March Madness Bracket Tips and Myths [Mostly Data Driven]

Updated for March 2024 tournament

Madness isn’t in the name by accident – March Madness is the best time of the year because it’s unpredictable.

But there’s got to be some sanity to the madness, right?

The goal of this article is to uncover the most proven March Madness Bracket Tips. It turns out there a lot of the “rules of thumbs” I hear are myths when you look at the data, but there are also some that are accurate (12s to beat 5s most years). Let’s break it down.

Oh, and a little mind-blowing trivia before we start. There are 9,223,372,036,854,775,808 different brackets that can be made.

If you’re a pretty good 70% at predicting the winner of each game, you have a 1 in 5,738,831,574 of getting a perfect bracket.

That’s nearly 20 times worse than your chance of winning the lottery!

A brief introduction to March Madness brackets (beginners start here)

Skip this section if you’ve filled out a bracket before.

March Madness is college basketballs end of the season 64-team tournament. The 6 most important parts of the March Madness tournament:

  • there is a committee that ranks all college teams and determines who’s in and whos out
  • the ranking of a team is called the “seed”
  • the 64 teams are divided in 4 “regions” of teams ranked 1-16
  • since there are 4 regions, there are four teams with the same seed: 4 teams ranked 1, 2, 3, 4 etc
  • it’s single-elimination: you lose and you’re out, so after each round there are half as many teams
  • (one final note there are four games before the start of the main tournament called “the first four.” these teams play to get a chance to be in the 64 bracket
  • there are 6 rounds of the tournament and they’re called: “round of 64,” “round of 32,” “sweet 16,” “elite 8,” “final 4,” “championship game”– you can guess how many teams are in each round
  • (there are 7 rounds if you count “the first 4.” this round actually has 8 teams that were borderline on whether or not they should make the tournament. unlike the other round names that describe the number of teams, the first four describes the number of teams)

The committee does a pretty good job of ranking teams, so you’ll rarely see a 16-seed beat a 1-seed (it’s happened one time in over 80 tournaments). But what’s less likely? That there are no upsets.

If this is your first bracket, my recommendation is ignore many of the tips below and just have fun with it. Pick the favorite in the games with big seed differences (1 vs 16, 2 vs 15, 3 vs 14), but then let your gut take you from there. Even the experts struggle picking the games, so you can have success without making it a job.

For those that winning their bracket is the goal, let’s dive into the data…

How much does the seed matter?

Seeds matter a lot.

There’s always controversy on how teams are seeded, but at the end of the day, the seed is the most important and easiest way to determine who’s the better team.

Still, it’s far from perfect. It’s helpful to look at how the higher seed wins to give you an idea of where you might want to pick upsets

SeedsPercent of time the favorite (lower seed) wins
1 vs 1698+ percent (fun fact: it’s only happened twice but they were 2018 and 2023)
2 vs 1593+ percent (expect an upset in 1 in every 4 years)
3 vs 1484+ percent (expect an upset every other year)
4 vs 1378+ percent (expect about 1 upset a year)
5 vs 1264+ percent (expect 1-2 upsets a year)
6 vs 1162+ percent (expect 1-2 upsets a year)
7 vs 1060+ percent (expect 1-2 upsets a year)
8 vs 952+ percent (coin toss – wouldn’t really consider an 9 over 8 an upset)
Note: Most of this data is based on 30+ tournaments. The “+” is mostly accounting for rounding. Sources below

It starts to get interesting at 4 vs 13 because the odds are nearly at the point where there’s a predicted upset every year. Personally, I think it’s worth immediately passing seeds 1-3 on to the next round, unless you have incentive to push on the upset (fan of the team, some brackets give big bonuses for upsets).

