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11 Tips to Help You Build the Perfect March Madness Bracket

By Kory Walker
Published on March 13, 2017

Another round of March Madness is rapidly approaching, which has many of us eagerly anticipating all of the chaos that comes with college basketball’s notorious tournament.

The last second buzzer beaters, the early round upsets and all of the table-running possibilities set us forth on a maddening journey that few sporting events can hope to touch. This glorious spectacle will either end with our brackets collapsing in a fiery blaze, or our Final Four remaining mostly intact during an epic “I totally called that upset” euphoria.

Unless, of course, the madness lands you somewhere in the middle; that always fearful college basketball betting purgatory where you get enough picks on your bracket right to hang around in your office pool, but lose on all of your upset picks at your favorite March Madness betting site.

What’s the best way to stave off the potential negative outcomes?
Be Prepared.

Everyone says it each time the men’s college basketball tournament rolls around, but this time you really need to take the time to get ready. But how? Following our 10 tips to building the perfect March Madness bracket sure is a solid start:

Understanding and Acceptance

The first step is almost always acceptance. Whether it’s the blinding realization that something you wanted simply isn’t going to happen, some type of addiction – you name it – seeing the situation for what it is can really save you from prolonged heartache.

That’s a good first play when it comes to piecing together the perfect March Madness bracket, too, largely because getting things 100% right just isn’t a realistic expectation.

Embracing the idea that getting every single pick in your bracket right isn’t likely is the first step in actually preparing for the ideal that will probably never come. That isn’t to say it isn’t possible, but ahead of last year’s tourney the odds looked rather staggering.

There also has never been a documented perfect bracket, even though there have been rumored cased of some people taking an unscathed bracket deep into the tournament.

The process only got harder recently, too, as the tourney went from a field of 64 to a field of 68 (First Four arriving in 2010).

Embrace the Madness (Upsets)

Part of the understanding phase is realizing that upsets are going to happen. They can come early and they can come often. Where you take your shots and which underdogs you trust, of course, is completely on you.

You can give yourself a pretty good chance at nailing the upsets, though, especially if you use past seeding results as a reference point. Where any given team is seeded doesn’t necessarily dictate how it will perform, but for whatever reason, some seeds tend to provide more upsets than others.

Know When to Refrain

To this point in March Madness history, though, there have been zero #16 seeds upsetting one of the four #1 seeds. There is a first time for everything, but those 16-seed squads are usually very small schools with low level talent that face weak competition and usually prove over the course of the season (often with a sub .500 record) that they truly don’t belong in any season-ending tournament.

Here they are, though, four strong and ready to make history. These are humans we’re talking about, and with each passing year, we get more and more weaker #1 seeds and the likelihood of the virtually impossible grows ever closer to potentially happening.

A top seed will probably one day be taken out and it will shock us all, but considering it has yet to happen, there’s a good chance you can safely roll out your four #1 seeds and advance them to the second round without giving it much through.

That’s a statistical advantage everyone gets, but from there the madness can certainly get the best of us. After all, top seeds have fallen in the second round countless times before and all four #1 seeds rarely meet up in the Final Four. In fact, the men’s college basketball tournament has seen all #1 seeds reach the Final Four just once (2008).

Needless to say, everyone will be pushing the #1 seeds into round two, but when exactly to start removing one or more could separate you from the pack.

The bigger cause for pause comes when trying to limit or contain your upsets. For instance, you could correctly call numerous first round upsets, but then what? Is your big upset pick of the #12 seed taking down the #5 seed a one-hit wonder, or will that team move even further down the line?

History suggests you choose carefully because as huge as those initial upsets are, rarely do those insanely low seeds (11 and worse) go very far into the tournament. Every tournament, upset and team involved can be looked at differently, but you should look at every matchup and how the path can unfold for all teams involved.

The moral of the story here may be that we need to embrace upsets and certainly keep an eye out for a few we think could happen (and even 1-2 that we normally wouldn’t dream up), but perhaps contain just how far those upsets get carried out into the tournament.

That doesn’t mean our love for upsets has to stop, though. We can have a 12-seed win in round one and lose in round two, but then later in the tourney have something like an 8-seed take down a 4-seed or something similar.

