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5 mistakes to avoid when building your March Madness bracket

Tyler Lauletta   

5 mistakes to avoid when building your March Madness bracket
Sports5 min read
  • March Madness is back, and it's time to build your bracket.
  • We went through 30 years of brackets to help you avoid making a costly mistake as you build yours this year.

Building a March Madness bracket is an inexact science.

Given that the chances of building a truly perfect bracket are roughly 1 in 120,000,000,000, your best bet is not to strive for perfection, but rather to go for "pretty good."

With this in mind, we've gone through the past 30 years of NCAA men's tournament brackets, dating back to 1991, to come up with five of the biggest mistakes to avoid when building your bracket.

Armed with the knowledge of history, your bracket will have a chance to contend in any pool.

1. Don't be afraid to pick some upsets in the early rounds

If you haven't watched a ton of college basketball all season, it can be tempting to back the higher seeds throughout the early rounds of the tournament. They're ranked higher because they're better right?

While that's true, the early rounds are where some of the most memorable upsets of the tournament happen — it's called March Madness after all — so don't shy away from picking a few upsets in the early rounds.

Over the past 30 tournaments, 5-12 matchups and 6-11 matchups have played closer than you might think.

12-seeds have advanced out of the first round at a 35.8% clip, dating back to 1991, making them one of the most analyzed first-round matchups every year. Since 2012, 12-seeds have gone 15-21 against 5-seeds in the first round, bumping their win percentage up to 41.6% over that span.

6-11 matchups can be just as volatile. While 6-seeds have won over 11-seeds 65% of the time since 1991, they've gone 4-0 just once since 2004. Further, in four of the past seven tournaments, 6-11 matchups have been split 2-2. The margins dividing these teams are thin, and in one game, the underdogs have a chance.

The 4-13 matchups can also present quite a bit of chaos. Over the past 30 men's tournaments, 13-seeds have pulled off the first-round upset 21.6% of the time — nearly averaging one a tournament. In two of the past three years, 13-seeds have split their matchups, going 2-2 in the first round.

The top seeds in each region are a pretty safe bet to advance through the first round. Just once in the history of the men's tournament has a 1-seed lost to a 16-seed in the first round, and 15-over-2 upsets happen just 7.5% of the time.

2. Don't take your Cinderella team too far

While your bracket would be incomplete without a few early upsets, it's also important to mitigate your risk a bit when picking your Cinderella teams. A 12-, 13-, or 14-seed can spring an upset or two to make it to the Sweet Sixteen, but reaching the Final Four is another story.

The successful Cinderellas like Loyola-Chicago just a few years ago stand out in our minds with their incredible runs, but for every sleeper that reaches the Final Four, there are dozens of others that never escape the first weekend of the tournament.

In the past 30 years of the tournament, no team lower than an 11-seed has reached the Final Four.

3. But don't get too conservative with your Final Four

Rather than getting over-eager about your sleeper picks making it all the way to the final weekend of play, your best bet is targeting a mid-range team to make a run.

In the past four tournaments, each Final Four has had exactly one representative that was seeded lower than 3 — one 5-seed, one 7-seed, and two 11-seeds. If you can find the right team around that sweet spot — No. 5 UConn, No. 5 Iowa, and No. 7 Ohio State jump out as potential contenders — you could end up as the only one in your bracket pool to nail the Final Four.

One way of thinking about building your Final Four is to go by historical average. Add up the seeds of the four teams you have in your Final Four, and if it's somewhere around 11, you're in pretty good shape. Over the past 30 tournaments, the average total seeding of the Final Four has hovered just over 11.

You can get to 11 in any number of ways — a 1-, 1-, 3-, and 6-seed feels pretty good, for instance. If your total is lower than 11, it means you're playing a bit more conservatively. Higher than 11, and your picks lean toward the risky end.

One thing you should likely avoid is picking all 1-seeds to reach the Final Four. Again, this is Madness. Upsets happen. Over the past 30 brackets, all four 1-seeds have reached the Final Four in the same tournament just once.

4. Don't get cute with your champion pick

Once you've figured out your Final Four, you'll have to decide on a champion. When you do so, please, pick a 1-seed.

In the past 30 tournaments, a 1-seed has come out as champion a remarkable 21 times. 2-seeds have won four titles, 3-seeds three, and then one 4-seed and one 7-seed have rounded out the past 30 champions.

1-seeds have had great success in making the final over the past few years as well. In three of the past six tournaments, the championship game has been contested between two 1-seeds.

Simply put, while there's plenty of madness leading up to the championship, the cream has a tendency of rising to the top in the end.

When building your bracket, it actually might be best to work backwards. Pick one 1-seed from each side of the bracket to meet in the final, with one prevailing over the other. That will get you to half of your Final Four. From there, pick your favorite 2-6 seeds from the other two regions that you think can make a run in the tournament. That should give you a good mix of top seeds and mid-tier sleepers heading into the final weekend of action.

5. Don't let some blogger (me) tell you how to build your bracket

Ultimately, it's your bracket! Do what you want to do. There are so many things to consider when building a bracket — what teams you've watched this year, personal grudges, ensuring that your bracket finishes better than that of Gary in accounting.

I'm just some guy! Who spent too long looking at the 30 years' worth of brackets in hopes of predicting the future! We can try our best to come up with a perfect system, but ultimately, the games will be decided on the court rather than my silly spreadsheet.

If an 8-seed speaks to you and you think they're going to win it all, go for it. You'll regret it if you don't.

But if you are looking for a place to start, hopefully these tips can get your bracket moving in the right direction.