March Madness: 10 Tips For Winning Your Pool

March Madness: 10 Tips For Winning Your Pool

The Men’s NCAA Tournament is here once again, and with it, the return of March Madness. On March 13, Selection Sunday kicks off a 68-team scramble to make the Final Four, stamp a trip to New Orleans, and get a shot at a coveted national championship in April. It also marks a glorious time of year for spectators. It will be winter when you first glimpse that empty bracket, but spring will have emerged from its hibernation by the time we crown a champion.

The time in between is marked by office pools, must-see TV and our vain annual attempts at constructing that mythological perfect bracket. But you never know. This could be your year. (Disclaimer: It probably won’t be your year. I mean, you could win but dude, a perfect bracket? That’s really, really hard. More on that in a minute.)

For now, let’s focus on the positive. Even if you don’t get every pick right, you could still be the victor in your own little corner of the competitive universe. It just takes a little bracketology and an absolutely enormous amount of good fortune.

If you’re really interested in the science of bracketology, study statistics, odds, and game theory by earning one of the Best Online Bachelor’s Degrees in Math. If you’re just here to vanquish friends and family–which we totally support–read on.

A Quick Look Back

Last year, #1 seed Baylor University bested #1 seed Gonzaga University to win the first title in the Waco, Texas university’s history. While we admit that a top seed beating another top seed doesn’t exactly scream Cinderella story, there was some intrigue. Upstart #11 seed California State University, Los Angeles blazed into the Final Four and came tantalizingly close to toppling undefeated Gonzaga in a thrilling overtime duel.

But that was last year, which is, like, a million years ago. Now, all sights are set on this year’s tournament. If you’re like me, this is the time of year when you attempt to cram a lifetime’s worth of knowledge into a 14-minute blitzkrieg study session, all in an effort to fill out a borderline respectable bracket during your lunch-break.

Because the thing is, when you’re in a March Madness pool, everybody can see exactly where you are in the standings. This is a chance to look like a bonehead, a genius, or a prognosticator with such keen insights that your friends accuse you of witchcraft. Naturally, that would be the best case scenario.

...filling out a competitive March Madness bracket is a great way to make an exciting event even more exciting”

But even failing that goal, filling out a competitive March Madness bracket is a great way to make an exciting event even more exciting. So we’ll do everything in our power to help you forecast the outcome of this year’s tournament, short of inventing a flux capacitor and traveling a few weeks into the future. We tried that one year, and while it was awesome for our bracket, the implications of time travel are simply too dangerous.

We’ll just have to rely on math, probability, and lady luck.

Let’s get this one thing out of the way first…

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Filling Out the Perfect Bracket

In 2014, investment guru Warren Buffett made headlines by offering $1 billion to anybody who filled out a perfect bracket. Needless to say, Warren Buffett knows a safe economic proposition when he sees one. Hitting a perfect bracket is pretty unlikely.

But there is some good news. It may not be as hard as they say. According to statistical wizard Nate Silver’s Fivethirtyeight, the frequently cited statistical likelihood of hitting a perfect bracket—1 in 9.2 quintillion—is not exactly accurate. This number treats every single game—63 of them to be exact—as a 50/50 coin flip. Considering the infrequency with which—for instance—#16 seeds have defeated #1 seeds in history, this approach is not very useful. Using the far more sophisticated FiveThirtyEight March Madness predictions, we find first and foremost that the odds of a perfect bracket vary from year to year based on the difficulty of predicting individual games according to relevant variables. But within that variance, FiveThirtyEight says your chances of nailing it on every pick would be roughly 1 in 2 billion. Not too shabby.

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So You’re Saying There’s a Chance?

Well, not really. But don’t let that stop you from dreaming.

Or, maybe set your sights a little lower. Just focus on winning your office pool and we’ll go from there. FiveThirtyEight certainly doesn’t rule out putting together a flawless first round. And there’s an outside chance that the luckiest and most knowledgeable among us could even bring a full dance card to the Sweet 16.

I mean, you’d have to be pretty freakin’ smart, but you could do it.

