In an office pool, competing against friends, or just filling out a bracket online for fun and don’t know who to pick? Don’t worry, no one else does either. That’s what makes it fun. It’s hard to say what teams to pick based on past data, good teams change all the time. But we can look at seed data and take a look at past trends and Conference performance to try to help get an idea of what a good bracket SHOULD look like.. We broke down all the seed data going back to 1985 and conference data since 2000 to help determine who to pick in your brackets. Good luck on getting that nearly impossible perfect bracket.
Please don’t pick a 16 seed (probably not a 15 either)
I know UMBC beat Virginia last year so we can’t say it’s never happened before anymore. We can say it’s happened one time in well over 100 1-16 matchups, and you shouldn’t bet on something happening that happens less than 1% of the time. 15 seeds aren’t much better, they’ve won just 8 times. If you feel really strongly about a 15 seeded team or really think a two seed is going to lose, I won’t stop you. But I won’t recommend it either.
Pick at least one 3 or 4 seed to lose
Since the tournament hit 64 teams, there have only been 5 years when every 3 seed and every 4 seed have won their first-round game. Far more often (like 3 times in the last 4 years often) 2 teams between the 3 and 4 seeds lose in their first game. 18 of the 34 years have seen at least 2 of them lose, and twice we’ve seen 3 total teams on the 3 or 4 line lose. Find a vulnerable team (teams that commit lots of turnovers often go home earlier than expected) or a bad matchup and pencil in a top team falling.
The 5-12 matchups are always interesting
These matchups tend to be good because the 12 seed tends to be right around the line where it changes from at large bids to only conference winners. So 12 seeds are teams that won a play-in game as an at large or were one of the top small conference champions, meaning they likely had some momentum coming into the game, while most 5 seeds are good teams, but not quite at the upper echelon of talent. Last year, 5 seeds swept the 12 seeds, but in the last 10 years, 12 seeds have won 3 games more often than they’ve been swept (3 times to 2).
Other first-round matchups are a toss-up
6 seeds haven’t secured more than 2 teams in the round of 32 since 2013 (which probably means they’re due), 7 seeds have actually won 3 of 4 in 5 of the last 6 years, so maybe they’re due to stumble, and the 8-9 matchups have gone a dead-even 68-68 in the round of 64. Look for teams that have a good chance at an upset in the round of 32, because these will be the teams looking to make Cinderella runs.
What underdogs should I pick?
This is where the conference data comes in. There has been only one year in which the Atlantic 10 hasn’t won a game in the tournament since 2000. VCU is an 8-seed, so their matchup with UCF is the A-10’s best chance at keeping that success alive. The AAC should be safe in getting at least one team to the second round in Houston, and Cincy and UCF are dangerous. Temple will have a tough time even getting to the first round in having to deal with Belmont in the First 4. If the ACC only has teams in the top 4 seeds win in the first round they’ll have 5 in the round of 32, they may get 6 like they have 3 of the past 4 years, and none of the 7 teams they sent this year can be counted out in the first round. The Missouri Valley and Mountain West are other small conferences that very often send teams past the first round. The Mountain West has Nevada and Utah State that are both interesting mid-bracket teams with exciting matchups, as the Wolf Pack get 10 seed Florida that put up excitement in the SEC tournament beating regular-season champ LSU, and Utah State gets Pac-12 regular-season champ Washington. The Missouri Valley saw an upset-laden tournament end with Bradley getting a 15, so that doesn’t help. The Ohio Valley Conference has only seen 3 tournament wins since 2000, but had one of if not the best years in conference history, and Murray State and Belmont are both threats. The Big West saw 3 first-round wins in 5 years from 2001-’05 and has had only one since (Hawaii in 2016 as a 13 seed). That conference is dangerous every so often, and this year could be a good chance to get a win with a strong UC-Irvine team matching up with a Kansas State team that could be missing one of their star players in Dean Wade. The SEC has been great the past few years, but LSU being without their head coach could make them vulnerable against Yale out of the Ivy League, a conference with 4 first-round wins since 2010.
Don’t put all the 1 and 2 seeds in the Sweet 16
There has been only one year to feature 4 2 seeds in the Sweet 16 since 1996, and that was 2009 when all 4 1’s, 2’s and 3’s made the Sweet 16 and No team lower than a 3 seed made the elite 8. ’09 was the third of three years in which top seeds were dominant, including the 2008 all 1 seed Final Four, and 2007 also featuring 3 seeds and above in the elite 8. More recently, no more than 2 2 seeds have made the sweet 16 since 2013, while seed lines 3, 4, and 5 all have put at least 3 teams in the sweet 16 at least once since then, including all 4 4’s twice in that span. So 2 seeds should be bouncing back this year, and the lack of a clear top team or two in the country means the 2-line should be pretty strong, so it’s likely they get back to 3 teams in the Sweet 16, but most years have around 6 total 1 and 2 seeds in the Sweet 16. Look for 1-3 good upset matchups in the round of 32.
