2021 NCAA Tournament Bracket Advice: Four best strategy tips for winning March Madness pools

2021 NCAA Tournament Bracket Advice: Four best strategy tips for winning March Madness pools

During March Madness, one thing is certain. You’re going to hear a lot of very bad strategy advice and tips for making NCAA Tournament bracket picks. Some of it will even come from the most respected names in the college basketball world.

Sometimes it can be difficult to separate the signal from the noise when it comes to bracket strategy. Still, it pays to know the difference. A lot of conventional wisdom about bracket picking is just plain wrong, and following it will torpedo your chances to win your March Madness pool.

After analyzing public picking trends in past NCAA tournaments and running millions of computer simulations of bracket pools, we know what the data says about winning bracket pool strategy. Here are four things you need to do to give yourself an edge in your March Madness bracket contest this year.

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from TeamRankings.com, a site that has provided expert bracket pick advice since 2004. Since 2017, their subscribers have reported over $1.7 million in bracket pool prize winnings using their NCAA Bracket Picks.


NCAA Tournament Bracket Advice: Best strategy tips for winning March Madness pools

Consider How Your Opponents Are Likely To Pick

In bracket pools, there is no prize for getting a certain number of picks correct. You are competing against other people, and the only way to win is to finish with a higher score than all of your opponents. You can only get a higher score if you get a pick right that your opponents get wrong. (Of course, it helps the most if that pick is worth a lot of points.)

This dynamic has big implications for bracket picking strategy because it means that the picks your opponents make have a major influence on your odds to win your pool. If you simply pick the same teams that everyone else is picking, you’re not going to have a great chance to win. Consequently, you should never fill out your bracket without factoring in your best guesses of what your opponents are likely to do.

For example, if you are in an NCAA bracket pool full of Michigan graduates, you should assume that Michigan will be a very popular pick in your pool and think about how you can construct a smart bracket that doesn’t feature Michigan as a critical pick.

Thinking more broadly, you should also consult national bracket picking trends data published by major bracket contest sites like ESPN and Yahoo to gain a general understanding of the teams on which the public is heavily concentrated. (To get a balanced picture, we consolidate bracket picking trends data from multiple sites.)

Ideally, you’re looking to identify teams that have a solid chance to win the tourney — or at least make a deep run — that are also being underrated by the public. To do this, you’ll need an objective and trustworthy source of tournament predictions, such as betting odds or our algorithmic projections, that you can compare to public picking trends.

For example, If a team has an 18-percent chance to win the tournament but only 10 percent of the public is picking it to do so, you’ve found yourself an unpopular team that deserves your consideration.

Still, there are limits to this logic. Should you avoid picking every overrated team? No. Very popular picks are usually popular for a good reason — because they are strong teams. And having lots of strong teams lose early in your bracket is usually too risky of a strategy. However, in many pools, making an educated gamble on one or two underrated (yet solid) teams to make a deeper run than most people think they will can significantly help your cause.


Don’t Pick Too Many Upsets In Your Bracket

Picking too many upsets is the poison that dooms many brackets. We know, it’s March Madness, and we all fondly remember the past Cinderella stories. Everyone dreams of picking the next Loyola-Chicago, who captured the nation’s attention by making an improbable run to the Final Four as a No. 11 seed in 2018.

However, hindsight is 20/20. Noting that a longshot team (say, a No. 5 seed or worse) makes the Final Four fairly often is one thing; correctly predicting a specific longshot team to make the Final Four in any given year is a whole different beast. Your odds of doing it aren’t good, and the stakes are high. If a relatively popular pick makes the Final Four instead of your longshot pick, you’re going to give up a lot of points to a lot of your opponents.

In fact, one of the biggest reasons that our algorithmic bracket picks consistently outperform the public is because many bracket pool players get too risky with their picks in the earlier rounds. When getting later-round picks correct is worth many more points in most bracket pool scoring systems, having a highly seeded team lose early can decrease your expected score quite a bit.

