Before you begin reading this article, I want to make one thing abundantly clear: I’m not telling you how to fill out the perfect bracket; that’s impossible (insert cliche about the astronomically small odds of this ever happening). Rather, I’m giving you statistically sound, pragmatic advice on how to win your bracket pool between you and your friends (and the spoils that come along with it). If you follow these foolproof steps, you should finish at (or at the very least near) the top:
Step 1: Advance all 1 and 2 seeds to the Sweet 16.
Okay, I know, this is super chalky and people may rag on you for making this move. Furthermore, the odds are heavily against all eight 1 and 2 seeds advancing to the Sweet 16. However, picking which 1 or 2 seed is going to get upset is a fool’s gambit. You put yourself at risk of losing easy points that your opponents will gain. You’re better off taking a couple gambles in other early round games, and just playing it close to the vest here.
To further drive home my point, consider this – in the last five tournaments, 28 of the 40 teams (70%) on the 1 and 2 seed line advanced to the Sweet 16. If you can essentially lock in 5 or 6 correct teams in your predicted Sweet 16, you should do it.
Step 2: Advance all 3 and 4 seeds to the second round.
The same chalkiness mentioned in step 1 definitely applies here as well, but the same logic applies as well. The difference here is that a lower seed upset over a 3 or 4 in the second round is much more likely in comparison to a similar 1 or 2 upset. Thus, auto-advancing the 3 and 4 seeds should only apply to the first round. It’s fun bragging about being the one person who accurately picked the crazy 14 over 3 upset, but you know what’s more fun? Bragging about winning your bracket pool.
In a similar fashion to step 1, I really want to drive home this point as well. In the last five tournaments, 33 of the 40 teams (83%) on the 3 and 4 seed line advanced to the second round.
Step 3: Use the following statistical data to fill out the rest of your bracket.
(*Note*: The 0% values listed do not imply that the result cannot happen. Rather, the result is extremely unlikely [less than 0.5% likelihood])
In years past, I had developed a predictive model to attempt to project who has the best chance of advancing far into the tournament. I refined the model to further optimize the predictive results, then normalized the projections for each region to create a probability of advancing in any given round for every team in the tournament. I used historic tournament results from games that took place between 2010 to 2017.
As part of an update from 2019, I moved to a model that predicts the exact score of each game. After the projected score is developed, the model turns that into a projected probability of victory, then uses rules of conditional probability to project teams advancing in the tournament. I also updated the training data for the model to include tournament results from games that took place between 2014 and 2019. I felt that games during this time period were more indicative of future tournament results, especially given the NCAA’s freedom of movement rule implementation.
Bonus TL;DR version: Synthesizing the above charts for people who don’t like numbers.
Most Likely First Round Upsets
Going crazy picking a ton of upsets doesn’t do you any good. Instead, I would pick one (or two tops if you’re feeling real wild) from the following options:
- (11) Michigan St./UCLA over BYU
- (11) Syracuse over San Diego State
- (12) Georgetown over Colorado
- (11) Utah State over Texas Tech
- (11) Wichita State/Drake over Southern California
These are the 7/10 and 8/9 games that could get either way. I recommend the following strategy:
- (8) Oklahoma vs. (9) Missouri – Take Oklahoma.
- (7) Oregon vs. (10) VCU – Take Oregon.
- (8) North Carolina vs. (9) Wisconsin – Take Wisconsin.
- (7) Florida vs. (10) Virginia Tech – Flip a coin.
- (8) Loyola-Chicago vs. (9) Georgia Tech – Flip a coin.
- (7) Clemson vs. (10) Rutgers – Flip a coin.
- (8) LSU vs. (9) St. Bonaventure – Flip a coin.
- (7) Connecticut vs. (10) Maryland – Take Connecticut.
Best Final Four Picks by Region
- West: (1) Gonzaga, (2) Iowa
- South: (1) Baylor, (2) Ohio State
- Midwest: (1) Illinois, (2) Houston, (3) West Virginia
- East: (2) Alabama, (1) Michigan, (4) Florida State, (3) Texas
Best Champion Picks
- (1) Gonzaga
- (1) Baylor
- (1) Illinois
- (2) Iowa
- (2) Houston