March Madness is one of the most exciting sports events of the year. In fact, the first Thursday and Friday of the tournament are my favorite days of the sports year. With an estimated 40 million Americans filling out their brackets annually, it’s almost inevitable that you will have the opportunity to join a family or office pool. Additionally, millions fill out their brackets online on websites such as ESPN and Yahoo. With so much competition, how can you make sure you’ll end up with the best bracket?
Well, to be honest, you can’t. No matter how much research you perform, March Madness has been and always will be a crapshoot. Every year, the world is stunned by insane upsets that leave brackets busted. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t trends and strategies for picking teams that will give you better odds than the average Joe.
Here are 10 March Madness bracket tips that could give you the edge.
1) DON’T PICK A #15 OR #16 SEED. I don’t care if one of these schools is your alma mater or if they have the coolest mascot in the whole field: just please don’t do it. I’m trying to help you. Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, not a single 16 seed has defeated a 1. 0-for-124. 15 seeds haven’t fared much better, at just 7-117. The problem here isn’t just that these picks are incredibly risky even if your pool awards upset bonuses, but that missing these easy picks will hurt you even more down the road. Let’s say you’ve decided this is the year a 16 seed wins, and they don’t. Not only do you miss the point for the first round, but also, if that 1 seed makes the final four and you use standard scoring, you lose one point in the first round, two in the second round, four in the Sweet 16, and eight in the Elite 8. Is it really worth missing out on 15 points to go for the upset of a lifetime? Clearly not.
2) Throw out the seeding on 8-9 matchups, where the 8 seed only holds a 63-61 all-time advantage. These teams are always very evenly matched and are basically a coin flip. To a lesser extent, so are 7-10 matchups. The 7 seed wins just over 60% of the time here, and it isn’t unusual to see 10 seeds as betting favorites in these games. Don’t view picking a 9 or 10 seed as an upset, just evaluate who you think is the better team.
3) Be aware of the mid-major 12 seed effect. There’s a reason why 12 seeds win more often in the first round than 11 seeds and reach more Sweet 16s than 8,9, and 11 seeds. The 12 seeds are the best of the mid-majors. While the #1-11 lines are usually made up of the big name teams from power conferences, the #12-16 spots are the tournament champions from the one-bid leagues. The #12s are the teams that are very good but don’t receive enough credit due to lower strength of schedule and league notoriety. Plus, they can reach the Sweet 16 without coming up against any 1,2, or 3 seeds.
4) Team and coach experience can be crucial in the tournament. Teams comprised mainly of freshman and sophomores might not be mentally prepared to have a deep run in the tournament, where a team that is older might have an advantage due to previous March Madness experience or the feeling that the tournament is the last chance for the team’s seniors to make a name for themselves. Similarly, young coaches are much more likely to be rattled by the atmosphere. This is why we often see the same teams making deep runs year after year.
5) When picking upsets, look for teams with a star. For an underdog to really make an impact in March, they need to have someone leading the way. Think of Stephen Curry. When he was at Davidson, he led the 10 seed Wildcats all the way to the Elite 8 before falling by just two points to eventual National Champion Kansas. Curry averaged 32 points per game in the tournament, and the whole world quickly learned his name. Impact performances lead to wins in this tournament, so look for teams with players capable of taking over a game.
6) Don’t force or limit upset picks. Don’t get caught up in the notion that you shouldn’t have a region of your bracket with no upsets, or that more than two in a region isn’t okay. Treat each game individually, do a little research, and pick who you believe will win. If that means having an upset-heavy region or an upset-free one, so be it.
7) Slow down, Cinderella. There isn’t a dictionary definition for a Cinderella team, but I use the word to refer to a team seeded nine or higher (preferably from a smaller conference but not necessarily) that advances to at least the Sweet 16. This basically means they are pulling off two upsets. Picking Cinderella teams is very risky, so don’t go overboard selecting more than one or two. When picking the team that you think could go and shock the world, look for teams who have played strong opponents during the season and have performed well against them. Also, look for teams that have a specialty against their opponents. Basically, if a team is great at shooting threes and plays a highly ranked team who has bad perimeter defense, that could be a good spot for an upset.
8) When in doubt, choose the #1s. The #1 seed advances out of its region just over 40% of the time. Remember: they are seeded the way they are for a reason. With those odds, if you aren’t really feeling any other team to perform well and make it out of a region, there’s no shame in choosing the favorite. After all, you have better chances of being right with them than anyone else. In fact, #1s win their region more often than seeds 3-16 combined.
9) Don’t pick your winners based on names/colors/mascots etc. Yes, you love your dog. He’s a smart dog too. Does that mean he can pick a bracket any better than you can? Nope. If that’s really what you want to do, go right ahead. Just don’t blame me when your #14 seed Final Four pick goes down in the first round like they’re supposed to, and like they will roughly 84% of the time. If you really want to win, try breaking out the magic 8 ball.
10) Relax, have fun, and pick a bracket you can root for. At the end of the day, March Madness is about having fun, watching a lot of basketball, and shoving it in your friend’s face when that upset pick actually works. If there’s a school you hate with the passion of a thousand suns, get as much pleasure as possible out of picking and rooting against them. Have a soft spot for a team? Give them an upset. This might not be the best strategy for picking a winning bracket, but you will find yourself much more interested in the games this way. Who knows? Maybe you’ll end up on top.