Have the Hot Hand in Your March Madness Bracket

Villanova over Georgetown in 1985, Bucknell over Kansas in 2005, and 16-seeded UMBC’s historic defeat over top-seeded Virginia last season…NCAA Tournament history is littered with unexpected upsets. It’s how March Madness got its name. If you’re trying to win a bracket challenge, we suggest you embrace the madness and call several upsets this year.

A common strategy for filling out a March Madness bracket is to simply pick the top seed to win each game. That strategy will usually get you far, but not quite to the top of your pool. Upsets happen with enough frequency that you must predict some if you want to win.

While upsets are inevitable, how many should you pick, and where? Here are a few round-by-round pointers to guide your upset selections. For more information to help your March Madness bracket, read our article on the behavioral biases that can negatively affect your selections.

Call Some Upsets, but Don’t Go Crazy

Picking upsets is a necessity to win a bracket pool, but don’t go overboard. You want a Goldilocks scenario: not too many, not too few. Since the NCAA tournament field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, an average of 28% of all games have ended in an upset.[1] You should actually predict fewer than that.

The right number of upsets to call depends on how many people are participating in your bracket challenge; the more participants, the more upsets you should call. Two years ago, the Wall Street Journal ran a simulation of different pool sizes and predictions to determine the optimal number of upsets to predict. In a small, 10-participant pool, the analysis found you should call an average of 8.7 upsets. In a pool of 25, the optimal number was 10.5 and in a pool of 50 it was 11.1.[2]

Round One: Don’t Discount Double Digit Seeds

In the first round (we’re excluding the play-in games and referring to the round of 64), upsets have occurred in roughly a quarter of all games since 1985. While another 16 seed upset is unlikely – last year is the first time it ever happened – don’t discount the potential of other double-digit seeds. Historically, 10-15 seeds have averaged a total of six upsets every tournament.[3]

Round Two: The Mighty Start Falling

By the second round, the real madness begins. One and two seeds typically survive, advancing to the Sweet 16 roughly 85% and 63% of the time, respectively. Three seeds, however, advance only 52% the time, while four seeds make the Sweet 16 only 47% of the time.[4]

Expecting a double-digit seed to advance to the Sweet 16 isn’t a safe bet, but it’s not outlandish either. Historically, 10 seeds advance past the first weekend 17% of the time, 11 seeds make it 16% of the time and 12 seeds survive the first two rounds at a 15% rate.

Rounds 3 and 4: In the third round, the rate of upsets has varied considerably each season. Since 1985, there have been two years in which no third-round upsets occurred, but there have been eight years (including last season) in which upsets occurred in half the games. The fourth round appears ripe for upsets, as lower seeded teams walk away with a surprising knockout more than 40% of the time.

As you make Final Four predictions, remember that you don’t have to be perfect. An analysis of all brackets filled out on NCAA.com over the past eight years found that less than 0.5% of all participants have correctly predicted all four teams.[5] And only 7.5% of participants even went 3-4. Chances are, that person isn’t in your pool.

Correctly selecting two Final Four teams is a good goal and will likely provide a chance of winning a pool. Once again though, you’ll need to consider some upsets: One seeds make it through their region only 41% of the time.[6] That’s more than any other seed, but NCAA.com analysis shows we tend to overpredict the one seed, selecting one seeds to win in this round roughly 56% of the time.

Choose Wisely

Upsets occur frequently enough that you’ll have to go out on a limb and predict some to win your pool. Now the hard part: predicting them correctly. There’s no crystal ball foretelling this year’s Cinderella stories. Your best hope is to make sure rationality guides your selections. Too often, we allow behavioral biases to influence our decisions, to the detriment of our brackets. To learn about the behavioral biases that creep into our March Madness predictions, and how to prevent them, read our article on the subject before you make your picks. Good luck!

Read more in The Psychology Undermining March Madness Brackets >