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Editor’s Note: This guest post on bracket strategy is from PoolGenius, whose subscribers have won over $1.8 million in NCAA bracket pools. If you want the best chance to win your bracket pool in 2023, you can get their expert bracket picks here.
Winning a March Madness bracket contest in 2023 will take a combination of luck and skill.
Occasionally, dumb luck reigns supreme. Remember when your Aunt Jean took first place because she worked at Loyola-Chicago and thought it would be a good idea to pick them all the way to the Final Four in 2018? We’ve all got a story like that.
In the long run, though, skill comes out ahead. To get an edge in your 2023 NCAA bracket pool, make sure you avoid the four habits of terrible bracket pickers.
Note: If you’re more of a watcher than a reader, we explain these strategies in our new bracket strategy video below.
1. They Follow A Seed Number Based Pick Strategy
Every NCAA Tournament is different. Some years, the No. 1 seeds are a cut above the rest of the field, while the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds are weak by historical standards. In that scenario, picking all No. 1 seeds in your Final Four may be a wise decision.
Other years, no big difference in team quality exists between the weakest No. 1 seeds and several other teams on lower seed lines. In those years, it pays to pick a more diverse Final Four, perhaps even featuring a team seeded No. 4 or worse.
Team dynamics and NCAA seeding decisions are not consistent from year to year. As a result, a bracket strategy built around seed-based quotas (e.g. “Which No. 12 seed should I pick this year?” or “What team should be my darkhorse Final Four pick?”) is almost never ideal.
Forget about all of the seed-based golden rules for picking brackets. Instead, use computer power ratings or betting market odds to evaluate the advancement potential of each team.
In 2023, for example, betting market odds had No. 1 Houston as the pre-tournament favorite, a few days before the First Round began. But their odds to win the title in 2023 are significantly lower than top favorites from past years.
2. They Don’t Think About How Their Opponents Will Make Picks
In a bracket pool, you don’t win a prize for getting a set number of picks right. Winning is a relative proposition; you simply need to finish with a higher score than all of your opponents do.
If you get a bracket pick right, but all of your opponents also get it right, you don’t move up in the pool standings. You only gain ground on an opponent if you get a pick right and they get it wrong. (Of course, it helps the most if that pick is worth many points.)
That dynamic has big implications for bracket strategy, because the picks that your opponents make will influence your odds to win a pool.
For instance, imagine you put a certain No. 10 seed in your Sweet 16 as a dark horse pick. Then, a bunch of your opponents also make the exact same pick, because a famous sportscaster recommended it. This situation is horrible for you. You’ve now taken a lot of extra risk for a much more limited potential reward, which is the worst of both worlds.
Never pick a bracket in isolation. Find reliable pick popularity data for bracket pools nationwide, like what’s available here on RunYourPool, and use it to guide your bracket decisions. Unpopular picks with a good chance to advance always warrant special consideration.
In 2023, for example, No. 9 Illinois is a relatively trendy First Round upset picks you probably want to avoid.
3. They Make Too Many FIrst Round Upset Picks
Going too crazy with upset picks is the silent killer of many a bracket, at least in the standard scoring format (1-2-4-8-16-32 points per round).
It makes sense why bracket pool players tend to pick more upsets than they should. The improbable does occasionally happen. And when it happens during March Madness, millions of people see it and remember it.
In the last two years alone, we’ve seen the following deep, unexpected runs:
- No. 8 North Carolina to the Champ Game in 2022
- No. 11 UCLA to the Final Four in 2021
- No. 15 Saint Peter’s to the Elite Eight in 2022
- No 10 Miami to the Elite Eight in 2022
- No. 12 Oregon State to the Elite Eight in 2021
- No. 15 Oral Roberts to the Sweet 16 in 2021
Here’s the problem. Nailing a darkhorse Final Four pick or a perfect Sweet 16 may earn you major bragging rights, but it’s highly unlikely to happen. More importantly, it’s rarely necessary to win. Unless you’re in a huge pool, correctly picking the national champion and one or two other Final Four teams is often sufficient to finish in the money.
Trying to pick the perfect bracket—one with a Cinderella run to the title game for a No. 5 seed, a No. 8 seed in the Elite Eight and four double-digit seeds in the Sweet 16—may look exciting on paper. However, it doesn’t give you the best chance to win, because you have such a high chance of placing your Cinderella bets on the wrong teams.
4. Their Bracket Strategy Doesn’t Account For Pool Size And Rules
Picking a lot of upsets is often a problematic strategy, but not always. How many risks you should take with your bracket picks is largely a function of two factors: the number of entries in your pool, and its scoring system.
For example, upset bonuses can change pick strategy in a big way. Imagine that your scoring system awards one point for a correct First Round pick, but five bonus points for correctly picking a No. 11 seed to beat a No. 6 seed (a “seed difference” bonus).
In that case, picking all four No. 6 seeds and going a perfect 4-for-4 yields four points. In comparison, picking all four No. 11 seeds and going just 1-for-4 yields six points. In these types of scoring systems, it’s often wise to be ultra-aggressive with upset picks.
The number of opponent entries you have to beat is also a key consideration. If you are in a small pool of 10 or 20 entries, playing very conservatively is usually a good strategy, while bigger pools demand more calculated risk-taking to maximize your odds to win.
In 2023, there’s actually a nice opportunity to pick a few seed-based First Round upsets using teams that actually have a solid shot to win, such as No. 12 Drake and No. 10 Utah State.
The Best Bracket Picks For Your Pool
The four habits above aren’t just our opinions. We’ve spent over 15 years conducting objective research into bracket pool strategy, and run millions of computer simulations of NCAA bracket pools.
The product we developed from that learning has generated over $1.8 million in bracket pool prizes since 2017, using technology so sophisticated that WIRED Magazine wrote about it.
In minutes, our algorithms generate ready-to-play bracket sheets that incorporate all of the strategies explained in this article, giving you the best chance to win your 2023 bracket pool.
And for those of you who play in other types of March Madness pools on RunYourPool, we also have tools for NCAA tournament Survivor pools and Calcutta Auction drafts.
Click the link below to get picks now!