Men's NCAA Tournament 2021: The Secret Formula for Picking a Winner

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistMarch 17, 2021

Men's NCAA Tournament 2021: The Secret Formula for Picking a Winner

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    Holly Hart/Associated Press

    The men's NCAA tournament routinely costs employers billions of dollars in productivity, and there's no question that filling out brackets is a major contributor to that deficit.

    No matter your situationdiehard fan, casual viewer, regular March Madness watcher or simply someone with a pulsewe'll try nearly anything to pick an accurate bracket. Everything from team-by-team research and historical trends to coin flips, jersey colors and team nicknames may contribute to your choices.

    What matters most, though?

    To start, forget about perfection.

    "A group of researchers at the University of Hawaii estimated that there are 7.5 quintillion grains of sand on Earth," Daniel Wilco of said. "If we were to pick one of those at random and then give you one chance to guess which of the 7.5 quintillion grains of sand on the entire planet we had chosen, your odds of getting it correct would be 23 percent better than picking a perfect bracket by coin flip."

    From there, however, history is a terrific guide. The men's NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, so we have 35 years of data to consider when filling out a bracket.  

Know the Percentages, Part I

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Three seasons ago, 16th-seeded UMBC shocked the basketball world with an upset of No. 1 Virginia. Never before had a 16th seed upset at No. 1 seed in the opening round of the men's tourney.

    But a single legendary moment does not equal a trend.

    Since the expansion to 64 teams in 1985, the highest-seeded teams have rarely lost in the first round. If you feel compelled to pick a No. 15 or 16 seed to spring an upset, cool! Simply remember that you're testing 35 years of data.

    • 1 vs. 16: 139-1 (99.3 percent)
    • 2 vs. 15: 132-8 (94.3)

    Again, if you insist on predicting one of these, go ahead! The intent is not to control your bracket. Ultimately, though, "playing it safe" is historically the correct play. If either upset happens, you (scream into a pillow and) tip your hat to the underdog.     

Know the Percentages, Part II

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    Chandler Vaudrin leads No. 12 Winthrop into March Madness.
    Chandler Vaudrin leads No. 12 Winthrop into March Madness.Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    Since many articles are devoted to sleeper or Cinderella teams, it's important to start with the basics. The following records are first-round results since 1985:

    • 3 vs. 14: 119-21 (85 percent)
    • 4 vs. 13: 111-29 (79.3)
    • 5 vs. 12: 90-50 (64.3)
    • 6 vs. 11: 88-52 (62.9)
    • 7 vs. 10: 85-55 (60.7)

    Of note, a No. 11 seed has advanced in every tournament since 2005 and 30 of the last 35. Similarly, 30 of the 35 have included a No. 12 seed eliminating a No. 5 seed. And 25 of the 35 tournaments have featured a No. 13 seed winning once.

    The important thing is to temper long-term expectations for upset candidates. In 35 years, only two No. 14 seeds and six No. 13 seeds have advanced to the Sweet 16.

    If you skipped to the end, here's the tl;dr version: History says to pick at least one No. 11, 12 and 13 seed in the first round but avoid trusting a No. 13 or 14 seed to reach the Sweet 16.   

1-3 Double-Digit Seeds to the Sweet 16

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    Aaron Henry headlines No. 11 Michigan State.
    Aaron Henry headlines No. 11 Michigan State.Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Enough of the downer stuff! Brackets aren't won in the first round; no, key separation is made in the Sweet 16 and beyond.

    Since 1985, the 10-12 seeds have achieved near-equal success in the round of 32. Starting with No. 10, they've sent 23, 22 and 21 teams, respectively, to the Sweet 16.

    It's imperative to strike a balance in this range, though.

    Just two of the last 35 tournaments have included zero double-digit seeds in the Sweet 16, and only two have featured four or more. The historical trend favors one (nine times), two (nine) or three (13) advancing to the second weekend.

    Plus, while 17 of those 66 combined 10-12 seeds reached the Elite Eight, 12 defeated a team seeded sixth or worse in the round of 32 or Sweet 16. If you're picking a 10-12 seed to win three games, it likely won't be against the three highest seeds in their path.      

Understand Final Four Teams, Part 1

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    Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs is a top NBA prospect.
    Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs is a top NBA prospect.Young Kwak/Associated Press

    In theory, the No. 1 seeds should advance the furthest. History generally backs that up, considering 33 of the last 35 tournaments have included at least one No. 1 seed in the Final Four.

    Anything more than two, however, is a rarity. Since 1985, just five editions of March Madness have featured three—and only the 2008 tournament had all four. As a result, the proper number of No. 1 seeds in the Final Four is one or two.

    So, who else makes it?

    After identifying the No. 1 seed (or two), stick to top-four seeds. Along with 57 trips the Final Four for the No. 1 seed, the No. 2 has 29, the No. 3 has 17 and the No. 4 has 13. Of the 140 possible Final Four qualifiers since 1985, they've accounted for 116.

    Even further, only four Final Fours in the last 35 have included multiple teams seeded fifth or lower. The balance, though, is nine of the last 10 have included at least one No. 5 seed or worse.

    Back to the tl;dr version!

    Three of your Final Four predictions should be seeded 1-4, including one or two No. 1 seeds. The other should be fifth or lower.       

Balanced Teams Win Championships

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    Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu is a first-team All-American.
    Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu is a first-team All-American.Holly Hart/Associated Press

    During the 20-year era, 18 champions have been crowned. Other than 2014 UConn, each one finished with a top-20 mark in offensive and defensive efficiency.

    One elite unit doesn't win a championship.

    Entering the NCAA tourney, the only programs with a pair of top-20 rankings are Gonzaga, Illinois, Michigan and Houston. It's no surprise they combined for three No. 1 seeds and one No. 2.

    To be clear, that's not the absolute list of contenders; six games can noticeably affect the rankings. But it's a point to monitor for respected teams, such as defense-fueled Alabama (No. 34 offense), Arkansas (35) and Kansas (No. 59) or offense-driven Baylor (No. 44 defense), Iowa (50), West Virginia (65) and Ohio State (79).

    Making the Final Four or even reaching the national championship is possible while leaning on an efficient offense or defense.

    Cutting down the nets, though, requires both.


    Statistics courtesy of or, unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.