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Eight Tips to Follow When Filling Out Your NCAA Tournament Bracket

Pro handicapper Jon Price and mathematician Tim Chartier offer advice for weathering March Madness.

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If your name is Seth Davis, Joe Lunardi or Nate Silver, you probably don’t need help filling out your NCAA tournament bracket.

If it isn’t, then you could probably lose an assist in figuring out what teams you should pick to go dancing all the way to San Antonio at the end of the month.

That’s why we reached out to a couple of experts, pro handicapper Jon Price of Sports Information Traders and mathematician Professor Tim Chartier of Davidson College (who helped develop a predictive March Madness tool that led to one of his students finishing with a bracket in the 99.9% percentile on ESPN) to get some advice on how to keep your, and our, bracket from busting.

Sixty-eight teams enter on March 13, one leaves on April 2. To give yourself the best chance of picking what team that’s going to be, here are eight bracketology tips from a couple of pros.

Do pay attention to which teams are “hot” heading into the tourney and pick accordingly

“One of the biggest mistakes novice bettors can make is looking at the team’s overall body of work or strength of schedule,” Price says. “Many teams will begin out of conference play in November and their records are often inflated. It is crucial to look how the team has performed over the past month in order to properly gauge where the lines should fall in the tournament games.”

Don’t put very much stock into what happened last March

“I only look at last year’s tournament to see how we missed predictions. Some upsets are like flipping a coin that will come up heads 99% of the time,” Chartier says. “If asked to choose, I’d still call heads.  But, on that day and at that time, it came up tails. I put a lot of stock into looking at multiple years and looking for trends.”

Do pick upsets in the first round

“You’ll be able to find upsets in the first round – but you probably won’t find them all,” Chartier says. “As you move into later rounds, your remaining higher seeds often win. Of course, later rounds are trickiest as you get less and less certain who will be playing.”

“Historical trends in terms of seedings are important,” Price adds. “For example, No. 5 vs No. 12 seeds, with the 12 seeds usually finding their way to ATS (against the spread) wins or outright wins is something we do pay attention to.”

(According to Chartier, a No.. 12 seed has upset a No. 5 seed 47 times. Out of those 47 teams, 27 lost in the second round, 19 lost in the Sweet 16, while one lost in the Elite Eight.)

Don’t fall in love with teams that love shooting from downtown

“Teams that are reliant on the three-point shot are often susceptible to an upset,” Price says. “It may not come in Round One, but no team can win strictly on success from a distance. Those teams often fall within the first round or two.”

Do pay attention to how close a team is playing to their home court

“It plays a significant factor for the No. 1 and 2 seeds,” Price says. “Those teams are specifically set to their region based on their regular season and tournament success, so in general you are looking at very large schools with passionate followings. Lower seeds (7-12) playing in front of their home crowd isn’t much of a factor. In general, they aren’t fortunate enough to be at home either.”

(According to Chartier, over the last 10 years, the average seed to reach the Final Four is 3.3, while the average seed to win the National Championship is 1.9. Over the last 5 years, the average seed to reach the Final Four is 3.65, while the average seed to win the National Championship is 2.4.)

Don’t forget to do some research

“Look at how a team has played against tough teams,” Chartier says. “Usually, teams are playing non-conference teams in the fall, so you have to look back. What about 2008, Davidson and Steph Curry?  They didn’t win those fall games but they came very, very close against very tough teams. Be careful of just seeing any loss as a loss.”

Do bet on Purdue, Cincinnati, UNC and Gonzaga 

Sports Information Traders analyst Dave Michaels likes the University of Florida to outperform in the tournament this year. He also likes Gonzaga and gives the Zags a 3.75% chance of winning the whole thing. For the Final Four, he likes Purdue, Duke, Virginia, and UNC.

“No. 2 seeds make it to the Elite Eight 46% of the time,” Chartier says. “Cincinnati is our strongest 2-seed. We also have Michigan State being the strongest of the 3-seeds. Also,  It looks like Miami (No. 6) may be vulnerable to Loyola (No. 11) according to the numbers. ” 

Don’t bet on the UVA Cavaliers … or maybe do

“Just because a team is seeded No. 1 doesn’t mean they are a wise betting option for the tournament,” Price says. “Virginia is a great example of this. If the Cavaliers run into one hot shooting team in any round, they won’t look like a No. 1 seed that day. This is a one-and-done tournament, so seedings are out the window immediately after the first round.”

Price’s colleague disagrees. Michaels favors Virginia but plans to place a big wager as the tournament progresses and he can determine who’s on a hot streak. However, he cautions against betting on Wichita State and Texas Tech as he expects those schools to underperform in the Big Dance.