And if you do those things, you’ll be a strong contender for the win. Follow the tips below. At the very least, you’ll raise your odds of being crowned a local March Madness champion. If you don’t have a basketball net, we suggest getting one so you can cut it down in front of your friends, classmates, or co-workers.

With that, here are 10 Tips for Mastering March Madness and Building a Brilliant Bracket!

  1. 1

    Follow Pool Rules

    It’s about both the size of the pool and the motion of the ocean.

    Every pool has a different scoring system. Some pools award points straight up for correct picks: 1 point in the first round. 2 in the second round, 4 in third round, and so on.

    Other pools award more points for picking upsets. So the further one of your Cinderella picks goes, the further you lurch ahead of the competition. If you correctly peg a #12 to make the Sweet 16, you could be in great shape.

    So before you start meting out Ls and Ws, figure out how you’re likely to be rewarded in your particular pool. Know the rules and use them as you make tough decisions.

    The size of your pool matters too. If it’s just you and your extended family, pick a top-seeded contender with strong odds of winning it all. In a smaller pool, the likeliest winner is your best bet. You’ll probably want a few #1 seeds in your Final Four.

    By contrast, if you’re in a company-wide pool, and your company occupies six floors of an office building, and there are 190 contenders, and the only one you know personally is that guy from Accounts Receivable who thinks your name is Larry, even though you’re name is definitely not Larry, pick a sleeper.

    With bigger pools, there is a much higher likelihood of overlapping champions. That means that you could pick the correct #1 to win it all, but still lose the pool on overall points. A lot of people picked Baylor to win it all last year, which means a lot of people got it right but still went home empty-handed. Use the bigger pool to take the leap of faith on a sleeper pick. Show that dude from accounts receivable, and all those other people you’ve never met, just how smart you are.

    If you’re not sure how to navigate your decisions based on the rules, and the size of your pool, CBS offers a Bracket Optimizer. Get your cheat codes here.

  2. 2

    We’re #1 For a Reason

    Teams that get the top tournament seed are rarely there by accident. So says recent history. Dating all the way back to the very first year the tournament used seeding—1979—there have only been four tournaments in which a No. 1 seed didn’t make it into the Final Four.

    So it does happen. Indeed, 2018 was one of those years. But still, the chances are good that at least one top seed will be with us for the duration of the tournament.

    Of course, you still have to pick the right ones. And you have to be prepared for unplanned early departures as well. The #1 seeds may be there for a reason, but that doesn’t mean they get any guarantees. As rare as it is to witness a Final Four without a #1 seed, it is yet that much rarer for all four #1s to face off. This happened only once in 2008.

  3. 3

    Make Peace With the #16s

    Deciding when your #1s should make their exit is a tough call, but here’s one pro-tip; it probably won’t be in the first round. In fact, until 2018, it had never happened.

    That year, the Golden Retrievers of University of Maryland, Baltimore County shocked the world, shattered brackets, and became the answer to a brand-new trivia question with their unprecedented first round defeat of the top-ranked University of Virginia. It is the first and only time that a #16 seed has ever knocked off a top seed and advanced to the second round. And they didn’t just beat Virginia. They humiliated them, surging to a 20 point victory.

    So it finally happened that year and it was bonkers. They call it Madness for a reason. But if you think you can predict that happenstance…well, just don’t get too clever. That upset may have busted a billion brackets right out of the gate in 2018, but I wouldn’t stake the farm on it happening again. In fact, the next year, the Cavaliers rebounded by winning it all. The Golden Retrievers didn’t even make the tournament. Historically, #16 seeds boast a rate of victory that is notably less than 1%.

  4. 4

    Look at the #10s

    You do have to pick some upsets. That’s just the nature of the bracket. That’s what gives March its reputation for Madness. Lower seeds beat higher seeds. But picking the right one and hopping on the bandwagon for a magical run is catching lightning in a bottle.

    The NCAA defines an upset as a team being ousted by a competitor at least two slots lower in tourney seeding.

