When it comes to filling out a March Madness bracket, there’s no such thing as perfection.
“To get a perfect bracket is impossible,” says Sheldon Jacobson, computer science professor at the University of Illinois and self-proclaimed bracketologist. “There are more than nine quintillion bracket combinations—that’s a 9 with 18 zeros.”
Of the 351 Division I college basketball teams, 68 make the cut for this fast-paced, month-long elimination tournament, known for shocking upsets and Cinderella stories. Jacobson goes so far as to suggest you fill out your bracket before the teams are even announced, based solely on seeds, insisting that our biases and emotional attachments to teams cloud our judgment. “It sounds like heresy, but it works,” he insists.
That said, it’s the human element that makes it so fun, and some smart analysis, along with pragmatic seed selection, can make a difference. “It’s true, the difference between a good bracket and a great one is probably luck, since one tiny swing can change everything,” says William Ezekowitz, of the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective. “But the difference between a good bracket and a bad one is skill.” Here, using Jacobson’s truly mind-boggling math and a touch of Ezekowitz’s NCAA geekery, is a scientific five-step guide to filling out an office-pool-winning bracket.
1. Bet on the Best
Jacobsen is always reminding people that simple statistics are the greatest indicator of which teams you should slot into which position, so, before Selection Sunday, use seedings to sketch out your bracket. For instance, 19 of the previous 31 tourneys have been won by a top seed, and 27 of the past 31 national champions have been a 1, 2 or 3 seed. So choose a 1 seed to win it all, and for your Final Four, select two 1 seeds, a 2 seed, and a 3 seed, which is the most likely combination of teams, according to Jacobson’s models and tournament history.
2. Look for Team Leaders
As for which of the top seeds you bet on to go all the way, Ezekowitz suggests weighting teams with experienced upperclassmen, like Wichita State, with senior guards Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet. And Ezekowitz likes another mature team from the Sunflower State as well: “If I had to pick a winner right now, I’d pick Kansas. They’ve got a lot of experience and they’re very deep.”
3. Sprinkle in a Few Bottom Seeds
Twelve seeds get a lot of attention for knocking off 5 seeds in the opening round, but, actually, 11 seeds defeat 6 seeds just as often, notes Jacobson. “And their path to the Final Four is more favorable because they avoid the 1 seeds for the first three games,” he says. On average, 4.5 teams seeded 11 or worse advance to the round of 32, so go ahead and pick at least four or five teams seeded 11 or worse to win in the round of 64.
4. Identify Smart Dark Horses
In choosing your lower seeds, Ezekowitz says to look beyond the stats by identifying teams that are more talented than their seedings may suggest, using preseason rankings. If there are any poorly seeded teams that were ranked in the top 25 in the preseason, that team is probably talented and just underachieved all year—tab them for an upset or two (we’re looking at you, Cal, Indiana, and Notre Dame). Choose one or two of these teams to make it to the Sweet 16.
5. Don't Overlook "Unlucky Teams"
Another possible indicator of potential is having lost a lot of close games. This suggests a team has the talent to compete but may have been unlucky. In 2014 Tennessee squeaked into the tournament as an 11 seed with a 21-12 record, including five losses by 5 points or fewer. They won three games and advanced to the Sweet 16.
Or, if you’d rather just bet on math and statistics, use Jacobson’s analytical model at BracketOdds.com, which will instantly crunch the numbers and fill out a bracket for you.