Tips for Filling Your March Madness Bracket

Updated: 459 Basketball

Tips for Filling Your March Madness Bracket
Michael Calabrese US Content Manager

Experienced sports journalist, College sports expert and broadcaster, hailing from Pennsylvania

How To Fill A March Madness Bracket

March Madness is a wonderful time of year because it brings fans together in a unique way and offers a wealth of betting opportunities with workplace brackets and sportsbooks options. 

It’s the kind of event that appeals to everyone, from the hardcore data-driven analysts of the sport, to casual observers who would struggle to name more than five players lacing up their sneakers for the Big Dance. And this universal appeal hinges on one thing: unpredictability. 

How to Fill Out Your March Madness Bracket

Tips for how to select your picks in your March Madness bracket including details of previous seeding results

You’re likely to come across dozens of “how-to” guides when it comes to March Madness.  All promise insider information and tactics that can help you win your office pool without breaking a sweat. While this how to fill out a bracket sheet article will provide you with a blueprint, it’s important to note from the very beginning that busted brackets and heart-breaking buzzer beaters await us all in this 68-team free-for-all. 

Instant riches and bragging rights among your peers may be the goal with the bracket challenge, but to really give yourself a chance right out of the gate, you need to understand the trendlines that March Madness generally follows. So let’s begin with a tried-and-true approach to filling out your March Madness bracket.

Select Your Final Four & Work Backwards


Accuracy of the Final Four is Key

Only ten teams seeded eighth or higher have ever appeared in the national semi-finals.

Upsets are what make this tournament exciting and what provide prognosticators and average Joes with a level of notoriety and street cred when these upsets come to fruition. But bracket pools are won and lost in the Final Four. 

Almost all March madness scoring systems are heavily weighted towards rewarding submissions that correctly predict three or four of the Final Four teams. 

We also know that the bouncers holding the velvet ropes outside the Final Four venue rarely let Cinderellas into the building. 

In 1985, the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams, and in the 36 tournaments that have followed (COVID eliminated the ‘20 Big Dance) only ten teams seeded eighth or higher have ever appeared in the national semi-finals.

That means that a “longshot” has made it to the Final Four only seven percent of the time.

Consider a Low Average Seeding for Your Final Four

9-15 as a total seeding for the final four is a good range to aim for, ensuring balance toward the higher seeded teams

Digging further into the stats, it’s easy to see just how favorite-heavy the Final Four usually is. If you add up the seeds of the Final Four each year, you arrive at a surprisingly low average number. 

For perspective, if four number one seeds appeared in the Final Four (as they did in 2008), the cumulative score for that semi-final would be four. 

When that figure is very low, that Final Four would be considered “chalky” or favorite-heavy. 

If it were a higher number, say in the twenties as it was in 2000 (22), that Final Four would be considered stunning or underdog-heavy. 

Final Four Average Seedings

So what is the average cumulative seed total in the Final Four? It comes out to 11.4, or 2.85 per team. It’s good to have a frame of reference like this as you fill out your bracket, so that your Final Four can fall into an “acceptable” range. I generally feel good about my selections if they fall within a 9-15 seed total range. 

March madness Brackets can crash and burn without consideration


How Many Upsets & Where To Pick Them


Let’s get a quick definition out of the way. When a team two seed-lines below its opponent comes out on top, most analysts consider that outcome an upset.

This eliminates first round matchups between the eight and nine seeds, second round matchups between four and five seeds and Elite Eight meetings between one and two seeds, for example. 

Using these parameters, the first matchup of the Round of 64 that could fall into the upset category would be a ten seed upsetting a seven seed. With that out of the way, let’s examine the strategy part of things.

Strategy

In a given year, you can expect 10 to 15 upsets, as described above, during the NCAA Tournament. This range gives you some freedom to feel out the matchups, without trying to adhere to a stricter average number of upsets. As for the matchups that generally produce these upsets, let’s review the history.


