Three things are certain in life: death, taxes, and never filling out a perfect bracket. On that somber note, let’s get to it.
While no one is going to go undefeated in their NCAA tournament bracket, there are some strategies we can follow that usually lead to more success. I emphasize “usually” because there are some years where things simply get so crazy that it becomes a matter of who suffers the least attrition. But even in those years, some tactics can make your bracket stand out, as you’ll soon see.
First, does it matter if you’re in a smaller pool (20-30 entries) or a larger one? In either case, avoid picking too many upsets. Typically, if you try to pick every upset, your bracket will end up in shambles by the end of the first weekend. I know this from experience. This makes sense when you think about how scoring works: most pools reward you much more heavily for correct picks in the later rounds.
That being said, you need to differentiate your bracket in a larger pool. You can’t be in the money by simply picking what everyone else is picking. So there are two ways to go about this. A commonly endorsed way is to pick a champion that has a decent shot of winning it all, but that you don’t think others are likely to pick. The second way would be to pick one of the favorites to win it all, but to pick a few upsets (again, don’t pick too many!) correctly earlier in the tournament. Let’s look at each method closer.
The first method sounds good, but the fact is that 9 of the past 12 champions have been 1 seeds. The other 3 have been a 2 seed (Villanova in 2016) and Connecticut twice (once as a 3, once as a 7). So if you are going to use this technique to make your bracket stand out (for better or worse), I’d recommend going with the 1 seed with the longest odds to win it all or the 2 seed that you think is the strongest. As of Tuesday afternoon, looking at futures, that 1 seed was North Carolina. The 2 seed here would be Michigan State (more on that later).
The second method has worked better for me. Every year, I enter a couple of different pools that accept multiple entries. I do a couple in each pool. My best entries, especially in the larger pool I’m in (well over 100 entries annually) are ones that have a chalky champ with some sneaky upsets along the way. This is my 15th year entering that pool. I’ve been “in the money” twice and just outside of it another two times. My worst showings are those where I pick an unlikely champ along with a lot of upsets. Don’t do that!
So, how can we identify the upsets that are most likely to happen, and the high seeds who are likely to live up to their seed expectations (Final Four for a 1, Elite Eight for a 2, Sweet Sixteen for a 3 or 4, and second round for 5-8)? No method is foolproof and luck is always going to come into play, for better or worse. But, I’ve found that we can give ourselves the best shot by analyzing the bracket and looking for who is over- or under-seeded.
To do this, I look at the same factors as when I project the bracket. The ones that I lean on the most are NET, good wins, bad losses, and road record, especially against Quadrant 1 teams. This last one makes sense because tournament games are played away from home against mostly quality teams. And if a team has had a lot of chances to earn good wins and has rarely capitalized, they are unlikely to start now. Lastly, some teams just haven’t had that many chances to play quality opponents, which is where looking at NET can really help us.
Then, I add a critical factor that used to be evaluated by the Selection Committee too: how has the team played lately? This is where I really see some teams that are likely to make runs, and some who are likely to crash out sooner than expected. Let’s get to it. I’ll give you a list of each, followed by the upsets that we can delineate.
Rising and/or Under-Seeded Teams: Duke, Virginia, North Carolina, Gonzaga, Kentucky, Michigan State, Houston, Texas Tech, Virginia Tech*, Auburn, Buffalo, Wofford, Utah State, St. Mary’s, Belmont, Oregon, Murray State, UC-Irvine, Yale.
The first six on this list are 1 and 2 seeds, and all have a legitimate claim for that top line. Houston and Texas Tech are 3 seeds who have come on strong late in the season (Tech’s quarterfinal loss to a sorry West Virginia squad in the Big 12 tournament notwithstanding). Virginia Tech is rising because they’re getting Justin Robinson back, which greatly improves their chances. The rest, when we look at their recent outings and/or season as a whole, have played above their seed line.
For example, Wofford ranked 13th in NET and went undefeated in a solid mid-major (the Southern Conference). They were slotted on the 7 line, but they look more like a 4. Buffalo ranked 15th in NET, won at Syracuse early in the season, and took both the regular season and conference tournament championship in a fairly strong mid-major this season (the MAC). They are a 6 but also look more like a 4.
Now, let’s look at teams who are overvalued right now.
Falling and/or Over-Seeded Teams: Michigan, Kansas, Kansas State*, Marquette, Maryland, Louisville, Ole Miss, Syracuse, VCU, Oklahoma, Baylor, Iowa, Ohio State, Arizona State, St. John’s.
Kansas qualifies because they started off hot but have suffered 3 blowout losses lately and are a pathetic 3-8 on the road (2-7 versus Quad 1). Kansas State makes the list because at this time, it is anticipated that their star player, Dean Wade, will be out at least for their opening round game against UC-Irvine.
Further down the list, remember that Marquette was a 3 in the February 9 Bracket Reveal and Louisville was a 4. They are now a 5 and a 7, respectively, and that is in part because they melted down. I’d argue that you could really view them as worse, as a 7 and a 9.
At one point, I liked Marquette as a sleeper to win it all, but I’d stay far, far away from that pick now. They come in having lost 5 of their last 6, including twice to a middling Seton Hall and twice to non-tournament teams. A Sweet 16 run isn’t out of the question, but under no circumstances would I pick them to go further than that. Louisville has lost 4 of 6, with the two victories coming against Notre Dame and one of the losses at Boston College. Do not pick them to go past the second round.
VCU is simply over-seeded, as they took five losses outside of Quadrant 1 and their best win was at Texas. Arizona State has two Quad 4 losses along with two in Quad 3, while St. John’s has lost 4 of 5. One was by 32 to Marquette on Friday night, and the others were to Xavier and Depaul. One will get a win… because they play each other. But that’s it. Next up for the winner is Buffalo.
With that in consideration, where do we see combinations of rising and falling teams in which the lower seed is likely undervalued by others in your pool? I am going to fill out my first bracket based on this criteria and see how I do. It has worked well the past two years, since I implemented this system – winning a smaller pool in 2017, for example, with an entry that was in the 96th percentile on ESPN’s Tournament Challenge.
First Round: (11) Belmont over (6) Maryland, (12) Murray State over (5) Marquette, and (13) UC-Irvine over (4) Kansas State. I’m also taking (12) Oregon over (5) Wisconsin, (11) St. Mary’s over (6) Villanova, (10) Minnesota over (7) Louisville, and (9) UCF over (8) VCU (not really an upset, as 8-9 games are a coin flip, but still a lower seed). If you want to get really crazy, consider (14) Yale over (3) LSU. Though LSU has played well lately, I think the suspension of their head coach is going to cost them at some point.
Second Round: (11) Belmont over (3) LSU and (7) Nevada over (2) Michigan are my main upsets over the weekend. I’m also taking Oregon over Cal-Irvine in the 12-13 matchup I picked.
Beyond this, I’m playing it fairly safe, as you usually get burned taking teams lower than a 3 to get to the Final Four. I will be taking a couple such teams in my other brackets, but in this one, I’m not picking any major upsets at this point. My Elite Eight has Duke over MSU, Gonzaga over Texas Tech, Virginia over Purdue, and Kentucky over UNC. In the Final Four, I have Duke over Gonzaga and Kentucky over Virginia. Then, I have Duke cutting down the nets on April 8.
In my other brackets, I’ll vary the picks and take a couple more risks in the later rounds – but not too many! Enjoy the First Four matchups tonight and the flood of games starting tomorrow!