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The Blueprint: How to Fill out a March Madness Bracket

It’s that time of year again when countless college hoops fans are faced with a problem. They shell out their hard-earned money for an entry fee in a March Madness bracket pool only to fail miserably and to lose to someone who knows what they’re doing. There is, however, a solution to this problem — become someone who knows what they’re doing with help from us.

NCAA Tournament bracketology has been dissected for decades, and although no one has discovered the secret formula for success, an edge can still be found by digging deep into results from past tournaments. There’s some results we’ll never be able to predict, such as No. 1 Villanova losing in the second round last year, but using the data we discovered should keep you in the mix right up until the championship game.

This is the Blueprint: How to fill out a March Madness bracket.

Start Smart … Obviously

A strong start is essential for having a successful bracket. Yes, you get more points for wins in the later rounds, but college basketball bracket pools with lots of participants are often decided by a few points — points that you can earn in the opening round. The first round is where lots of casual fans run into trouble due to having no idea what to do with lesser-known teams. The key to making the right first-round selections is paying attention to the betting spreads, with a specific focus on the number 6.

Teams favored by 6 points or more in first-round games since 2009 have won 87.7% of games. 

Looking at results since 2009, we discovered that the betting favorite in the opening round was an outright winner in 73.2 percent of games, but the real edge comes from using a “cut-off spread” of 6 points. Teams favored by 6 points or more in that span went on to win 87.7 percent of games. There’s a significant drop-off with teams favored by less than 6, however, as they won just 54.1 percent of games — very close to a coin flip.

Given these statistics, your first-round strategy should be simple — if a team is favored by 6 points or more, pick them to win. If it’s less than 6, look for weaknesses and see who the hotter team is coming into the tournament using our matchup reports and roll with them. This should ensure a high percentage of correct picks in the first round.

bet on ncaa basketball here!

Upset the competition by picking the right upsets

The second round of the NCAA Tournament is where things get tricky and brackets get busted. It’s only happened once since 1997 that all four No. 2 seeds advanced to the Sweet 16, so you should be looking to eliminate at least one No. 2 seed in the second round. The trouble is selecting the right one, but we can help with that.

Be on the lookout for No. 2 seeds who’ve won six or fewer of their last 10 games. There have been 12 instances of this since 1997, and a whopping nine of them have lost in the second round, including Louisville last season and Kansas in 2015. Of this year’s No. 2 seeds, Purdue matches this criteria as the Boilermakers are 6-4 SU in their last 10 games, meaning you should target them to make an early exit.

Three other red flags for No. 2 seeds to have on your radar: higher-than-average turnover rate, poor three-point shooting stats and teams that average fewer free-throw attempts than their opponent. These same considerations should be applied to No. 3 seeds, as their outright win percentage in the second round is similar to No. 2 seeds.

Here’s a breakdown of how each seed has performed in the second round since 2001:

Second-Round records since 2001
SeedSecond-Round Record
#159-9 (86.8%)
#241-22 (65.1%)
#340-20 (66.7%)
#4 33-21 (61.1%)
#522-17 (56.4%)
#616-22 (42.1%)
#715-28 (34.9%)
#86-34 (15%)
#93-25 (10.7%)
#1011-14 (44%)
#1111-18 (40%)
#1210-19 (34.5%)
#133-11 (21.4)
#140-8 (0.0%)
#151-4 (20.0%)
#160-0 (0.0% I think ... couldn’t find a calculator)

Don’t be a lazy dummy


Yes, that’s a harsh and mean-spirited opening to this section, but it’s completely warranted as I’m trying to get a point across. Don’t be the chump who puts all four No. 1 seeds into the Final Four. It’s only happened once in the history of the tournament.

That’s the first consideration for No. 1 seeds. The second is not to go out on the limb of bouncing them from your bracket too early. Since 2001, 86.76 percent of No. 1 seeds advanced to the Sweet 16 while 70.59 percent made it to the Elite Eight. That number drops dramatically for the Final Four, though, as just 38.24 percent of No. 1 seeds made it that far since 2001.

90.9% percent of tournament winners since 1996 have been a top-three seed.

This, of course, leads us up to the championship game, which has involved at least one No. 1 seed in 12 of the last 17 years. Your championship game matchup should involve no seed lower than No. 5, as 14 of the last 16 championship games have involved teams seeded No. 1 through No. 5. Even more specific, 90.9 percent of tournament winners since 1996 have been a top-three seed, with No. 1 seeds winning 14 times in that span.

Other Tips for winning your NCAA bracket

  • The size of your bracket pool should determine what type of strategy you use to fill out your bracket. If your pool has a small number of participants, it’s probably safe to have a chalk-heavy bracket. For this type of approach, I suggest using our futures odds to determine how far to advance each team, and, of course, using betting spreads to determine your opening-round picks.
  • Fade the Public! If you’re in a larger bracket pool, you’ll need to take more risk if you want to win. Popular sites like ESPN post results for what team is picked the most. It’s likely that a lot of people in your pool will have that team picked to win as well. Go against that pick.
  • Give conference tournament winners some love. Fifty percent of teams to play in the championship game since 2001 were conference tourney winners.
  • Give conference tournament runners-up some hate. Only 11.8 percent of teams to play in the championship game since 2001 were conference tourney runners-up.

In conclusion

Going with facts and higher probabilities is much better than going with your gut. The NCAA Tournament is one of the hardest events in all of sports to predict, and trying to nail down picks like No. 11 VCU and No. 8 Butler squaring off in the Final Four in 2011 or No. 8 Villanova winning the whole damn thing in 1985 is virtually impossible to predict. Forecasting such outcomes is almost entirely due to luck and anyone who tells you they “just had a feeling” or “really believed” should be accused of being a liar.

Your March Madness experience shouldn’t be restricted to just your bracket. Many of the tips in this article can be applied to individual game betting. I’ll be looking to do moneyline parlays with teams favored by 6 or more in the first round and will also look to pick a few upsets in the second round in games featuring No. 2 and No. 3 seeds.

Let the Madness begin, keep chasing that paper and follow me on Twitter for more great stats!