First Round Results History

Seed vs Seed Results Success of Higher Seed
1 vs 16 143-1 99.3%
2 vs 15 135-9 93.8%
3 vs 14 122-22 84.7%
4 vs 13 113-30 79.0%
5 vs 12 110-54 67.1%
6 vs 11 104-60 63.4%
7 vs 10 101-67 60.01%
8 vs 9 87-81 51.8%


A few observations right off the bat. 

While it’s an exciting proposition to select a 15 or 16-seed to make history, the deck is stacked against you. Not only is it highly unlikely for one of those top seeds to fall in the first round, but you’re also setting yourself up to lose out on potential points as the tournament unfolds. One-seeds advance to the Sweet 16, on average, 85.7% of the time. Two seeds advance to the regional semi-finals at a 63.6% clip. 

Try to Find 1 Upset from the 5-12 in the First Round

Only 5 times has this bracket provided a clean sweep for the favourites 1988, 2000, 2007, 2015 and 2018

If you adhere to probabilities and simply advance all one and two seeds directly to the second round, it’s now time to have some fun. 

Let’s start with the 5-12 matchup. Five seeds fall victim to these plucky underdogs about a third of the time, and the 12 seed has won at least one first-round game in 31 of the last 36 tournaments (86%).  

We saw a clean sweep from the five-seeds only five times - in 1988, 2000, 2007, 2015 and 2018. Suffice to say, you should absolutely be choosing at least one 12-5 upset, probably two. 

March Madness Bracket Sheet

Having trouble deciding between a mid-major and a high-major 12-seed as your Cinderella? Dating back to 2012, high-majors are 6-2 (75%) as 12-seeds in the first round. Conversely, mid-major 12-seeds are 9-19 (33%) during that same time period. 


Thinking of sending a double-digit seed on a long run? Here are some interesting facts to guide your decision-making process. 


After upsetting seven seeds in the Round of 64, ten seeds are 25-40 (38.5%) in the second round. That’s a higher win percentage than seven (31.4%), eight (20.2%) and nine (11%) seeds in the Round of 32. 

Sometimes it’s the luck of the draw in the Round of 32, and 13-seeds have been particularly lucky over the years. Despite five seeds knocking off 12-seed at a 67% clip, when 13 seeds in their same region win, five seeds have only advanced to meet them 60% of the time. Six 13 seeds have made the Sweet 16, but half were fortunate enough to draw 12 seeds in the second round to aid in their Cinderella run. 

Trick for Picking 14 or 15 Seeded Teams

Since 2012, 42% of teams seeded 14/15 who won in the Round of 64 entered as either a top 25 scoring team or a top 10 team in terms of forcing turnovers.

If you can’t resist taking a 14 or 15 seed in the first round, you need to pick teams that can either score at an elite level or force teams into turnovers. Since 2012, 42% of teams seeded 14/15  who won in the Round of 64 entered as either a top 25 scoring team or a top 10 team in terms of forcing turnovers.


The DNA Of A Champion

It can be a daunting task pulling a champion out of a field of 68 teams. 

Be a March madness Champion with these tips

Even if you use the Final Four math I provided above, you’re still usually eyeing up a pool of 15-20 teams with legitimate title chances. So how about a little more help in narrowing things down with some NCAA picks.

Ken Pomeroy and his aptly named KenPom ratings date back to 2002. 

He provides a ranking of every team’s offensive and defensive efficiency. When you add those two numbers together, the lower the figure, the better the team. 

The average sum of the eventual national champion’s offensive and defensive ratings has been 16. Additionally, only two teams have cut down the nets without the benefit of either a top 10 offense or defense (‘03 Syracuse, ‘11 UConn). 


Drilling down deeper, of those 19 national champions analyzed by KenPom, 14-of-19 (73.6%) had either a top five offense or a top five defense. Filtering your options through this process, “do they have a top five offense or defense?” should whittle your choices down to about eight to ten options every year. 


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