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Joe Boozell | | June 18, 2020

How important is it to pick Final Four teams correctly?

Here are some of the greatest March Madness heroes to wear No. 33

The first Thursday and Friday of March Madness may be the two most entertaining days on the sports calendar. Buzzer-beaters, unthinkable upsets and shenanigans everywhere in between: You name it, those two days have it.

They also carry a misconception among those who fill out NCAA Tournament brackets. You’ve likely heard this sentiment after the first day or two of games: “My bracket is done.”

Some who utter those words are, for better or worse, realistic. Others, though, just need to lighten up. You can survive a 9-for-16 on the first day and an 8-for-16 the next, just as long as your Final Four teams stay intact. Or even just two or three of them, depending on how upset-laden a given tournament is. Brackets are all about the last team(s) standing. Nail those picks and, more times than not, you’re golden.

I know what you’re thinking. “If things were that easy, why doesn't everyone do it?”  Well ... you got me. Picking even half of the Final Four correctly is really hard most years.

Still, the scoring system for most brackets is set up in a way that incentivizes nailing those late-round picks. An example from 2015's tournament: Cole Parzych, whose bracket was the last to bust in our contest, picked his first 25 games correctly. Miraculous, right?

Absolutely. But, Parzych finished in just the 81st percentile of all bracket submissions. It's what happens in early April, the latter part of the tournament, that matters the most.

Choosing the correct national champion is worth the same number of points as going 32-for-32 in the first round or picking the two Final Four games accurately. Take a look:

NCAA tournament points per correct pick, based on round
Round 1 Round 2 Sweet 16 Elite Eight Final Four National Championship
1 2 4 8 16 32

Selecting all four teams correctly is possible, but highly unlikely; less than half a percent of people that have played the bracket challenge game in the past eight years have gone 4-for-4. Getting two would be a good goal to have. (See below for more on this.)

Perfect Final Four brackets in the past eight years
Year Percent
2011 0.0
2012 0.31
2013 0.0
2014 0.006
2015 1.61
2016 0.09
2017 0.003
2018 0.003

As you’ll see, you’re at the mercy of tournament whims here. Of all eight years, 2015 has the highest perfect Final Four rate. Why? Because each team was a blueblood that was expected to go far, albeit for different reasons. Duke, Kentucky, Wisconsin and Michigan State checked one of two boxes: They were great teams with prestigious names who were seeded No. 1 in their region, or they had Tom Izzo, he of the seven Final Four appearances, roaming the sidelines.

On the flip side, not a single person predicted the entire 2011 Final Four correctly. That’s not surprising given that Butler, VCU, Connecticut and Kentucky, which was a No. 4 seed that year, made up the field.

The tournament is almost always crazy. But there are varying degrees of crazy. At least 2015, to its credit, gave prognosticators a puncher’s chance.

The good news is that it's very, very doubtful that somebody in your bracket pool will choose a perfect Final Four. Or get three of the four teams right, for that matter. In the past eight years, here’s how many people have achieved a 75 percent success rate:

Brackets with three correct Final Four picks
2011 0.22
2012 6.56
2013 0.47
2014 0.47
2015 24.17
2016 1.84
2017 1.60
2018 2.22

Not leaps and bounds better than a sweep of the Final Four, but a sizeable uptick. About 7.5 percent of people have gotten three of their four picks correctly in the past eight years. Anyone who got 75 percent of the 2011 Final Four teams correct deserves major kudos, by the way.

Much of the public’s success came in 2015, with nearly a quarter of all brackets getting three out of four. It helped that Duke, Kentucky and Wisconsin were all No. 1 seeds.

March Madness is famous for just that – madness – so it’s tempting to make bold upset picks in your bracket. For most, the goal of filling out a bracket is to have fun. And choosing a No. 10 seed to make it to the Final Four (and watching it come to fruition) is a blast. But the data shows that it’s not the best course of action.

Below you'll see A) the percentage of people who pick certain seeds to advance to the Final Four, and B) how often those seeds have reached the Final Four since 1985, when the tournament expanded to 64 teams:

How the public picks the Final Four
Seed Percentage Public Picks It (since 2011) Percentage It Happens (Since 1985)
1 56.02 41.1
2 21.21 20.2
3 6.03 10.5
4 9.74 10.5
5 1.49 4.8
6 1.25 2.4
7 0.92 1.6
8 0.75 4.0
9 0.65 0.8
10 0.39 0.8
11 0.47 2.9
12 0.23 0.0
13 0.15 0.0
14 0.15 0.0
15 0.11 0.0
16 0.41 0.0

You may not want to be "that person," but statistically, picking the No. 1 seed in all four regions is the correct strategy -- even if the public predicts this outcome more often than it comes true. That's not foolproof, of course. The semifinals haven't been made up of all No. 1 seeds since 2008. But based on our data, you’re stacking the odds in your favor by going chalk.

There are exceptions. You can gain some real ground by, say, picking a No. 3 seed. Those teams have advanced to the Final Four more often than the public predicts it will happen. While any correct semifinal pick is immensely valuable, earning big points on a team that competitors don't suspect could give you a massive advantage.

Earlier, I mentioned that aiming for a 50 percent Final Four success rate is a good, realistic goal. If you pick your champion correctly and nail one other semifinal team, chances are you’ll be in good shape. Here’s how many people have hit on two of their Final Four picks in the past eight years:

Brackets with two correct Final Four picks
Year Percent
2011 1.96
2012 27.80
2013 9.53
2014 13.32
2015 37.79
2016 23.54
2017 22.96
2018 23.88

Some 23.8 percent of players have achieved that 50 percent success rate over the past eight years. You're giving yourself a good chance to win with that number.

What does all of that mean? For starters, make yourself a promise going into the 2019 NCAA Tournament: If you have a rough first few days, as long as a few of your Final Four teams are alive, don’t sweat it. Root like heck for those teams when they’re playing. And if they survive, you’ll have a chance to win.

Bring on the madness.

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March Madness: Getting to know the No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament

Here's a detailed history of how No. 5 seeds have fared in the NCAA tournament.

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