The Blueprint: Tips for How to Fill out a March Madness Bracket

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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.

March Madness bracketlogy 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 #2 Michigan State losing to #15 Middle Tennessee in the opening 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. The first round is where lots of casual fans run into trouble due 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 six.

Looking at results since 2009, we discovered that the betting favorite in the opening round won 71.6% of games, but the real edge comes from using a “cutoff spread” of six points. Teams favored by six points or more in that span went on to win 86.6% of games. There’s a significant dropoff with teams favored by less than six, however, as they won just 52.7% of games — essentially a coin flip.

Given these statistics, your first round strategy should be simple — if a team is favored by six points or more, pick them to win. If it’s less than six, 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 is where lots of brackets get busted due to big upsets or picking the wrong upsets. Although it’s difficult to properly predict big underdog wins in the tournament, past results show us that some seeds are much more likely to bust a bracket than others.

Looking at the second round since 2001, seeds #6 through #9 have won just 26% of games, but seeds #10 through #12 have won 40.5% of its games. So, depending on what seeds you have moving on from the first round, you should probably steer clear of advancing #6 to #9 seeds to the sweet sixteen, but you might want to show a little bit of love — I repeat, a little bit — to teams in the #10 to #12 seed range.

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

Second Round records since 2001
Seed Second Round Record
#1 56-8 (87.5%)
#2 39-20 (66.1%)
#3 37-19 (66.1%)
#4  29-21 (58.0%)
#5 22-14 (61.1%)
#6 16-21 (43.2%)
#7 13-27 (32.5%)
#8 5-32 (13.5%)
#9 3-24 (11.1%)
#10 11-13 (45.8%)
#11 11-16 (40.7%)
#12 10-18 (35.7%)
#13 3-11 (21.4)
#14 0-8 (0.0%)
#15 1-4 (20.0%)
#16 0-0 (0.0% I think… couldn’t find a calculator)

Don’t be a lazy idiot

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 #1 seeds into the Final Four. It’s only happened once in the history of the tournament.

That’s the first consideration for #1 seeds, the second is not to go out on the limb with bouncing them from your bracket too early. Since 2001, 87.5% of #1 seeds advanced to the Sweet 16 while 70.3% made it to the Elite 8. That number drops dramatically for the Final Four though, as just 37.5% of #1 seeds made it that far since 2001.

This, of course, leads us up to the championship game which has involved at least one #1 seed in 11 of the last 16 years. Your championship game matchup should involve no seed higher than #5, as 14 of the last 16 championship games have involved teams seeded #1 through #5. Even more specific, 90% of tournament winners since 1996 have been a top three seed, with #1 seeds winning 13 times in that span.

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 nail down picks like #11 VCU and #8 Butler squaring off in the Final Four in 2011 or #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.

Check back on Tuesday as I’ll apply the above criteria to my bracket and post on this page.

Let the Madness begin and keep chasing that paper!

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