Most of the other teams will come from the 3-6 seeds
These teams get to face a lot of double-digit seeds in the second round and tend to win those games. This year could be a year for a 12 or 13 seed to make the Sweet 16, as neither of those lines have made a Sweet 16 since there was one of each in 2013. Combined, the little guys looking to knock off 4 and 5 seeds average about .75 teams in the Sweet 16 per year, so having a 5-year drought is a trend that will likely come to an end soon. 6 seeds are due for some success too, as they haven’t sent 2 teams to the Sweet 16 since 2010, while there were 2 7’s, 9’s, and 11’s in the Sweet 16 just last year.
How to pick the round of 32
Count on at least one of the power conferences to struggle. Last year, no Pac-12 team made it out of the first round. That could happen again with no sure things in Washington, Arizona State and conference tournament surprise Oregon. In 2017 it was the ACC putting just one team in the Sweet 16, and the Big East hasn’t been the same since the AAC split off from them in 2013. The Big East is in trouble this year with no teams higher than Marquette’s 5 seed. I’ve got the Big East missing out on the Sweet 16 for only the second time since 2000. There’s always one or two great small-conference teams that make a run. Look for the ones above the 12-line, as last year it was Loyola-Chicago as an 11 and Nevada as a 7 seed that met in the Sweet 16, while 4-seed Wichita State went home early. It’s not necessarily the highest-seeded team, but this year the teams that could be a problem in the tourney are Buffalo from the MAC and Wofford as the best team from the SoCon since Steph Curry’s Davidson team that made the Elite 8 in 2008, and might even be better than that team, which was a 10 seed, as the Terriers are on the 7 line. They’re a threat because they possess the traits of good tournament teams, good shooting and good guard play.
Mind the gap
Many Cinderella teams have their runs end in the Sweet 16, where they’re likely matched up with a top-2 seed for the first time. Big seed gaps (anything more than 3) tend to give the better team an easier path to the Final Four, not keep producing upsets. Top-2 seeds dominate in the Sweet 16, in large part because of the fact that sometimes they match up against an 11-13 seed. You can bet on multiple 1 seeds making the Elite 8, as only 3 times that’s failed to happen, with a single 1 seed making the Elite 8 in 2000, 2011, and 2013. To have a really good bracket, you’re going to have to get a little lucky and find a low seed that makes it to the Elite 8. 2010 was the last time that there wasn’t a 7 seed or lower getting to the doorstep of the Final 4, and even that year there were 2 5 seeds and a 6 seed. At this point, listen to the analysts and take their advice. Teams like Buffalo, the 6 seed in the West region, could be dangerous especially if Michigan goes home early in their part of the bracket. Their presumed matchup against Texas Tech in the second round should be a thriller of conflicting styles, with Buffalo’s 3-point shooting offense against Tech’s stingy defense. Also, any 7-10 seed that just knocked off a 1 or 2 seed is a threat in the Sweet 16 as they just beat a team that’s believed to be better than their next matchup.
Pick your favorite team in each Region
Bracket making isn’t always a step-by-step process. You can’t always go linearly from one round to the next, sometimes you have to take a team you think will get to the Final Four, or even win the championship, and just pencil them in before getting to other matchups. This year we’re looking at those teams from the top of the ACC, SEC, and Big Ten all being common picks. If you’re looking for surprising teams to make the final 4, look at maybe a 3rd seeded Houston team that’s the best they’ve seen since Phi Slama Jamma in the ’80s. Other teams that could make surprising runs are Florida State or Buffalo from the West, and don’t count out Villanova’s championship pedigree in the South region. I don’t mean to over mention Buffalo but I’ve heard a lot of experts talking about them as the team that isn’t on the top 2 lines to watch out for.
At this point, throw everything out the window and go with your gut. If you get the Final 4 right, you’ve got a great bracket no matter what else happens. Higher seeds dominate in the Final 4 and championship games, as 1 seeds matched up with non-1 seeds are 24-7 in the Final 4 or championship game since 2000. A lot of people are thinking this year will be one of the most top-heavy years we’ve seen in a while, as I’ve seen many projections with no one below the 2 line in the Final 4, which would be the first time since the all-1 seed Final 4 back in 2008. The Final 4 tends to be where the top teams finish the job and knock down the Cinderella story, as the past 4 years we’ve seen a 7 seed or higher make the Final 4 but not be able to advance to the championship game.
Picking a perfect bracket is impossible. It will continue to be thought of as impossible until someone does it, similar to 16 seeds beating 1 seeds seeming impossible until it happened last year. Someday, by pure chance, someone will probably luck into a perfect bracket. Until then, getting the Final 4 right, or even just picking the right champion, is the biggest key to winning a pool between friends, family, or coworkers, and I feel obligated to admit here that I picked Virginia as my national champion last year before they became the first 1 seed to lose to a 16 seed. Oops. Here are my bad Final 4 picks from 2018, where at least I had ‘Nova playing in April, but my other 3 picks were gone before the Sweet 16.
This year I’m going with Duke, Purdue, Houston, and Buffalo in the Final 4 with the Blue Devils winning it all. Will those be the 4 teams playing in April? Probably not. Is there a chance for each of those teams to make it? Absolutely. Upsets happen and just when we think the top teams have separated, UMBC, Butler, Loyola, Florida Gulf Coast, Middle Tennessee, Lehigh, or others show us there’s still plenty of room for the underdog to break through. Until next time,