts also recommend that people should start with picking their final four participants and then work backwards from there. Many who fill out the bracket are prone to picking a “chalk” Final Four, with all four #1 seeds making it. However, the optimal number of #1 seeds to make the Final Four is around 1-2. This does not mean to go overboard and pick multiple double digit seeds to make the Final Four; all of your Final Four participants should be a #3 seed or better. Although there have been much worse seeds – including multiple #11’s–  to make the Final Four, it makes little sense to predict them to win, as they are much more vulnerable to an early loss in the tournament. There is no exact science in picking all of the correct Final Four teams, but there are some great strategies, including picking established “Blue Blood” programs who have an experienced head coach and talented personnel. Some examples of “Blue Blood” teams in this tournament are #1 seed Kansas or #2 seeds, such as Duke and Villanova. One could also use the aforementioned method of picking teams based on positive leverage, to find the best teams that are not as highly picked to reach the Final Four. 

March Madness 2022: Duke rips Arkansas to reach Final Four
#2 seed Duke advanced to the Final Four, in Coach K’s final season as head coach

The first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament are incredibly hectic and many people try to find the correct upsets to pick. However, it is not advisable to pick any #13-16 seeds to get the upset; the risk of eliminating a top team that might make a run to the Final Four, far outweighs the miniscule chance of your selection coming to fruition. In terms of choosing other upsets, the magic number of #10-12 seeds to win their first round contests seems to be around five (it was six this year). Then, pick two of these double-digit seeded teams to make the sweet sixteen, but be careful selecting them to go any further than that point, in order to minimize risk. In general though, do not stress too much about your selections in the first two rounds of the tournament, because games are worth exponentially more points in the later rounds.

The most important piece of advice for your bracket-making process is to have fun and take it easy. You should focus on winning your bracket pool of 10-50 people, rather than concocting the perfect bracket. Know that however long you research and crunch numbers, you will likely never predict the perfect bracket, which has around a 1 in 120 billion chance of happening. Perhaps the most certain element of the NCAA Tournament is the shock and disappointment of watching our brackets get busted, which binds us all every March.

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