You’re not going to pick a perfect bracket.
I know it’s hard to read, but accepting that will make your March easier.
There is no exact science to filling out the NCAA men’s tournament bracket, and there’s certainly a lot of luck involved for those who win your traditional office pool.
But that doesn’t mean you have to fly blind.
Here are four bracket tips and some historical trends to help you get your bracket as close to perfect as possible. At least until the first games end.
Don’t get too cute filling out your March Madness bracket
Picking the 15-2 upset is fun and gives you a chance to brag, but thanks to tiered point systems in most bracket pools, picking the champion basically is a must in order to win.
And while the tournament has definitely earned the Madness nickname, one of the best teams is usually going to cut down the nets.
No. 1 seeds account for 64% (23) of champions since 1985, when the field expanded to 64 teams. That includes each of the past four champs, and seven of the past nine.
Another 25% (nine) of champions in that time were either 2 or 3 seeds.
The Final Four is also dominated by the top seeds as No. 1s account for 40.9% (59 of 144) Final Four teams. No. 2 seeds make up 20.8% (30) of them, while 3s (17) and 4s (13) make up another 20.8%.
No team higher than an 11 seed has qualified for the Final Four, although five of those have.
The reason the person who doesn’t know anything about basketball wins isn’t because they picked by animal mascots or color. It’s very likely because they picked the better seeded team to win the majority of the games, which happens more often than not.
So, if you insist on getting crazy early, make sure some of the big boys survive the carnage in your bracket.
That’s not to say you should go fully chalk, of course. Picking the right upsets could separate you from the pack, and only once in tournament history have all four No. 1 seeds advanced to the Final Four.
Hey, I didn’t say this would be easy.
The 12 seed upset is a real thing
If it seems that every year involves a 12 seed upsetting a 5, it’s because it’s basically true.
Twelve seeds have won a first-round game 16 times in the past 10 tournaments, and 51 times overall. That’s at least one 12 seed winning, on average, per year.
If you pick every 12 seed to win, though, you’re more than likely coming out on the losing end of that exchange. So, you have to find the right one.
The good news is that missing this game isn’t likely to break your bracket. Five seeds very rarely make it far, as only nine have ever advanced to the Elite 8. Two 12 seeds have ever done it.
Feel free to take the minimal risk in Round 1, but don’t try to extend Cinderella’s stay.
To broaden that, here’s the historical breakdown of each first-round matchup, courtesy of BracketResearch.
- 1 vs. 16: 143-1
- 2 vs. 15: 135-9
- 3 vs. 14: 122-22
- 4 vs. 13: 113-31
- 5 vs. 12: 93-51
- 6 vs. 11: 90-54
- 7 vs. 10: 87-57
- 8 vs. 9: 70-74
First Four teams have had success
The NCAA Tournament expanded to 68 teams in 2011, giving us four extra games leading up to the traditional opening weekend.
Two of the games are between 16 seeds who will be fed to a 1, so we’ll ignore those in this exercise. Do not try to catch the UMBC lightning in a bottle. It’s not worth it.
But the other two games involve the last four at-large teams to get in. They are most commonly 11 seeds, and these teams have had a good amount of success once entering the main field.
One team from the First Four has won at least one more game in nine of the 10 tournaments since the expansion. The one exception is 2019, when Arizona St. and Belmont each lost in the Round of 64. UCLA made up for that in 2021, however, making the Final Four.
The Bruins were the second First Four team to advance to the Final Four, as VCU did the same in 2011.
Three other First Four teams (La Salle in 2013, Tennessee in 2014 and Syracuse in 2018) advanced to the Sweet 16. Four others won a Round of 64 game.
At-large teams from the First Four are always an interesting case, as they could be a mid-major that had a strong season but lost in its conference tournament (Wyoming), or a power conference team that has struggled with consistency (Indiana, Notre Dame and Rutgers).
They’re clearly dangerous, so don’t ignore them. Or, better yet, wait until those opening games are done to finish your bracket.
But beware, there has never been a year where two First Four teams won a game in the main draw.
Conference strength matters
One big discussion that came from the 2021 championship was Gonzaga’s relatively easy conference schedule, and whether that was a detriment to the ‘Zags.
Big 12 member Baylor bullied Gonzaga in that game, and it’s worth pointing out the Big 12 was the highest ranked conference by RPI.
So does conference matter?
Kind of. Yeah.
In the past 20 years, the champion has come from a conference ranked first or second in the RPI 13 times. Five other times the conference of the champion was either third or fourth.
The outliers are 2014 and 2004, when Connecticut won it all. The 2004 title was after a down year for the normally strong Big East, which was ranked sixth among conferences. The 2014 title barely counts for this exercise, as the Huskies came out of the American, which was ranked eighth. UConn was a 7 seed in that tournament, and had played in the Big East the year before. A lot of weird was going on there.
Bottom line is that a team from one of the top two conferences wins more often than not. This year, the Big 12 is pretty well ahead as the regular season winds down, with the SEC, Big East and Big Ten bunched up behind it.
The West Coast Conference, which top-ranked Gonzaga calls home, is eighth, although it’s narrowly trailing the ACC.