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Daniel Wilco | | March 14, 2021

Here's how your March Madness bracket will do if you only pick the better-seeded team

Full replay: UMBC's historic 16-over-1 upset vs. Virginia in 2018

Filling out a March Madness bracket can be challenging. There are dozens of statistics to research, 68 teams to examine, and only a few days to do it.

But what if there were an easier way to fill out your bracket? One that required no research, no planning, no guesswork.

What if you picked a bracket where the better seed won every game?

Turns out, you’d do a whole lot better than the average bracket.

We looked at data from our Bracket Challenge Game since 2011, and compared a hypothetical bracket that picked winners based on the higher-seed team from the overall seed rankings and compared that bracket to the average bracket score from each year. Here’s how they fared:

Year Seed-based bracket score Average user score Difference % improvement
2011 57 53.1 +3.9 +7.3%
2012 120 83 +37 +44.6%
2013 112 70 +42 +60%
2014 68 60.1 +7.9 +13.1%
2015 89 83.3 +5.7 +6.8%
2016 87 68.2 +18.8 +27.6%
2017 82 65.7 +16.3 +24.8%
2018 81 57 +24 +42.1%
2019 92 63.9 +28.1 +44%

For the most part, it's not even close: Seed-based brackets perform much better than average. On average, a bracket that picks games based solely on the overall seed ranking will net 20.4 points more than the average bracket (and perform 30 percent better). Since each round of the Bracket Challenge Game is worth 32 points, that’s 20.4-point improvement is roughly the equivalent of correctly picking one team to win in the Sweet 16 to advance to the Elite Eight and one team to win in the Final Four to advance to the national championship.

Of course, two of these years stand out and somewhat skew the numbers.

Those would be 2012 and 2013, when the No. 1 overall seed won the national championship. Those two (Kentucky in 2012, and Louisville in 2013) are the only two No. 1 overall seeds to play in or win the title in the past 10 years. Louisville's participation in the 2013 NCAA Tournament was later vacated.

MARCH MADNESS 2021: Complete schedule and dates for the 2021 tournament

While the top overall seed in 2019 (Duke) did not win, it's important to note last year's tournament produced the highest seed-based score from the data interval.

There is a lesson to be found here for more involved bracket-pickers: First-round upsets are fun on paper but knocking off top-seeded teams early and picking Cinderellas to make deep runs is a dangerous tactic.

Here's how the number of correct picks by better-seed-based brackets break down by round:

Year First rd Second rd Sweet 16 Elite Eight Final Four Champ
2011 25 10 3 0 0 0
2012 22 11 5 1 1 1
2013 22 11 3 1 1 1
2014 24 10 4 1 0 0
2015 27 9 5 3 0 0
2016 19 10 6 1 1 0
2017 26 12 4 2 0 0
2018 23 7 3 2 1 0
2019 20 14 5 1 1 0
Average 23.1 10.4 4.2 1.3 0.6 0.2

You can see that the two brackets that did the best — 2012 and 2013 — got fewer first-round picks correct than all but two years.

That's a pretty good indication that it's not worth stressing over trying to get the first couple rounds perfect — a nearly impossible task. The early missed picks can turn out to be pretty inconsequential if you get the later rounds right. In general, it’s better to miss a major upset than to pick one, be wrong, and have the other team go on another two or three rounds – or even worse, to the Final Four.

The No. 1 seeds are literally twice as likely to make the Final Four as any other team, and infinitely more likely to make it than either of their first two opponents, the No. 16 and No. 8/9 seeds. No. 16 seeds have only ever won one game (UMBC in 2018), while No. 8 seeds have made the Final Four five times and No. 9 seeds have only ever made one Final Four (Wichita State in 2013).

But back to the main strategy of picking by seed.

We’ve established that you’ll do much better than the average user. But that doesn’t mean this is necessarily a good strategy to win your pool. For the six years we have full data for — 2014-2019 — the better-seed-based brackets placed in the 75th percentile of brackets on average.

Year Score Percentile
2014 65 68th
2015 83 58th
2016 87 86th
2017 79 69th
2018 81 80th
2019 92 89th

The 2019 better-seed-based bracket does the best comparatively, placing in the 89th percentile, despite not picking the champion correctly.

Moral of the story: If you’re tired of being embarrassed in your pool by your 2-year-old nephew who literally can’t read a bracket, play it safe and try picking the better-seeded team this year. If nothing less than first place will do, add a little more analysis to your process.

*NOTE: Louisville’s participation in the 2013 Division I men’s basketball championship was later vacated by the Committee on Infractions.

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