    According to the NCAA, going into the 2021 tournament, 28 of the prior 35 seasons have seen somewhere between 10 and 16 upsets. The outlying years might have seen more or less, but generally speaking, that’s the sweet spot. You’re looking to peg somewhere between 10 and 16 upsets throughout your bracket.

    The annual average number of upsets going into the 2021 bracket was just under 13 games. Lucky 13.

    As for how best to distribute your upsets, the idea is to pick roughly half as many upsets in each round as you did in the previous round.

    So where to start? Conventional wisdom says look to the 12 seeds for your likeliest upset. People love 12-picks, and if you’re playing in a pool that rewards greater points for more mathematically improbable upsets, it’s easy to see why. Between 1985 and 2021, 12 seeds bested 5 seeds in 35.6% of games. That’s not a bad rate. But that doesn’t mean it gives you the best odds of picking an upset. That title goes to the 10-seed, with a 38.6% rate over victory in recent tournament history.

    For a sense of how upsets break down over history, the NCAA offers this table, which marks the frequency of certain upset probabilities based on outcomes between 1985 and 2021.

    First Round UpsetFrequencyPercentage
    No. 10 seed over No. 7 seed5538.6%
    No. 11 seed over No. 6 seed5237.1%
    No. 12 seed over No. 5 seed5035.6%
    No. 13 seed over No. 4 seed2919.7%
    No. 14 seed over No. 3 seed2115.9%
    No. 15 seed over No. 2 seed86.0%
    No. 16 seed over No. 1 seed10.7%
  5. 5

    Factor Jet Lag Into Your Coin Flip

    So now that you know which seeds to lean on, how do you know which matchups to target? Well, you could learn a thing or two about the teams themselves. Teams with higher foul shot and three-point percentages tend to do better, as do teams that have won their conference title.

    You could also take into account injuries, experience, and a host of other variables that suggest you’ve really gotten to know all 64 teams. If you can do this, good for you. I haven’t got that kind of time.

    So I need to consider a few intangibles, especially when I’m torn on those ever-elusive 8 vs. 9 matchups. That’s where home court advantage comes into play. Technically, nobody really has home court advantage, but there’s often one team that has to travel a little farther to get there.

    Know where the game is being played, how long each team had to fly/drive, and therefore, which team is also likely to carry a few fans into the stands on game day. In other words, look at a map and see who is physically closest to their real home court. In a coin flip, give this team the advantage.

    Here’s a look at the March Madness schedule with projected locations for the 2022 tournament:

    RoundSites2022 Dates
    Selection SundayN/AMarch 13
    First FourDayton, OHMarch 15/16
    1st/2nd RoundsBuffalo, NYMarch 17/19
    1st/2nd RoundsIndianapolis, IndianaMarch 17/19
    1st/2nd RoundsFort Worth, TXMarch 17/19
    1st/2nd RoundsPortland, ORMarch 17/19
    1st/2nd RoundsGreenville, SCMarch 18/20
    1st/2nd RoundsMilwaukee, WIMarch 18/20
    1st/2nd RoundsPittsburgh, PAMarch 18/20
    South RegionalSan Antonio, TXMarch 24/26
    West RegionalSan Francisco, CAMarch 24/26
    East RegionalPhiladelphia, PAMarch 25/27
    Midwest RegionalChicago, ILMarch 25/27
    Final Four, National ChampionshipNew Orleans, LAApril 2/4
  6. 6

    Ignore Momentum

    Apparently, there’s absolutely no connection between a team’s end-of-season momentum and their chances of tournament success. According to CBS Sports’ Bracket Voodoo blog, a look at tournament outcomes in the years between 2012 and 2017 revealed zero correlation between regular seasons hotness and tournament dominance. The takeaway, says CBS, is that you should be wary of over-valuing red-hot upstarts as well as discounting rusty-looking stalwarts. Take a team’s full-season performance into consideration as well as the recent history and experience of its players, coaches, and program.

