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Daniel Wilco | | March 19, 2019

There's one NCAA bracket pick more important than all the rest. It's not even close.

Murray State fans are ready for March Madness

Want an idea of how important it is to pick the championship game correctly in your March Madness bracket?

In traditional scoring, the highest possible score for an NCAA tournament bracket is 192 points. 

The winner of our Capital One Bracket Challenge Game in 2018 scored 163 points.

So, if you had picked the first 62 games of the NCAA tournament correctly, but chose Michigan to beat Villanova in the title match, you would have gotten more correct picks than anyone in the history of the NCAA tournament… and lost. 

Bracket scoring in March Madness increases exponentially as the tournament progresses, and is inversely proportional to the number of teams left in play. Every round is worth 32 points. In the first round, when there are 32 games, each game is worth one point. In the second, there are 16 games, so each game is worth two points. This continues until we get to the championship, where one game is worth 32 points.

That means that picking the championship game correctly is worth the same for your bracket as picking all 32 first-round games perfectly. 

If you were given a 50-50 chance of getting every first-round game correct, you’d have a 1 in 4,294,967,296 chance of going 32-for-32. That’s 1 in 4.3 billion.

MORE BRACKET TIPS: The absurd odds of a perfect bracket put into perspective

Yet that’s the trap that most bracket players fall into. The first two days of the tournament — with 32 games in 48 hours — is chaos. And a lot of fun.

Bracket players watch to see how long their picks stay perfect, bragging about calling this 13-4 upset and that 8-9 game correctly. Naturally, most players spend the majority of their time focusing on these first-round games when picking their bracket. And it makes sense in theory. What better place to start than the beginning?

But, like we said before, each is worth just one point — a measly sum in the scheme of brackets.

BRACKET HISTORY: The longest we believe an NCAA bracket has ever stayed perfect

The smarter move is to begin at the end. The first question you should ask yourself as you sit down to fill out your bracket is which team do you think has the best chance of winning the championship? Get that right, and you’re well on your way to winning your group, regardless of what happens before.

Let’s look at the past eight winners of our Bracket Challenge Game to get a better idea of how this plays out.

YEAR Round of 64 Round of 32 Sweet 16 Elite Eight Final Four Championship SCORE
2018 27/32 12/16 6/8 3/4 2/2 1/1 163
2017 28/32 13/16 6/8 4/4 2/2 1/1 174
2016 25/32 11/16 7/8 4/4 2/2 1/1 171
2015 25/32 15/16 7/8 4/4 2/2 1/1 179
2014 25/32 11/16 6/8 4/4 2/2 1/1 167
2013 22/32 12/16 7/8 3/4 2/2 1/1 162
2012 23/32 12/16 7/8 3/4 2/2 1/1 163
2011 25/32 10/16 5/8 2/4 2/2 1/1 145

On average, BCG winners get just 25 of 32 first round games correct (78.1 percent). None have them have been perfect through the first 48 hours of the tournament.

In the second round, they get an average of 12 out of 16 winners (75 percent), 6.4 out of 8 in the Sweet 16 (79.7 percent), and 3.4 out of 4 in the Elite Eight (84.4 percent). 

But once you get to the Final Four, every BCG winner has picked both semifinal games and the championship matchup correctly. On average, 38.7 percent of a winner’s points (64 out of 165.5) come from the final three games. Three of the 63 total games.

Now, of course you'll have to consider a team's path to the championship when you're weighing whether to pick them to take the title, but getting every minor upset along the way that forms that path isn't nearly as important as correctly tabbing who will come out on top.

If you picked the champion correctly, but predicted each one of their opponents incorrectly until the Final Four, you would only miss out on 15 points. Chump change.

So don't sweat the small stuff. Worrying about predicting every single one of the 63 games in the tournament correctly is going to backfire. There's a lot of chaos in March, and attempting to anticipate it all will cause you to take some ill-advised risks that could haunt you down the line.

The past eight BCG winners have missed an average of 13 games every year. What really matters is when those misses happen.

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