What data tells us to help make tournament picks

Xavier Roger


It’s mid-March. All NCAA Tournament games are ready to be picked, but a blank bracket is staring right back at you.

Where to start?

First, regardless of how much research you do, your odds of picking all 63 games – not including the four play-in games – correctly are impossibly large.

If you just coin-flipped your way through the brackets, your odds are 1 in 9.2 quintillion of completing a perfect bracket. That’s 9 followed by 18 digits. (Complete disclosure: I did that one year. What a mess.)

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Luckily the NCAA selection committee does some of the homework for you, which makes the picking a little more manageable. More on that later.

Here are five tips gleaned from 37 years of NCAA Tournament results.

Yes, 15 and 16 seeds have won first-round games before: 11 times to be exact. But here’s how infrequent that really is.

Thanks to the efforts of the NCAA selection committee, if you just pick the highest seeded team throughout the tournament, your odds improve significantly – especially through the first few rounds. 

The NCAA has hosted its own online bracket contest during the last eight tournaments. They’ve found that players get two-thirds of their picks right when they based their picks on “likely outcomes.” That method improves your odds of a perfect bracket to 1 in 120.2 billion

That’s 70 million times better than coin flipping, but likely outcomes might not be enough to win among your friends and co-workers.

A No. 8 seed or lower has made the Final Four 13 times – more on that trend later. Obviously, this is where the biggest challenge begins. 

So where to start?

On average between 1985 and 2021, there’ve been just over a dozen upsets, about 23% of the 53 games, according to the NCAA. In 2007, only four lower seeds toppled higher seeds, while in 2014, a record 19 were upsets. Talk about broken brackets. 

As much as we hear about first-round upsets, 80% of the games have not been. So consider limiting your first-round upsets to a half dozen or so. 

While we all grumble about No. 15 or No. 16 seeds taking down our eventual bracket champions, that’s more bad luck (for you) and a great victory for the school than a gamble that’s worth taking.

The majority of the first-round upsets are between the No. 5 and No. 12 seeds, according to the NCAA:

39%: No. 10 over No. 7 seed. One in 2022.

39%: No. 11 over No. 6 seed. Three in 2022. 

36%: No. 12 over No. 5 seed. Two in 2022. 

If you want to coin-flip something, go ahead and try your luck with the No. 8 and No. 9 seed games. The No. 9 seed currently has the 37-year advantage by just four games. Maybe there’s a No. 8 seed sweep in the offing this year?  

Since 2011, there’s been at least one No. 7 seed or lower in the Final Four in every tournament – except for 2019. Even that tournament would have required some creative guessing with eventual champion No. 1 Virginia, No. 2 Michigan State, No. 3 Texas Tech and No.5 Auburn. 

Also, just picking all the No. 1 seeds to make the Final Four is about as likely as a No. 16 seed toppling a No. 1 seed. Sorry, Virginia. Since 1985, that’s only happened in the 2008 Final Four.

Maybe you shouldn’t have four No. 1s in your Final Four, but they’ve piled up two dozen championships in a little more than three dozen years, including eight of the past 10 tournaments.




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