How to Build a Winning March Madness Bracket

By Paul Wilson
Published on February 21, 2017
March Madness Bracket

March Madness is again almost upon us, which quickly shifts the focus of the sports world from the Super Bowl and the mid-way point through the NBA season to the final weeks of the college basketball season.

Soon teams will be done with their regular season runs and finalizing seeds as they then hammer out their conference tournaments. From there, we’ll learn the final count of teams (64) following the opening First Four.

Then the madness ensues.

It never fails, either. As spot on as you can be to get things started, there is always that upset (or three) that shake the foundation of your March Madness bracket. Picking a winning March Madness bracket isn’t easy and there really isn’t an exact science, but there is certainly some criteria that you should rummage through to at least set up the possibility that you’ll make out okay this time around.

We’ve got a few ideas up our sleeve, so join us as we break down the main things you’ll want to keep in mind when trying to win during March Madness:

What Defines Winning?

The first step for March Madness bracket success is probably figuring out what winning means to you. Are you just competing against yourself for fun? Maybe pride is on the line with friends, family or colleagues at work or school. Or maybe you’re shooting for a big cash prize or even betting on the March Madness bracket at a reliable online betting site.

Whatever the case, it’s best to appropriately align expectations with actual reality, and then adjust based on what the risk and reward can be.

Bracket Madness

Part of the expectations and your March Madness strategy has to be deciding on whether you’re casting several nets into the sea, or simply aiming for that one perfect bracket. If you’re going to as many websites and March Madness bracket challenges as you can possibly fine, then the more random you make the brackets, the better.

You might want to keep track of your favorite picks and favorite upsets, while setting up some type of core (as in, the picks you feel the most confident in), and then as you stretch your neck into different brackets, you can shake things up and give yourself an increased chance to land a winning bracket.

Just know you’re usually competing against millions of people and that it will take several things going 100% right to even have a remote chance of placing high – let alone coming away with a big prize or the grand prize. We’ll cover all of the basics here, but if you’re spreading out your opportunities to win, incorporating a little randomness is a good start.

Aiming for the perfect bracket could be a fool’s errand, of course, as the odds of getting a perfect bracket, well, aren’t good. You can aim high all you want and if you’re playing as many contests as you can find, we see no reason not to at least try.

If you want to win big in a smaller pool or have money on the line, of course, you may want to lean a little more on logic and carefully pick when/where you play upsets.

Individual Game Betting

Beyond putting as many eggs in as many separate baskets as possible, you can also always just bet on March Madness games, themselves. It’s just as intense, just as unpredictable, just as fun and ultimately (at least potentially) just as rewarding.

This will actually be where those crazy upsets are the most fun, as you can locate the underdogs that seem to have no chance and chase that high-paying upset.

You won’t be alone in this betting avenue, either, as over $9 billion was spent on March Madness betting in 2015 and according to the American Gaming Association (AGA), that spiked to roughly $9.2 billion in 2016. The numbers should only rise again going forward, as bettors everywhere look to take down the perfect bracket or chase big wins with each game during March Madness.

Know the History

No matter how you decide to bet on the college basketball tournament, the first part of your strategy should be taking a look at the event history. The biggest piece to the puzzle is how the seeds fare.

For one, you don’t want to be that person that picks a #1 seed to lose in the first round. It just doesn’t happen. I know, records were made to be broken and with each passing year it’s possible we inch closer to that first #1 seed upset, but it’s literally never happened yet.

Here’s some other tidbits you’ll want to keep in mind when thinking about seeds:

  • 10-seeds have made it to one Final Four since 1985
  • Ditto for the 9 seed
  • #1 seeds dominate as they should typically, reaching 52 Final Fours since 1985
  • 11 seeds are dangerous, with 3 Final Four appearances
  • 3 and 4 seeds are sneaky, with a total 28 Final Four appearances
  • True Cinderella teams don’t pop up as often as the media hype suggests
  • #1 seeds have won 15 of the last 24 championships
  • #12 seeds are dangerous (17-15 straight up over the last 8 years)
  • Seeds 13-15 can win, but are major gambles

There are always going to be numbers to back up any argument, but the bottom line most of the time is that #1 seeds either get to or win the national championship. The bracketology guys don’t always get it right and sometimes a #2, #3 or #4 seed can make that deep run, while we’ve seen several other seeds run the table, as well.

If you’re looking for consistency and reliability, however, starting with your favorite #1 seed is a great way to begin how you break this thing down.

Consider the Upsets

From there, we need to pay respect to most seeds, all the way through the #12 seed. The 12-seed is especially dangerous and has had a ton of success over the last decade. However, despite their solid success in round one, 12-seeds tend to flame out in round two.

In other words, just like how you pinpoint your favorite #1 seed(s) to go the distance, you may want to start your intermediate picks with the #12 seeds and gauge which team(s) have a shot at nailing that first round upset. You may want to think twice about picking them to keep that momentum rolling, however.

The real trick can be between seeds 13-15. Just in 2016 college basketball fans saw some crazy upsets, as Hawaii (13), S.F. Austin (14) and Middle Tennessee (15) all staged huge upsets in round one. Unfortunately, as history has often dictated, all three fell in the second round.

History simply hasn’t been kind to those deep seeds in general, of course, with #13 seeds winning 26 times since 1985, #14 seeds are just 21-107 in history and #15 seeds have won just 5.6% of their games. In addition, just one #15 seed (Florida Gulf Coast) in March Madness history has ever advanced past the second round.

