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 — learn how to fill out NCAA brackets and become someone who knows what they’re doing with help from me and my NCAA bracket tips.

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 elimination tournaments.

How To Fill Out A Bracket

There are some results we’ll never be able to predict, such as No. 1 Virginia losing to a 16 seed in the first round a few years ago, but using the data we discovered should help you learn how to fill out your tournament bracket and keep you in the mix right up until the championship game.

Start Smart ... Obviously

A strong start is essential for having a successful bracket. Yes, you get more points for wins in the later rounds (depending on the scoring structure of the pool you’re in), 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 when they fill out brackets because they have no idea what to do with lesser-known mid-major teams in the tournament. The key to making the right first-round selections is paying attention to the betting spreads, with a specific focus on the number 5.

Teams favored by 5 points or more in first-round games since 1996 have won 85% of games. 

Looking at results since 1996, we discovered that the betting favorite in the opening round was an outright winner in 74.4 percent of games, but the real edge comes from using a “cut-off spread” of 5 points. Teams favored by 5 points or more in that span went on to win 85 percent of games.

March Madness Betting Sites

There’s a significant drop-off with teams favored by less than 5, however, as they won just 54.4 percent of games — very close to flipping a coin on the outcome. Given these statistics, your first-round March Madness betting strategy should be simple — if a team is favored by 5 points or more, pick them to win.

If it’s less than 5, 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.

Upset The Competition By Picking The Right Upsets

The second round of the NCAA Tournament bracket is where things get tricky and brackets get busted. It’s only happened twice 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 from the field of the final 16 teams. The trouble is selecting the right one, but we can help pick a winner.

It’s only happened twice since 1997 that all four No. 2 seeds advanced to the Sweet 16.

Be on the lookout for No. 2 seeds who’ve won six or fewer of their last 10 games. There have been 17 instances of this since 1997, and a whopping NINE of them have lost in the second round, including Louisville in 2017 and Kansas in 2015. 

Other Red Flags

Three other red flags for No. 2 seeds to have on your radar: higher-than-average turnover rate, poor three-point shooting and teams that average fewer free-throw attempts than the opponent you have them lined up to face. 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 1996:

Second-Round records since 1996
Seed Second-Round Record
#1 84-15 (84.8%)
#2 61-33 (64.9%)
#3 54-33 (62.1%)
#4 48-30 (61.5%)
#5 33-28 (54.1%)
#6 27-34 (44.3%)
#7 19-37 (33.9%)
#8 11-43 (20.4%)
#9 5-41 (10.9%)
#10 19-25 (43.2%)
#11 17-22 (43.6%)
#12 14-25 (35.9%)
#13 5-17 (22.7%)
#14 1-11(8.3%)
#15 2-5 (28.6%)
#16 0-1 (0.0% I think ... couldn’t find a calculator)

It’s Not Hip (Or Profitable) To Be Square 

Yes, that’s a harsh and mean-spirited opening to this section, especially to those still learning how to fill out a March Madness bracket. But it’s completely warranted as I’m trying to get a point across. Don’t be the chump in your office pool 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 consideration for top seeds is not to go out on the limb of bouncing them from your bracket too early. Since 1996, 84 percent of No. 1 seeds advanced to the Sweet 16, while 68 percent made it to the Elite Eight. That number drops dramatically for the Final Four, though, as just 41 percent of No. 1 seeds have made it that far since 1996.

Since 1996, 92 percent of tournament winners 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 13 of the last 19 years. Your championship game matchup should involve no team seeded lower than No. 5, as 17 of the last 19 championship games have involved teams seeded No. 1 through No. 5.

Even more specific, 92 percent of tournament winners since 1996 have been a top-three seed, with No. 1 seeds winning 17 times in that span, so don’t go banking on that No. 12 seed to go on a Cinderella run for you this year.

Other Bracketology Tips For Winning Your NCAA Bracket

  • Give conference tournament winners some love. 45 percent of teams to play in the championship game since 2001 were conference tourney winners.
  • Give conference tournament runners-up some hate. Only 10 percent of teams to play in the championship game since 2001 were conference tourney runners-up.
  • 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 as a starting point 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 to win the whole damn thing. It’s likely that a lot of people in your pool will have that team picked to win as well. Go against that pick.

Trust The Facts: Stay Away From Your Gut

When learning how to fill out NCAA brackets, 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.

Trying to nail down picks like a double-digit seeded No. 11 VCU and No. 8 Butler squaring off in the Final Four in 2011, No. 7 Michigan State’s Final Four appearance in 2015, 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” in that 13 seed should be accused of being a liar.

NCAA Bracket Tips

Your March Madness experience shouldn’t be restricted to just learning how to fill out NCAA brackets online. Many of the March Madness bracket tips in this article can be applied to individual game betting. I’ll be looking to do moneyline parlays with teams favored by 5 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.

Now that you know how to fill out a basketball bracket, let the Madness begin! Keep chasing that paper and follow me on Twitter for more great stats!

*For those who are on the fence about filling out a bracket or don’t want to make one this year, we’ve got you covered with Bets over Brackets, where you can find all the best March Madness betting tips, trends and strategy.

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How To Fill Out A March Madness Bracket FAQ

Now That March Madness Has Started, Can I Fill Out A Bracket Online?

Once the college basketball Division 1 men’s tournament starts, there’s no point in filling out a March Madness bracket. Instead, we suggest going to one of the March Madness sportsbooks we recommend at Odds Shark and placing your bets. Just make sure you’re doing so at one of these best March Madness betting sites online.

My Bracket Busted Already. Should I Bet On March Madness Instead?

Yes, you should definitely bet on March Madness seeing as how your bracket has been blown to smithereens. We have a how to bet on March Madness wagering tutorial that explains in detail everything from how to read college basketball odds, to the kind of bets you can make on the tournament, and how to make smart March Madness picks.

Are Prop Bets And Brackets The Same Thing For March Madness?

Although they are often confused, brackets and college basketball prop bets aren’t the same thing. Props are bets on things like which player will have the most rebounds or which conference will have the most wins during the college basketball tournament. A bracket calls for you to correctly predict the outcome of each March Madness game (something you have a 1 in 9.2 quintillion shot of doing).