How To Win Your NCAA Bracket Pool

How to Win the March Madness Bracket

The madness is finally here! With the start of the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament right around the corner, it is time to start filling out your bracket. There is no event in sports that is more fun to bet on than the NCAA basketball tournament. Not only is it the most exciting sporting event in the world, you get to feel superior to all your friends when your bracket wins the pool!

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In this article, I will give you a couple of insider tips of what you need to do to win your betting pool and impress all of your friends with your betting knowledge. Let’s get started!

Fill Out Multiple Brackets

Before I will ever submit my official betting bracket, I fill out several brackets. When you are filing these brackets out, you want to make sure you think as far outside the box as possible. The NCAA tournament is famous for upsets and Cinderella runs from small schools.

If each time you fill out your bracket you are going with all chalk (insider lingo for heavy favorites), then you are never going to win your pool. You need to be able to predict the unpredictable if you want to take home the crown.

After you fill out several brackets, you will start to get a general feel about what you think will happen, and what you think could happen. Some things are near impossible to predict, like Virginia losing as a one seed to sixteen seeded UMBC in 2018. While others weren’t all that hard to see coming, like when Wichita State made a run all the way to the Final Four in 2013. In order to look like a genius by the time the third weekend comes around, you need to consider every possible outcome.

Upsets Early, Chalk Late

As I mentioned above, the NCAA tournament is famous for the thrilling upsets. At this point, there are too many to even count. UMBC in 2018, Santa Clara in 1993, Norfolk State in 2012, Coppin State in 1997, Hampton is 2001, and Middle Tennessee State in 2016 are just a handful of the many major upsets. The list of huge, early round upsets goes on and on.

It seems that every year we see a double-digit seed finding a way to pull off a major upset. But, historically, the big upsets are mostly the first-weekend phenomenon. Yes, these big upsets are what makes the madness, the madness, but as a general rule, you don’t want to ride these upsets all the way to the Final Four. Once you get to that third weekend, the cream has almost always risen to the top.

The highest seed to ever win it all was an eight seed. So, when you fill out your bracket, you can be liberal with the upsets early on, but by the time things have whittled down to the Final Four, you are going to want to make sure it is mostly top four seeds left.

Since the tournament expanded to its current format of a 64-team bracket (now 68 teams, but the structure remains the same) in 1985, only eight times was there a final game that didn’t feature at least one top seed. You don’t want all chalk in your Final Four, but if you have a finals matchup that doesn’t feature at least one top-seeded team, you are fighting against history.

12-5 Upsets

Every year the Bracketologists talk about a 12-5 upset. And that is because it happens so regularly. Over 34% of the time, a twelve seed manages to knock off a five seed in the first round. And this is not just some quirky statistical anomaly that happens to reoccur. This is a systematic flaw in the seeding that needs to be exploited.

Generally, when we see these 12-5 upsets, the five seed is a middle of the road team from a major conference, and the twelve seed is a high performing small conference school.

A perfect example:

This year as the 12-5 matchup in the west region features the five seed Mississippi State (23-10), the Bulldogs finished sixth in the SEC this year, squaring off with the (27-4) Murray State Racers, the champions out of the Ohio Valley Conference.

Any time you have a team that knows how to win basketball games at a high rate, like a Murray State, they are a great spot to back as underdogs. The 12-5 upset has become so prevalent that most experts won’t even fill out a bracket without having at least one twelve seed winning in the first round. But keep in mind, this isn’t about the seeding, it’s about the teams.

We see similar upsets on the 10-7 line, as well as the 11-6, and sometimes even the 13-4 line. Any time that you have a very high performing small conference team matched up with a battle-tested, but flawed, major conference team, you need to take a long and hard look at the upset. This year, we see a juicy upset spot in the east region at the 11-6 line, where Maryland (22-10), the fifth-place team from the Big 10, plays against Belmont (27-5), from the Ohio Valley. If you don’t find a couple of these double-digit seed upsets in the first round, you aren’t going to win your pool.

League Strength

In college basketball, not all leagues are equal. This year, three of the four one seeds come to us out of the ACC. There were eleven leagues that sent at least two teams dancing this season. When you are looking for teams that could go all the way, I love to look for teams that played in tough conferences. These are teams that have played very tough schedules all season long and are used to playing high-intensity games.

This year we have teams like Florida State (ACC), Kansas State (Big 12), Kansas (Big 12), Wisconsin (Big 10), and Auburn (SEC) that are all seeded fourth or worse, that could be potential Final Four teams, playing out of major conferences. The huge early round upsets are fun to predict, but the type of upsets that will win you your bracket pool are when you can find the four seeds or higher than make the run to the Final Four.

So, when you are looking for a horse to back, that most people won’t see coming, I look for a good team, playing out of a great conference.

NBA Level Talent

When I am looking for teams to back, I love to back teams that have NBA level talent. Each year we see superstars emerge on the national scene and figuring out which team has these star players is key to finding what teams are going to go deep. Whether it is Dwayne Wade or Carmelo Anthony, or Steph Curry, Adam Morrison, and Jimmer Fredette, having an NBA level player on your roster means a lot in the tournament.

This year, we have several NBA stars in the making at Duke, North Carolina, and Kentucky, amongst several other high-profile teams. But everyone knows those guys. But guys like Ja Morant at Murray State, Louis King at Oregon, and Tyus Battle at Syracuse are under the radar guys that are very talented and are poised for a breakout performance in the tournament. In college basketball, we can see a large difference in talent from team to team and identifying some of the lesser know guys that are very talented can be a great way to predict deep runs in the tournament.


In this last section, I am going to talk about analytics. There are a million different metrics out there you can consult when you are filling out your bracket. You can use the new NCAA NET tool, the replacement of the antiquated RPI. NET is intended to be an all-encompassing metric and was the matric they used to help seed and rank our brackets. You can also take a look at the Sagarin rankings produced by long-time USA Today contributor Jeff Sagarin. You can even go old school and look at the AP and Coaches Polls.

But my favorite analytic to use is kenpom. Kenpom was developed by stats guru Ken Pomeroy, and it has been an invaluable tool for handicappers ever since. Kenpom was so influential at one point, that sportsbook started to use his data to help set their lines!

Please Note:

No matter which metrics you consult, you should make sure you always do your homework. Just seeing where certain teams rank will go a long way to helping you sift through all the noise and see which teams are highly overrated, and which ones the committee didn’t give nearly enough love to.

This year we see Wofford as a seven seed, despite the fact that they are ranked 19th on kenpom. And on the other end of the spectrum, we see St. John’s at an eleven seed, when kenpom has them ranked at number 81, suggesting the Red Storm shouldn’t have even gotten into the field at all! You don’t want to treat any of these metrics as the gospel, but as you start to do your research, you might find things like the above that can help shed some light on just how good these teams really are this year.

Wrap Up

And here they are folks, my top insider tips on how to win your NCAA March Madness bracket pools. Make sure you are doing your homework and picking plenty of upsets early on, but by the time you find your way to the Final Four, make sure you have plenty of high seeded teams, with big-time NBA level talent. Thanks for reading and good luck on your betting pool!

Patrick Carter / author