  7. 7

    Get Cinderella Home Before Midnight

    So, thanks to a few super-savvy upset picks, you came out of the first round strong. But this Round of 32 is always where things get a little dicey. And it’s where you have to really decide how far your Cinderella teams are going this year.

    We love a good fairy tale as much as the next hopeless romantic, but as the story goes, Cinderella generally has to get home before midnight. I don’t remember how the rest of that story goes but it’s not useful to our analogy so let’s just take it from there.

    Your beautiful sleeper, that dream-come-true team with the tiny program and the obscure logo that bested its powerful first-round opponent…it’s sweet, but it’s probably just a fling. Don’t get too attached. Most of those teams are heading home come the witching hour—probably in a confrontation with a true top seed contender.

    It’s fun to dream—Villanova University was an #8 seed when they won it all in 1985. Beyond that, 11 seeds have only even entered the Final Four four times (including UCLA’s appearance in 2021) None was victorious, and nobody with a lower rank has ever gone that far.

    This means that most of the time, that moment will come when a magical run is at an emotional end. Make sure that emotion doesn’t also shred your bracket. Limit your upsets. Take Cinderella only so far, then get her back in the carriage before it all goes pumpkin.

  8. 8

    Look for the Usual Suspects

    The truth is, as mad as March is, there are some things you can set your watch to. The Sweet 16 may be rarified air for those ambitious upstart programs. It may mark a special occasion for the little boutique school with a miraculous and unlikely conference title. And it’s darn cute when an Ivy League team makes it past the first round. But the fact is that some teams simply go to the Sweet 16 like it’s their freakin’ job.

    There’s a reason some teams seem like a good bet almost every year. It’s because they always get into the third round.

    According to USA Today, since 1985, these programs have enjoyed the most Sweet 16 appearances:

    Unless you see any red flags with these teams in a given year, you can usually just pencil them in through the first two rounds. I know I generally do every year.

  9. 9

    Math up Your Seeds

    Hopefully your bracket is still in contention by the time you get to the Final Four. You have to wait longer between games—no more wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling, four-channels-at-once action—but the outcomes mean a lot more in your pool standings.

    So looking forward, how can you determine if your Final Four picture is at least credible? USA Today offers a pretty good tip on this front. By this point, you should have shed most of your sleepers, Cinderellas and upsets. We’re looking for the big boys—the upper seeds; the ones with smaller numbers. You can have an outlier or two here if you really feel it in your heart. But all in all, the four different seeds represented here should add up to a number in the high single digits or low teens.

    According to USA Today, only 9 times since 1985 has the sum total of seedings added up to more than 14. In 2016, for instance, #10 seed Syracuse University matched up with Villanova University (#2), University of Oklahoma (#2), and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (#1) for a sum total of 15. Last year, #11 seed UCLA pushed the figure to 15 as well.

    If you’re playing history’s odds, try to strike a number between 8 and 13 here. It isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it could help you pinpoint excessive reliance on upsets or top-seeds. Strike a slight balance in your Final Four.

  10. 10

    Winning the Title from Downtown

    Hopefully you’ve done enough correctly at this point that there’s still a prospective champ on your bracket. So how to narrow this champ down from the others? There is one easily referenced statistic that can tell a big story.

    According to USA Today, Since 1987, only six teams have shot less than 35% on three-pointers and won the title.

    The teams that get it done from downtown have a significant historical advantage on the path to the title. Once you’ve gotten to this point, measuring greatness against greatness, tilt the scales for the teams that do it from a distance.

  11. 11

    Bonus Tip—Playin’ the Blues

    If you don’t feel like reading stats, there may be one other x-factor to consider. In the last 20 years all but two winners of the men’s basketball NCAA championship tournament has worn blue as a school color. The exceptions are last year’s triumphant Baylor Bears and, in 2013, University of Louisville. Then again, Louisville was stripped of that title so…I don’t know…if you’re vacillating between a powerhouse in blue and, say, those plucky Golden Retrievers of UMBC, consult recent history.

All of the tips above come with the usual disclaimer. We at Inflection do not endorse gambling…poorly. So if you are filling out a bracket, take these steps and do it well.

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