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March Madness is so crazy, we’ll sleep in May. The tournament returns after a miss last year when it was not held for the first time since its inception. College basketball’s best teams are gathering in Indiana to determine the NCAA’s Division I National Basketball Champion.
The tournament’s abundance of teams, storylines, and unpredictable upsets provide odds of 1 in 120 billion for a perfect bracket start to finish. Stamping any completed bracket as a lotto ticket prediction of over three weeks of single elimination basketball. With those odds, there is no golden rule for a golden bracket (your guess is as good as ours). However, Grandma Sophia has shared her tips and tricks to filling out this year’s bracket so even if you’re a first timer you can compete in bracket pools against friends, colleagues, and long-time college basketball fans.
First Things First
Before thinking about any matchups, the first thing you have to do is name your bracket. The perfect bracket can only truly be yours, if you give it a name. Good ones often feature jokes about teams you think will win big or lose even bigger, but we’ll leave the name up to you. Now let’s review the scoring system. The tourney showcases 68 teams. Eight teams compete in the opening games known as the “first four” for the final spots, trimming the number of teams to 64.
From here standard scoring is 1 point for each correct victor in Round of 64 matchups (32 games), 2 points for each correct victor in the Round of 32 matchups (16 games), 4 points for each correct victor in the Sweet Sixteen (8 games). Doubling in points for the next two rounds Elite Eight (8 points) and Final Four (16 points). And 32 points for correctly predicting the winner of the tournament.
These settings are all we need to create a high scoring bracket. The first round is most known for its upsets but the later rounds are the most important as correctly predicting the National Champion rewards just as many points as correctly predicting EVERY matchup in the first round.
Grandma Sophia’s Strategy: Simplify your bracket by working backwards. Think of the game show Deal or No Deal. Instead of cases, we’re picking teams and the team you believe has the best chance to win the whole thing is the first case you want. Start by identifying that team. Then identify 6 other strong teams as Final Four candidates from the other regions outside of your tournament winner. These other teams are like additional cases to hedge your bets for the most points in later rounds. With those teams in mind, you’ve already got a lot of potential high point games locked in. As well as points from early round matchups your Final Four teams (should) win. If all your Final Four teams are correct, you’ll be at the top of your pool.
Selecting Final Four Teams
It’s easier said than done to correctly choose the four teams that will remain once the tournament begins. There are 4 quadrants (regions: West, East, South, Midwest) of teams seeded #1-16. Four #1st-seeds, four #2nd-seeds and so on. If you’re unfamiliar with college basketball, think of the seeds as tiers. While not every team with the same seed is equal, they are in a similar tier with the other teams of the same seed. You’ll notice it’s only possible for two teams of the same seed to match up in the Final Four.
Grandma Sophia’s Strategy: Only 5 teams have made the championship game with a seed lower than 4th. Butler (twice, once as an 8th seed), Kentucky (most recently and an 8th seed), Michigan, Florida and Indiana. The teams you want in your Final Four are the top seeded 8 teams. A 9th seed has never made a Championship game. Which makes sense as the winner of the 8/9 matchup faces the 1st seeded team in round of 32. The 1st seed has claimed 22 National championships with the 2nd seed claiming 5 championships, the 3rd seed holding 4 and a 4th seed yet to win the whole thing. First find your championship team, then 6 more top seeded teams (2 per region) with strong seasons and dynamic players.
Predicting This Years Champion
You have a bracket name, a strategy and some general rules for picking your Final Four. Using Grandma Sophia’s strategy we need to find our champion first. At the 1st tier of teams, one team stands out above the rest.
The 1 seed in the West region Gonzaga, averages the most points per game in the entire Division I at 92.1 ppg. That is 5.7ppg more than second place Colgate who averages 86.4. Gonzaga’s head coach Mark Few was in the National Championship game in 2017 losing to Roy Williams’ North Carolina team. The team Few has now is an offensive juggernaut backing up their top seed and top scoring pace nationwide. Corey Kispert, Drew Timme, and Jalen Suggs are a three headed monster, all shooting over 50% from the field with Kispert shooting over 40% from 3PT and 89% from the FT for 19.8ppg. The Zags are undefeated on the season looking to dominate the playoffs and remain unbeaten.
Scott Drew’s Baylor Bears wield a three guard lineup with Jared Butler, MaCio Teague, and Davion Mitchell all averaging more than 14ppg, and shooting .429%, .392% and .462% from the three point line respectively. Baylor has the highest percentage from three point in the nation and only two losses in the regular season.
Illinois Fighting Illini, who beat the Ohio State Buckeyes to claim a Big Ten title, are led by Jamaica’s 7-foot 285lbs Kofi Cockburn, who pulled down 9.7 rebounds with his 17.6ppg on a huge 66% from the field. The Fighting Illini’s Ayo Dosunmu is the team’s top NBA prospect. After returning to the court following a facial injury, Dosunmu’s 20 ppg, 6.3rpg and 5.3apg are pivotal to the Big 10 conference champions going forward.
Michigan’s freshman big man Hunter Dickinson has been the leading bucket getting and rebounder for the Wolverines. Using Dickinson as the main weapon scoring on 60% of his inside touches Michigan’s chances to win the championship have been cut with the foot injury to second leading scorer and sharp shooting guard Isaiah Livers. A Final Four appearance is likely out of the question without Livers, though not impossible. Michigan has the best recruiting class in the country coming in next year so I don’t think Coach Juwan Howard is loosing sleep.
