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Andy Wittry | | April 14, 2020

11 teams we should be picking more in the NCAA tournament for the Bracket Challenge Game

Watch the full game: Purdue beats Tennessee in 2019 NCAA tournament Sweet 16

It's easy (and safe) to pick high-profile teams in your NCAA tournament bracket — but there's value to be found if you're willing to forgo the obvious picks in favor of some sneaky-good teams, or at least contenders outside traditional powers.

I looked at the data behind millions of picks made in the official NCAA Bracket Challenge Game since 2014. I crunched the numbers from the 353 Division I men's basketball schools and found a group of 11 teams that you should pick more often based on two things: 1. How often they win and 2. How often they're picked (or under-picked) compared to their peers that received the same seeds, which I call the differential. 

All 11 schools have a cumulative record of at least .500 over the last six NCAA tournaments. Some of their records are well above .500, most notably Villanova (16-4), Gonzaga (16-6), Virginia (13-5), Wisconsin (13-5) and Oregon (11-5).

Here are the 11 schools with multiple NCAA tournament appearances in the last six years that have an average national championship differential of at least than 0.75 percentage points lower than their peers. I defined the national championship differential as the percent of users who picked each school to win the national championship compared to their peers on the same seed lines. That means No. 1 seeds in a given season were only compared to No. 1 seeds, No. 2 seeds were only compared to No. 2 seeds, etc.

Pick these teams and you likely will have less competition in your bracket game.

I'm not saying you have to pick one of these teams to win the NCAA tournament, I'm just identifying them as schools that have been undervalued by the public in the Bracket Challenge Game compared to their peers, and most have proven their ability to make the second weekend consistently, if not the Final Four.

Team conference National champion diff. NCAA Tournament record (2014-19)
Virginia ACC -3.72% 13-5
Xavier Big East -2.69% 7-5
Villanova Big East -2.21% 16-4
Oregon Pac-12 -1.87% 11-5
San Diego State Mountain West -1.74% 3-3
Gonzaga WCC -1.40% 16-6
Wisconsin Big Ten -1.38% 13-5
Florida State ACC -0.99% 6-3
Wichita State AAC -0.98% 6-5
Texas Tech Big 12 -0.88% 8-3
Baylor Big 12 -0.83% 5-5

Guess what? This group of teams has combined for three of the last six national championships, plus three national runner-up finishes in that span. This list also includes the teams that finished the 2020 season ranked No. 2, No. 4, No. 5, No. 6, No. 10, No. 13, No. 16 and No. 17 in the final AP poll.

While they may not be as enticing as Duke and Kentucky, they're often just as productive in the NCAA tournament and they aren't picked as often, which means there's potentially more value in picking teams from that group when you play the Bracket Challenge Game.

If you're one of 25 users in your bracket pool that picks Kentucky, you're also going to have to nail the rest of your picks to win your pool. But if you're one of only a few people — or hopefully the only one — who picks, say, Baylor or Florida State to win the title and that team wins, your chances of winning your bracket pool are much higher.

About 37.7 percent of brackets in the 2019 Bracket Challenge Game picked No. 1 overall seed Duke to win the national championship. That was more than double the percent of fans that picked North Carolina, the second-most common national champion choice.

The Blue Devils were the most popular national title pick since Kentucky in 2015, when the then-undefeated Wildcats were picked to win the tournament in more than 40 percent of all brackets submitted in the Bracket Challenge Game. Duke and Kentucky are among the most popular picks each year.

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Here are the eight schools that had an average national championship differential that's greater than 0.50 percentage points, led by Kentucky, which was picked to win the national championship an average of 5.26 percent more than its peers that had the same seeds.

Team conference National champion diff. NCAA Tournament record (2014-19)
Kentucky SEC +5.26% 18-6
Michigan State Big Ten +4.50% 13-6
Duke ACC +4.33% 15-5
Florida SEC +3.43% 9-4
Kansas Big 12 +1.87% 13-6
North Carolina ACC +1.10% 17-5
UCLA Pac-12 +0.64% 6-4
Notre Dame ACC +0.63% 7-3

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