The 5 vs 12 gets a lot of attention because for a while, every year had a 12 beat a 5. This isn’t true anymore, but you can still see there is a definite increase in upsets. And maybe more interesting is that 6 vs 11 and 7 vs 10 games still statistically look like upsets, but the 8 vs 9 looks like the seed is pretty much meaningless. In other words, 8 vs 9 picking 3 upsets may be reasonable, but the 6 vs 11 and 7 vs 10 you’re probably better off leaning toward 1 upset than 3.

A recent trend worth keeping in mind (although recent means not as strong data):

11 vs 6 may be the new 12 vs 5. Since 2010, the 11 vs 6 has almost been a toss up.

Other general bracket tips before diving into the research

Let’s talk strategy. How do you decide who wins?

Here are a few general tips when filling out your bracket.

(after this will dive into data-driven research)

Use the committee to your advantage

The committee gets a lot of grief for their picks, but here’s the truth:

They use advanced data methods and thousands of hours of game watching to determine seeds.

It’s not perfect, but don’t over-think it. Better seeds are usually better teams.

But… you’ll also realize in the table, BIG upsets happen every year.

So how do you decide: boring bracket where you just pick the lower seed every round or go all-in on upsets?

  • Going for a perfect bracket? Probably best to have stick to the number of upsets by seed above.
  • In a big pool? Pick your favorite upsets but have more early and start having the favorites later.
  • In a small pool and want to win? Go chalk (this means no upsets–of course, you can pick a few)
  • In a small pool and want to have fun? You can still win with a lot of upsets early rounds, but you should probably go back to mostly favorites toward the final 4.

Use Vegas to your advantage

Nothing makes predictions accurate like putting a bag of money behind them.

You don’t have to have the bag, just copy the people that do: Vegas sportsbooks.

Vegas is your ultimate guide to percent changes someone will win. That’s why sports gambling is so difficult, and why even though I write a guide of the best sports betting tips I know, it’s still tough to beat the casinos.

The good news is what Vegas think will happen is public.

You have to get a little creative. The first round is easy – Vegas will likely list the odds for each game before your bracket is due to be turned in.

The 2nd round and beyond take a little creativity. You can look at things like final four odds for the team to get an idea if Vegas thinks they’ll go deep. You might be able to find odds for Elite 8 or Sweet 16. Or you may be lucky and find the “over under” for how many games a team will win in the tournament.

Pick upsets that won’t be too upsetting

Everyone wants to pick the upsets, and we all know they’re going to happen.

So go for it.

But here’s my tip, do your tournament backwards.

Only great teams win the tournament (more on this below) so make sure you have at least one favorite sticking around and likely more. As crazy as March gets, the Final Four usually shakes out to be more of the favorite (the upsets make it to the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 but rarely the championship).

It’s best to pick upsets in a game before teams you really like because if you’re wrong, it doesn’t matter because your team is going to win the next round (and if they don’t – your bracket may be toast anyway).

Data-driven bracket insights

Below I’m diving into data-driven questions I’ve come across when filling out brackets. This section will grow as I lean more:

How much do preseason rankings matter for NCAA tournament success?

There’s no doubt that preseason rankings are a big factor in who makes the tournament.

90% of the top 10 preseason rankings make it, and well over 70% of the top 25 pre-season.

But how do they end up doing?

I’ve heard some people argue that teams that underperformed some but were high in the pre-season ranks are talented team that turn it on during the tournament?

What’s the data say?

The pre-season rankings matter quite a bit. Here’s a few important points:

  • 90%+ have been top 20 in the pre-season poll
  • 70%+ of recent champions have been top 10 pre-season
  • All seeds perform significantly better when they have more preseason poll votes (example: 1 seeds with the most very least preseason votes have about 2 x more wins in the tournament)

With all this said, the winner usually isn’t the preseason #1. You can’t live on the preseason poll, but it is a strong factor in NCAA tournament success.

Expect dominant teams in “power” conferences to go far, But not too far

No one argues that a major conference (ACC, B10, Big East etc) team which wins both the conference regular season and tournament isn’t a great team.