Don’t just take our word for it, though. Back in 2009, the Journal of Applied Social Psychology published a study about NCAA tournament predictions. The professors who studied picks from the public came to a similar conclusion — specifically, that simply picking the higher-seeded team in every matchup would have outscored the national average bracket score on ESPN.

Thankfully, there are more effective pick strategies than just picking the higher-seeded team, but you get the point. Plenty of evidence exists to refute the narrative that you need to pick a bunch of upsets and get them right in order to do well in your NCAA pool.

With that said, there are a few exceptions, such as if your pool gives bonus points for getting upset picks correct. Which leads us to the next piece of advice…


Adjust Your Pick Strategy for Your Pool’s Size

The advice to not make too many upset picks applies to the majority of bracket pools. It’s an especially wise strategy for pools that use the most common scoring format (1-2-4-8-16-32 points per correct pick, by round) and don’t have more than 100 or so entries.

However, if you’re in a much larger NCAA pool, or one that uses a nontraditional scoring system such as upset pick bonuses, the optimal pick strategy likely changes. In terms of pool size, the larger your pool, the more risk you typically need to take with your picks to maximize your chances of winning. Let’s examine why.

In a small pool (say 20 entries or less), there might only be a few other brackets with the same championship pick as you. As a result, if you get your championship pick right and have followed a smart (i.e. more conservative) pick strategy in the early rounds, you’ll have a great shot to win the pool. The odds are low that one of your opponents will both get the champion pick right and outperform you in the earlier rounds.

However, when you’re competing against 500 or 1,000 or 10,000 people, that’s no longer the case. In big pools, the odds are much higher that one or a few entries will nail both the NCAA champion pick and some crazy upset picks in the earlier rounds (such as a 7-seed to the Final Four because it was their alma mater), just by dumb luck. In the worst case, if a popular champion pick wins the tournament, it’s going to be extremely difficult to outscore every one of the hundreds of entries in a big pool that picked them.

As a result, increasing your odds to win a big pool often requires taking some significant risks, such as picking a very unpopular 4-seed to win the entire tournament. The odds of that happening are also low, but on balance, our data-driven bracket research has shown that it’s often a smarter bet than picking a more popular champion. If your unpopular pick does win, even in a big pool, there will likely only be a few other people in position to win the pool along with you.


Adjust Your Pick Strategy for Your Pool’s Scoring System

The most common bracket pool scoring system awards 1-2-4-8-16-32 points per round. However, many variations exist, and nonstandard scoring systems can call for a much different pick strategy.

For example, if you are in a pool that awards points based on the difference in seed number between the winning and losing team, you will score eight points for picking a 12-seed to beat a 5-seed in the first round compared to scoring only one point for picking the 5-seed to win. As it turns out, most 12-seeds have win odds much greater than 12.5 percent (one divided by eight) and are therefore good values to pick in this scoring system from an expected-points gained perspective.

We even see some pools where scoring is based on the round number multiplied by the seed number. In that kind of pool, correctly picking a 10-seed to make the Sweet 16 yields a whopping 30 points, while correctly picking a 1-seed to win the national title gets you only 21 points in comparison. In that system, picking lots of double-digit seeds to make the Sweet 16 is a very smart risk. Even if only a couple of them end up making it, you’ll still earn a ton of points.

That’s why it’s so important to take the time to understand the implications of your pool’s rules. While most players pick too many upsets in the standard bracket pool scoring system, they often don’t pick enough upsets in upset-bonus systems. Year after year, we see the optimal brackets for standard scoring systems chided by the public as being too conservative, while the optimal brackets for upset bonus systems are derided for being far too crazy looking.

Winning an NCAA bracket pool isn’t easy, but by keeping these four strategy tips in mind, you’ll avoid some of the common pitfalls to which uninformed bracket pickers fall prey. As we like to say, the smarter your strategy is, the less luck you need to win.

Finally, if you’re interested in outsourcing all this strategy formulation and number crunching to the pros and just getting the bracket that gives you the best chance to win your pool, make sure to check out our 2021 NCAA Bracket Picks product.


In 2019, 71 percent of TeamRankings subscribers reported winning a prize in their NCAA bracket pool.