My favorite annual sporting event is almost here: March Madness. Along with the tournament comes the usual bracket contests. For anyone who’s competed before, the thought has crossed their mind, “I might have a perfect bracket.” This idea is irrational when one looks at the math. Excluding the four play in games, there are 63 total games played in the 64-team single-elimination winner-take-all tournament. That means there are 2^63 or 9,223,372,036,854,775,807 possible brackets. One can assume that higher seeded teams are more likely to win, making it easier to make the correct choices, but the odds of a perfect bracket are still insanely low. Just like life, we should still strive for perfection even if it's impossible, so here are some tips to filling out your bracket this year.

First off, with the COVID-19 pandemic, it was announced Wednesday, March 11 that the NCAA tournament will be played without crowds, severely limiting the home court advantage generally felt by higher seeds. Despite this point, I still recommend referring to the rankings for a good starting point as a predictor of success. Over the last 20 years, with the exception of the 2014 seventh-seeded UConn Huskies led by Kemba Walker, every National Champion has been a one, two or three seed. Along with the bracket rankings, I think that looking at the rating percentage index (RPI) and basketball power index (BPI) rankings are better than the coaches and media polls. Both indexes use all the results from this season to create a computer calculated rating. I personally like the BPI rankings, which use the current results and creates 10,000 simulations to produce season projections. I examine these rankings as well as referencing the strength of schedule (SOS) rankings and strength of record (SOR) rankings to give an idea of how difficult of a season the teams in question had to withstand.

The rankings are a good gauge, but most years it depends on which teams are hot entering the tournament. Take a look at the record of teams over their last 10 games to get an idea of how they are trending. These trends can usually be seen in the betting odds. The people with money on the line pay close attention to these matchups, so consider the spreads and championship odds when making your decisions. Be sure to take extra note of teams who’ve recently had marquee wins, leading to extra confidence entering the “Big Dance.” This is especially true for hot teams in the major conferences. This season, the Big 10 was by far the best basketball conference. Currently, 9 or more teams are projected to be making the tournament from that conference, so don’t be discouraged to pick one of these teams to make a run even if their record for the season isn’t great.

As far as team-specific statistics, a few that indicate a team primed for a run in the tournament include defensive efficiency, margin of victory and turnover margin. Be wary of picking the high scoring three-point barrage teams that can be so exciting to root for. When it comes tournament time, the games are usually slower-paced, and the difficulties adjusting to shooting in larger, unfamiliar arenas cannot be underestimated. Historically, to make the Final Four, a team must be top-25 in defensive efficiency. Teams with high defensive efficiencies paired with a high offensive efficiency fare especially well. High margin of victory indicates a team that has been great all season and a team that takes care of the ball and forces turnovers always will have a good chance at staying in games.

Without a doubt, these tips will lead to a bracket you can feel confident in when finalizing your selections. I recommend taking your choices extremely seriously, but never let your friends know. No one wants to look stupid by claiming they have insights into creating a bracket, only to have their bracket beat by “simpletons” with “no knowledge of college basketball.” To combat the inevitable chaos of the “Big Dance,” here are some alternative methods for picking your bracket. 

  • Ask your grandma

  • Use a random number generator

  • Rank mascots

  • Use your pets

  • Poll random strangers on campus or at a bar

  • Jersey colors

  • Throw darts at a dart board

  • Ask Siri

  • All upsets

I wish you luck in proving your superiority by filling out a great bracket, but don’t get discouraged if your bracket is busted after the first weekend. Remember that these are the only days of the year where there are high-intensity basketball games with crazy endings all day. This is one of the most wide-open seasons of college basketball in recent memory, leaving plenty of opportunity for novice basketball fans to fill out an accurate bracket. I hope my tips can lead to your most successful selections ever, and don’t forget to stay healthy and enjoy the March holiday season.

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