Chasing upsets that make sense once we look at the matchups isn’t crazy, but blindly chasing upsets certainly seems to be.

Lean On/Against History

Our love for upsets can be impacted but what has happened in the past, and as we touched on, it probably should. That can go either way, as past history can suggest the probability of something happening, or perhaps something that has never come to fruition yet could be long overdue.

Is this the year a seed lower than #8 finally makes it to the championship game? We certainly seem to be getting closer to seeing it happen. Butler and Kentucky both got to the title game as 8-seeds in the past, but only the 1985 Villanova Wildcats actually ever won.

Lower seeds have still been close, as Wichita State had an amazing run in 2013, making it to the Final Four as a 9-seed. Syracuse almost ran the table in 2016 as a 10-seed, bowing out in the Final Four, as well. We’ve even seen 11-seeds make it to the Final Four, too, with the feat being accomplished three different times (VCU did it most recently in 2011).

For all the progress we’ve seen, it still seems rather unlikely that anyone lower than an 8-seed will rise up to win the title. The path to the championship game is simply too tough and the team that 8-seed squad would be facing in the final game of the year will likely be more qualified to be there.

History tells us not to fall too much in love with 8-seeds and lower, but it also suggests we can’t ignore them completely when filling out our brackets.

Track Trends and Data

This feels obvious, but a lot of times people enjoy the thrill of filling out their bracket that they go off of their gut instinct. Some people go based on team names, who the coach is, whether or not a team has a future NBA prospect, what animal the mascot is or what color the jerseys are.

The ways to decide between two teams are endless, and provided you’re guessing right, exactly how you finalize your March Madness picks can hardly be scrutinized.

However, there is a preferred way to come to such conclusions, and that’s by leaning on cold, hard facts. For most sports, that comes in the data an entire season can provide you, what the matchup is and how this teams are trending.

One team could have amazing size in the paint and at first glance would be projected to eat the other alive down low and on the glass. However, if the team they’re facing shoots lights out from deep, it’s entirely possible they can bypass the rebounding and paint defense by edging that opponent out with the three ball.

It can work the other way around, too, while matchups can be dissected back and forth depending on the teams you’re looking at. How well a team plays on the road or in certain regions can come into play, how well teams play on short rest can potentially impact a game, and how certain aspects of a game (pace, defensive ranking, size, length, etc) can dictate how things could unfold.

The idea here isn’t to let one piece of information like seeding, record or rankings sell you for or against a team. Instead, soak up all of the information you can find and try to make an informed decision.

Data Specific: Know RPI

Something we didn’t touch on yet that can be very helpful is understanding how good a team is based on the level of competition they face. This is probably the biggest reason why you can’t blindly pick teams that have a better record or even one of the best records in the country.

Instead, using team’s RPI rankings will help show you how tough their schedule is, and how they fared against other quality programs. This doesn’t give you all the information you need and often it won’t even help you pick the right winner, but it certainly needs to be considered over knee-jerk stats like records and other potentially meaningless rankings.

Data Specific: Shoot the Lights Out

We’ve touched on matchups and making sure you know everything there is to know about a team, but perhaps what trumps a lot of research is leaning on teams that can really shoot the ball.

Teams that cannot produce offense easily do not last long in the tournament, while elite outside shooting often can get inferior teams past a tough opponent or help combat severe size disadvantages. That certainly isn’t always the case, but elite shooting can be a powerful tool and even tends to produce a good amount of champions.

Looking at the top half of the field this year, UCLA, Purdue, Kansas, St. Mary’s, Arizona and Virginia are all teams that are locks to get into the tournament. They’re also inside the top-20 for three-point shooting. That doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t lose (perhaps even immediately), but being able to shoot the long ball can keep you in a game you don’t belong in or blow your opponent out of the water early.

It’s translated to past title winners, too, as Duke won in 2015 and was ranked 25th in the country in three’s and UConn won in 2014 (23rd). It’s not necessarily going to be the mark of a champion every time, but the better you can shoot from deep, the better your chances are to stay alive in this savage tournament.

Think About the Big Picture

Another interesting part of this would be trying to do this for every single game for each round, working all the way up to the title game. People will often put the time into researching round one to see who advances, but then for some reason halt the research and go more off of their gut as the tourney bleeds on.

