how to win ncaa tournament bracket

How to Fill Out an NCAA Tournament Bracket

It’s March Madness! The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament (and Women’s too!) is a great opportunity to have some fun gambling on sports, either for fun or with big money on the line.

When Selection Sunday comes along, popular websites like Yahoo and ESPN open their bracket challenges for the public to make their predictions on which collegiate basketball teams will advance throughout the epic 68-team March Madness basketball tournament. One of the great things about filling out a bracket (or several brackets) is that it’s very common for novice fans to do well; one major upset can be a “bracket buster” and eliminate many so-called experts from contention.

Whoa, whoa, slow down, hot shot. How do I fill out one of these bracket thingies?

There are 32 first-round matchups featuring 64 teams. Pick a winner from each game. If doing so electronically, such as on Yahoo, the computer will automatically move your winning team ahead to the next line. If playing on paper, write the winner on the designated line. You will now see that a new matchup has been determined based on your guesses. You simply continue to choose a winner for every game until you’re down to one team remaining.

The 2018 NCAA men’s bracket prior to any games having been played.

How do I predict who will win each game? I don’t know a damn thing about college basketball!

Lucky for you, league officials set the brackets by ranking the teams. #1 seeded teams always match up against a #16 team in the first round, giving everyone a very clear picture as to who is the better team. In the history of the NCAA tournament, no #1 seed has ever been eliminated in the first round. This should be a “gimme” for everyone. Likewise, very few #15 seeded teams have ever advanced over a #2 team. Though it has been done, few have correctly predicted these stunning turns of events. Will you?

From there on out, things get a little tougher to predict. #3, #4, and #5 seeded teams are very likely to advance as well, but upsets are far more common. #6, #7, and #8 seeded teams routinely get upset each year in the tournament.

Picking the higher-seeded team in every single matchup is a safe way to play, but not very interesting. Upsets are bound to happen. Just because experts declared one team to be better than another doesn’t guarantee victory; that’s why they play out the games!

Here are some alternate methods to consider when filling out your bracket, rather than just advancing the top seeds throughout.

  • Research to see if any of the matchups have occurred already in the regular season and base your choice on those outcomes.
  • Consider how far each team must travel. Despite the tournament being broken down into geographic regions, teams routinely play in regions that make no sense. A team from Oregon could wind up playing in the East bracket. Heavy travel could spell doom!
  • Likewise, consider how close to their home each team plays. If a team from Kansas gets to play its first-round game in the state of Kansas, one can be assured their fans will travel well and give that team a distinct home-court advantage.
  • Pick mostly higher seeds, but build in a few upsets. No tournament field has ever seen zero upsets. Pick a 9-seed over an 8; a 11-seed over a 6, and so forth.
  • Have a rooting interest in a team? You might benefit from picking them to advance all the way. Plus it will give you more reason to follow the tournament and feel like a part of something special.
  • Some totally clueless individuals forced into filling out a bracket may choose teams to advance based on team nickname. “Hmm, I think a wildcat would devour a cardinal. I’ll pick the Wildcats.”
  • Other clueless individuals may choose teams based on colors. “Ohhh, I just love their purple shorts! I’m picking K-State.”
  • Play “eenie, meenie, miney, mo” throughout the entire field, advancing whichever team you land on until one champion emerges.
  • Have a child pick the teams for you. If you do well, the kid genius will be a celebrity. If you do poorly, it was the kid’s fault.

Realistically, though, if money is on the line, you should fill out a bracket using a combination of research, history, and a gut feeling. If it’s a “just for fun” thing, you can more easily throw some wilder picks into the mix.

My Hot Take

I always fill out 2-4 brackets each year, submitting them in different contests. There is usually one at work, one amongst friends, and several public national bracket games I enter. Though I’m an avid sports fan. I don’t know anything at all about college basketball. I follow baseball and football religiously, but with college hoops, my season only begins with the tournament. I can honestly say I have watched less than one total hour of NCAA basketball this year, but that won’t stop me from filling out my brackets! I’ve only placed a few times ever; I think once I won $50 for a second-place finish. My method of picking mostly higher seeds sprinkled with upsets of teams I dislike never seems to work very well.


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