Grandma Sophia’s Strategy: All of these 1 seeds had a strong showing in the regular season, but there is no team that has as much firepower as Gonzaga (West region). Most importantly they’re led by an experienced coach who has seen what a National Championship game feels like. Undefeated on the season, it’ll take a perfect game from another team to detour Gonzaga’s trudge to glory. Whether you have money or just pride on the line, the ‘Zags are easily the tournament’s safest bet.
Filling Out the Elite Eight and Final Four – Finding Strong Teams
Grandma Sophia’s Strategy: For the remaining regions (East, South, Midwest), we’re going to evaluate the #1-8 seed teams, finding the two strongest. Since 2010 the lowest seeded teams in each Final Four are 5, 11, 4, 9, 8, 7, 10, 7, 11. Surely we could miss a 9 -11 seed that makes the Final Four. But by finding the two strongest teams in the top 8 seeds we have a potential Elite Eight (8 point round) match up and an idea for how matchups in a certain region might play out. From here we’ll get our 3 other Final Four teams. For the region our predicted champion Gonzaga is in (West) we’ll find the one team that poses the biggest challenge.
East: #2 Alabama Crimson Tide – Alabama loves to push the pace. Loaded with experienced shooters, Jaden Shackleford and SEC Player of the year Herbert Jones, they get up the court and shoot threes like a modern NBA team. With the most efficient defense in their conference, they feel prime to make a run to the Elite Eight.
#3 Texas Longhorns – Shaka Smart is leading a balanced team of three skilled scoring and playmaking guards and rangy big men. Kai Jones and Greg Brown are 6’11” and 6’9” shooting over 35% from three while traditional 6’10” big Jericho Sims lurks the paint. They’ll beat teams from inside and out. **
South: #1 Baylor Bears – A top three team in scoring in the nation, loaded with elite shooting and scoring guards, Baylor could be a lock for the Final Four behind Jared Butler and company’s knack for buckets. **
#3 Arkansas Razorbacks – The Razorbacks freshman guard Moses Moody is averaging 17.4 points a game making over 38% of his long range attempts. His dynamic scoring creates opportunities for backcourt mate JD Notae and forward Justin Smith both averaging over 13ppg.
Midwest: #3 West Virginia Mountaineers – A balanced attack with Miles McBride and Derek Culver one two punch creates open looks for West Virginia’s snipers, Taz Sherman and Sean McNeil. Despite taking some lumps in the regular season to big teams like Oklahoma State, the Mountaineers roster is still loaded with enough talent to make a deep run.
#4 Oklahoma State Cowboys – The best prospect in college Cade Cunningham is averaging 20ppg 6.4 rpg and 3.6 apg. Wins over Texas Tech, Baylor and West Virginia (one game without Cade) shows how dangerous this team can be any night. Cunningham’s ability to run an offense to perfection makes the Cowboys the team to watch this year. **
West: #2 Iowa Hawkeyes – College’s player of the year Luke Garza is more than a handful. 23ppg 8.7rpg and 40% from three. That’s what stands in the way between Gonzaga and the Final Four. Last time they met Garza had 30 and 10 in a 10 point loss. A big game from Luke is going to be crucial if the Hawkeyes want to beseech the favorites.
** – denotes Final Four choice
What About Upsets?
Grandma Sophia’s Strategy: Excitement in the tournament is always tied to the upsets. No question there will be at least one so here’s how the chance of upset breaks down for each match up:
13 vs. 4 – (20.7 percent 29 of 140)
12 vs. 5 – (35.5 percent 50 of 140)
11 vs. 6 – (37.1 percent 52 of 140)
10 vs. 7 – (39.3 percent 55 of 140)
Remember those low seeded teams to make the Final Four? If we get one, they’re coming out of these upset matchups. Take a look at these matchups for low seeded teams that could look to make it out of the first round. Also keep in mind that 11-seeds that must win a “first four” game to make the tournament, are more likely to go further, including all the way to the Final Four. When looking at upsets try a 11 seed that must win a “first four” game (Wichita St./Drake – Michigan St./UCLA) over normal 11-seeds.
Since 1985 we’ve seen between 10-16 upsets per tournament (winning against a team seeded at least 2 seeds higher). Don’t go upset crazy, but be confident knowing of the 63 games played around 15% of games do end in an upset. Hunt specific early round matchups where an established program is higher seeded than their opponent despite not having the better season (*stares at* #5 Villanova vs. #12 Winthrop).
Grandma Sophia’s Cookie Crumbs
So we’ve got a potential Elite Eight, our Final Four picks, and our champion locked in. We know where to look in the early round for upsets, while making sure we keep our potential for points high in the late rounds. Here are some last second bracket tips:
- Points count for more as the rounds progress. Focus most big decisions on the Sweet Sixteen round picks and on.
- Correct Elite 8 and Final Four picks will win you your pool!
- Monitor teams with NBA level talent, Arkansas’ Moses Moody, USC’s Evan Mobley, Florida St.’s Scottie Barnes, UConn’s James Bouknight.
- Best bets for finding upsets are 10 and 11 seeds. Picking the right strong 10 or 11 seed can get you extra points early.
- There has only been one National champion outside of the Eastern time zone.
- There has never been an Elite Eight without at least one 1-seed. Make sure you have at least 1.
- 1 seeds have won an overwhelming majority of National Championships (63 percent). Value them appropriately.
- Sports nerds use kenpom.com or haslametrics.com
- Do a few drafts of your bracket and pick the one that feels right for you.
- Go with your gut, who knows it just might lead to that perfect bracket.
- Have fun! That is most important at the end of the day. If you want a bracket picked based on mascots, you can still use Grandma Sophia’s tips along the way.
Thanks to our artist in residence Richie for the amazing artwork at the top of the article.