Instead, take your time with your picks and don’t just go off of name recognition or what you think you know. Drawing up matchup and team breakdowns on paper (away from a computer) can be a great way to put everything in front of you. The more information you have and can lean on, the more likely you are to make an informed pick, and less likely to get tripped up by easy calls or upsets that actually could be more obvious that most people think.

While you absolutely want to play your March Madness bracket slowly, you also want to think of the big picture.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Who wins these tournaments?
  • What coaches are the most experienced?
  • Who are the best teams this year?
  • Who does Vegas like?
  • What high level teams are prone to upsets/early exits
  • Who might have unfinished business?
  • Which teams don’t belong here?

These are just a few things to consider that can blend together to help you see the big picture, which is which team is actually going to win the tourney? You can pull back from that point, revealing your two favorite picks to make it to the title game, then pull it back to who is most likely to make it to the Final Four, and so on, working your way backward.

Starting at the end is a very good March Madness strategy, as it allows you to see who you think is going to win before even diving into the data, matchups or seeding. Avoiding the outside noise – at least initially – can actually play a huge hand in finding those sneaky upsets.

It’s certainly a back and forth approach, as you’ll want to think about the long game first and really keep it in mind throughout the process of making your picks. At some point your journey starting in round one will meet up with your title winner, however.

Eliminate Bias

A really helpful March Madness tip is to avoid any bias. If you’re a fan of UCLA, you might love the Bruins to make a really deep run. Perhaps if you can’t remove your Bruins bias, you’ll also be a little more likely to pick against fellow Pac-12 teams like Arizona, California and others, as well.

Right there, by not avoiding your bias, you could incorrectly be forcing UCLA too deep into the tournament, while not giving teams you normally cheer against the credit they might deserve.

This works the other way, too, as many people will cheer on the conference in which their favorite team plays. Once their team is eliminated (or in our case, where they predict that team will lose), they might cheer on (or create a path) for a different viable contender from that conference to make a deep run.

Another aspect with bias is widespread bias. A lot of people dislike some of the best teams in the country – and for good reason – but by betting against them just because they don’t like them, they’re missing out on a lot of easy (and correct) March Madness picks.

You don’t like teams like Duke, North Carolina, Michigan State (insert the team you hate here), but that shouldn’t be part of your decision-making process. It might pain you to predict (and then watch) any of these teams go win the title, but if you can put your bias aside and just pick the games the way you think they’ll go, you might end up winning big because of it.

The Elite Own All

Another piece of advice we need to lean on is the fact that the best teams are ultimately going to win the men’s college basketball championship. It might not be the team that ends #1 in the college basketball rankings. It might not be the team with the best coach. And it might not be the team you think is the best team in basketball.

But one of the top teams that we all keep talking about is going to win. It doesn’t have to be a #1 seed, but over the last 14 college basketball seasons, the champion has been a 1, 2 or 3-seed. That’s not by accident. The best teams are well traveled, they tend to either have elite offenses or defenses (or both), they have the best talent in the nation and they know how to win in the toughest of situations.

Let Vegas Show You the Way

Lastly, we should look to Vegas to see what the oddsmakers think about March Madness. No, Vegas doesn’t always predict the winner of the men’s college basketball tournament (heck, they don’t always pick the winner for most championship events), nor will they necessarily help you fill out the perfect bracket.

They’ll give you a pretty good idea as to who should probably be at the end, though. Who you end up picking that to be is up to you, but Vegas has a pretty good handle on who the top teams are and their odds to win the title shouldn’t be ignored.

Somewhere within the top-10 is where this year’s champion probably lies. It’s up to you to figure out who that is and then map out the correct path that leads them and the other three best teams to the Final Four.

Alternative Betting

As fun as it is to plan ahead and think of the possibility of presenting that first perfect March Madness bracket, we all know it’s probably not happening. Even our favorite March Madness tips may not be enough, so if you still want to take part in the action and win cash in the process, a great way to do that is to just bet on Final Four games individually.

This can be done by itself or hand-in-hand with your bracket. Either can be fun, but the added thrill can be betting hard on upsets you’re really passionate about.

Regardless what kind of Final Four betting you end up doing this year, we wish you luck and hopefully a few of our tips either opened your eyes to a way of thinking or reminded you of something useful.