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Wayne Staats | | March 15, 2021

5 NCAA bracket tips learned from studying every Bracket Challenge Game winner since 2015

Tracing the NCAA bracket from 1851 London, through 1977 Staten Island, to today

The chances of having a perfect NCAA tournament bracket are so small that we're talking a 1 in 120.2 billion chance. That's "b" for a billion. Well, unless you're flipping a coin for all 63 games. Then it's 1 in 9.2 quintillion.

But winning bragging rights in your Bracket Challenge Group against friends? Those odd are more in your favor. So, what does it take for that to happen? Looking at recent winners in our Bracket Challenge Game, we have some answers for you. We went through the five BCG game winners since 2015 to see the picks they made and how they moved to the top of the leaderboard ahead of millions of fans, friends, experts and many others.

1. It's important, perhaps necessary, to win at least 50 games

The 2015 Bracket Challenge Game winning bracket 2015 BCG winner bradmmsmith744 correctly picked 54 games

When filling out your BCG bracket, you have to pick winners in 63 games. The last five BCG victors picked the correct winner in 54, 50, 54, 51 and 53 games in their respective winning years. That's an average of 52.4 correct picks for the entire tournament. In other words, BCG winners get about 10 games wrong each year, on average.

Correct picks are worth more the later you go, so a big percentage of the incorrect games happened early for our champs: "mjbrewer" in 2015 (178 points), "Che 3" in 2016 (163 points), "KELSEY 2017" in 2017 (174 points), "Tenny schmidt" in 2018 (171 points) and "bradmmsmith744" in 2019 (179 points).

The five winners "lost" a combined 53 games in their brackets. Of those, 29 (54.7 percent) came in the first round — not surprising since 32 of the 63 games (50.8 percent) you have to pick are in that first round.

About those 24 remaining losses after the 29 in the first? Seventeen of that 24, or 70.8 percent, showed up in the second round. In other words, you're going to need to be close to perfect from the Sweet 16 on to win.

2. It's all about the National Championship Game

Here is the winning 2017 BCG bracket 2017 BCG winner "KELSEY 2017" picked North Carolina to beat Gonzaga for the title.

It's obvious but clear.

If you rightly predict the title-game teams, chances are you're looking down on almost everyone else on the leaderboard. As others come up empty on those big points late, the five winners picked up clutch points for predicting finals like Virginia-Texas Tech in 2019 or North Carolina-Gonzaga in 2017.

That all sounds simple enough. But getting there is the challenge.

3 and 4. Watch your Elite Eight and then your Final Four picks

Here is the winning 2019 BCG bracket 2019 winner "mjbrewer" went 8-for-8 in picking the Elite Eight teams.

Don't worry if you miss one of the No. 8 or No. 9 games (or two, or three...). If your Final Four and Elite Eight picks remain in the bracket, you're looking good.

The last five BCG champs missed between zero and two Elite Eight teams — with just one going a perfect 8/8: 2019 winner "mjbrewer." Combined, the five winners went 34-for-40 on Elite Eight picks.

Moving onto the Final Four, the last five BCG winners correctly picked 19 of the 20 Final Four teams: 2018 Cinderella Loyola Chicago the lone miss. That's where the separation happens. It's one thing to have all eight Elite Eight teams. It's another to correctly pick the winners of those Elite Eight games.

5. Don't stress about the early rounds and picking those first-round upsets — for the most part

Here is the winning 2016 BCG bracket 2016 BCG winner "Tenny schmidt" missed seven games in the First Round and still won.

You're not going to get every game right (probably!). Two of the last five BCG winners even got seven games wrong in the first round.

You don't have to pick every big upset, either. In fact, four of the last five BCG winners have had at least one "wrong" double-digit upset pick — incorrectly picking a double-digit team to advance to the second round.

In the last five years, 34 double-digit seeds pulled off first-round upsets to advance to be one of the last 32 teams. Our last five BGC champs combined to pick exactly half (17) of those surprising winners.

Want more evidence of avoiding early round worry? "Che 3" won the 2018 title despite picking Virginia to advance to the Elite Eight. What helped "Che 3" out is many picked the Cavaliers to go even further than that.

It's all about timing. Later games are worth more points, so dropping a game or two or seven (or more!) in the First Round won't necessarily eliminate you. Hopefully all your losses come from teams that bow out before reaching the Sweet 16.

Here is the 2018 BCG winner 2018 BCG winner "Che 3" won despite the massive UMBC-Virginia upset.

College basketball rankings: Even unranked teams find success in the NCAA tournament

Since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 — its modern format — only four of 35 national champions were unranked to start the season. That’s about one in every nine years.

Only .025 percent predicted the 2021 Final Four teams in the Bracket Challenge Game

UCLA's upset of No. 1 Michigan in the Elite Eight turned what could have been a record-high number of perfect picks into a tiny number that went 4-for-4.

A huge majority of NCAA brackets have a No. 1 seed winning the 2021 championship

Here is how many brackets predicted each seed to win the national championship, from Gonzaga and the No. 1 seeds through Drexel and the rest of the No. 16 seeds.
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