But do these dominant teams succeed in the Big Dance like you’d expect?

This is one stat not to over-think. These teams average 3 wins in the tournament, which means they’re expected to be in the Elite 8.

But at the same time, the NCAA tournament winner has rarely won both before hanging their banner.

Fun fact #1: The only two #1 vs #16 upsets in history were against teams that won their regular season and tournament championship that year (Virginia 2018 and Purdue 2023)

Fun fact #2: The last team to win the NCAA tournament after winning both their conference regular season and tournament was Duke in 2010

My takeaway: Don’t come up with excuses on why these teams aren’t good, but also don’t feel like you have to pick one them to be in the championship.

How far do conference tournament champions go in the bracket?

We covered the most dominant teams that win both the regular season and conference championship, but what about the hot teams that weren’t regular season champions but finished by winning their conference tournament?

You see this every year – a team ranked 5-10 in their conference tournament ends up taking out the dominant regular season teams.

“Follow the hot hand,” right?

Well, the data says not really.

It’s not that conference champions do poorly, but the conference tournament champions show no or very little correlation to NCAA tournament success.

Here’s an interesting fact (pretty recent from 2023):

  • Team that win both the conference regular season and the conference tournament win 13.5% more games in March Madness than conference regular season champions.
  • Teams that win both the conference regular season and the conference tournament win 38.5% more games in March Madness than conference tournament champions.

This likely suggests that the regular season champion should hold a little more weight than the conference champion, and I think this is the opposite of your tendency to go to the team winning most recently.

Why is this?

Hard to say. Maybe the NCAA committee also sees the conference tournament winner is hot and gives them a bump in their ranking by a seed or two (although they say they don’t take conference tournaments into account much), so they would have outperformed if they were considered a lower seed. Or maybe these tournament winners are exhausted from the gauntlet of winning their conference and that evens out with the fact that they’re hot right now.

Either way, conference tournament championship winners seems like a nonfactor.

One point for total body of work, no points for momentum.

How much does momentum at the end of the season matter?

My theory is momentum matters. Not because a teams “hot,” but a team that wins later in the season is growing together and “figuring it out.”

Turns out, momentum is mostly a myth.

I’ve seen all different analysis of teams that are hot: teams that won x amount of their last 10 games, team that plays better after February vs before February, conference tournament winners (touched on this earlier), and all of them come to the same conclusion: being hot doesn’t matter much.

Champions are good teams

This is the peak of my research:

The NCAA champion is always a good team.

Hold your applauds please.

But as simple as it seems, it’s worth mentioning because Sweet 16, Elite 8, and even Final Four usually have surprise teams.

“Surprise teams” can be teams that didn’t play well recently, small conference teams you can’t remember if you’ve heard of, and teams closer to a 10 seed than a 1 seed. But the champion is different. There are many different takes on this.

While I said momentum doesn’t matter much previously, a dud in the conference tournament has never won the NCAA. Every recent NCAA champion has made the quarterfinals of their conference tourney. So you don’t have to end it on fire, but can’t be ice cold either.

Over 90% of the teams were ranked top 12 leading up to the tournament.

I saw a tweet that said all teams finished top 22 in KenPom adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. This is a little flawed because all tournament winners were hot their last 6 games improving these stats, so it doesn’t tell what they were before. But I think it’s safe to say, you should look at teams that are good both offensive and defensively.

Sources:

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/mathmatical-madness-behind-perfect-ncaa-basketball-bracket-180971763/

Five Thirty Eight (https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/do-conference-tournament-surprises-carry-over-into-the-ncaa-bracket/)

https://www.ncaa.com/news/basketball-men/bracketiq/2018-03-13/heres-how-pick-march-madness-upsets-according-data

https://www.espn.com/mens-college-basketball/story/_/id/28523952/do-college-basketball-conference-titles-predict-success-ncaa-tournament

Tournament Index: Why the preseason AP Poll is one of the most important March Madness stats