The moral of the story here is we do want to hunt for those upsets, but we don’t want to go overboard. That means both limiting the amount of upsets we pick in round one, as well as how far we have them go beyond that point.

Note the March Madness Odds

Another helpful tool when planning out your Final Four strategy is looking at the latest March Madness odds on the top betting sites.

Odds certainly don’t always dictate who will win it all, go far or even get out of the first round, but any and all reliable references should at least be noted when looking for ways to decide individual matchups and rounds as a whole.

History has suggested sustained success for #1 seeds, so a #1 seed with strong odds to win the national championship is naturally going to be a pretty solid play in your Final Four or Championship section of your bracket.

You can work your way right down the line and hopefully the updated odds can help you gauge which sleepers have a chance to stage an upset or go on a small run in the tourney.

Track the Teams

This one is so basic, but it slides past people all the time because it actually takes some effort. Seeds, odds, records and past history can only get you so far. Sometimes it really does pay to know the teams, coaches, players, trends and injuries.

Storylines can be huge for teams in the men’s college basketball tournament. Some players are trying to lift their teams to improve their NBA Draft stock. Others are trying to close out a four-year college career with a title. Some coaches could be eyeing their first national title, or putting the finishing touches on approaching a big record.

Injuries can have a huge impact on games and long-term tourney runs, as well. Injuries can sap depth, they can impact defensive ability, and a star player being taken from a roster can turn a championship contender into a first round loser.

Team trends in general can be helpful, too. It can be one of the top contenders with great odds and a good seed, but what if they are terrible in a specific region, struggle on the road, have a horrible history during March Madness or are facing a team they never beat? Any one thing or all of these things together can help point you to who to trust when making your final March Madness picks.

Analyze Matchups

Matchups can be their own life form when trying to gauge winners in the college basketball tournament, as star players, legendary coaches and location can end up meaning nothing if the wrong teams go up against each other.

Matchups tend to be very key when you look at two teams that both rely on outside shooting, two teams that do or don’t have great size or length, or two teams that are complete opposites (one shoots well from three, the other can’t defend the three).

Sometimes the matchups are obvious and other times we never see them coming. By doing the research and knowing how each team wants to play and alternatively can play, we can predict tendencies and often correctly predict what otherwise will come off as unpredictable and truly shocking.

Doing that for every single game is a bit of a nightmare, but that’s kind of the point.

Look Ahead at Paths

A big part of this entire process is the paths each team will go on. This goes right back to seeding, as those sneaky #12-15 seeds can absolutely make you look like a genius with that crazy first round upset, but are they really reliable to go much further when the path from that point on only gets more and more difficult?

No, probably not. That’s why picking upsets to go far in the tournament is both tough and risky, and why we also need to consider superior team’s chances to fall earlier than expected.

Assessing long-term paths is key, while you’ll also want to project both sides of every matchup.

For instance, perhaps you didn’t initially think a team like Wisconsin was going to go very far, but you picked their next opponent to stage a huge upset in round one. With the Badgers also now advancing to round two and their opponent’s seeding having a far worse history of success in round two, could Wisconsin now suddenly be the more logical pick to advance to the Sweet 16?

You might not like it or even trust it, but the path they’ve been set on could actually turn teams you don’t even trust into teams you should probably confide in. The key is the correct balance in taking those risks and combining your research with odds and logic.

Lock in Your Final Four

It’s funny how most of the sites that let you fill in March Madness brackets online always start from the beginning, forcing you to slowly work your way through the bracket and make each pick, one by one. An easier route might be to first just decide who will be in your Final Four.

After all, the scoring for most brackets puts more weight on the later rounds. Yes, getting those few crazy upsets early can be great, but getting those correct can often come at the expense of some other teams that are more solid and ultimately will go further in the tournament.

You might love S.F. Austin (or small school that can shoot the lights out listed here) in round one, but should you really have them taking down North Carolina in round two? There is usually a strong argument for that to not be the case.

How you go about deciding each game and round is up to you, but if you first can focus on those final four teams (and get them right) you’ll be in a great spot when the tourney starts drawing to a close.

Pick a Champion

Just like honing in on those Final Four teams, the national championship is pretty important. Points-wise, it’s literally more important for most sites when it comes to scoring.

You can nail every upset in the first two rounds, but if you have those Cinderellas going one game too far, you could end up with a great first two days and a championship game with two teams that have been gone since the Sweet 16.

Instead, start with your Final Four and then try your best to gauge which of those two teams make the most sense to meet up in the championship. From there, which team has the size, length, depth, shooting, experience, coaching and even the seeding to align with a true title contender?

That pick is up to you, but if you can combine a strong Final Four and an accurate title game, you can come back from a slow start in most March Madness bracket contests.

Go With Your Gut

All of this, collectively, should be based around the old adage, “trust your gut”. It really is that simple. Obviously if you’re betting big money on March Madness brackets or games, you won’t want to dive in without any restraint and you will certainly want to put in some time to research the teams and matchups.

However, you’ll go crazy racking your brain if you don’t bite down on your initial instinct. Overall, these helpful tips should aid you in picking a winning bracket. Just make sure you know what your own expectations are and that you don’t take unnecessary risks throughout the process.

Most of all, March Madness is about enjoying great college basketball, some unthinkable moments and then waiting for some intense showdowns (usually between the best teams in college basketball) later in the tourney.

We wish you luck on your journey, and enjoy the tournament!

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