Remedial Bracketology

Remedial Bracketology: The Absolute Basics of March Madness

Your Explain-Like-I'm-5 Guide to the Basics of March Madness

Nicky G
Nicky G

It’s March Madness time, baby!

If you’re all fired up to get your brackets in place and your office pool up and running, but also have no idea what you're doing at all and are a little frightened by the concept... well, RunYourPool is here to help you, you pure-of-heart, well-intentioned newb!

This guide, for the most part, is for those who find themselves very confused as to what March Madness even is. If you know anything at all about the NCAA tournament, you might find this post to be a bit over-simplified. If that's the case, THIS ISN'T FOR YOU AND NEVER WAS.

Now get outta here, ya scamp!


In this guide, we’re going to break down the basics of this exceedingly riveting time in the sports calendar, so you can join in the good times, too, all without feeling like a total dummy.

What IS March Madness?

While the term March Madness might sound like an illness the Romans invented for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), it's actually a popular sports term used to describe the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Men and Women’s Basketball tournaments. The winners of these competitions take the title of National Champion. As basketball is a beloved sport, and it tends to put the nation in a bit of a frenzy starting in the second week of March, that's where we get the name. (Ironically enough, the National Championship game is almost always played in early April.)

What Happens During This So-Called  Madness?

As sports tournaments go, this is about as high-stakes as it gets. It's a single-elimination tournament, so the winning team has to win every match for at least 6 straight games to be crowned victor. One loss, and home you go. "Cinderella" teams, AKA less-good teams that beat better teams, are not unknown, either, so it’s pretty thrilling to watch (more on that in a bit).

In all, 68 female teams and 68 male teams compete in their respective tournament.

You may have also noticed that society as we know it grinds to a halt for at least the first weekend of the tournament.

How Are Teams Included in the NCAA Tournament?

It's a very convoluted process which basketball/stat nerds can speak about ad nauseam (and often do), but basically, a selection committee chooses teams, announcing them on what's known as Selection Sunday, which takes place on the Monday before the tournament starts. Nobody knows why it's called Selection Sunday.

Just kidding it's on a Sunday, not Monday.

We had to have a little fun there, sorry.

A total of 32 teams get automatic invites because they win their postseason conference tournaments. The committee picks the rest. They look at things like national poll ranking, their record of play in the conferences and on the road, wins against ranked opponents, and their season record. If you aren’t invited: tough. It's off to the NIT tournament for you. (Which fun fact: NIT doesn't stand for "Not-Invited-to-the-Tournament tournament" as some might have you believe.)

How Does Seeding Work?

Seeding, as we look at below, basically means ranking the teams from best to worst. The better you are, the more likely you'll play a team that isn't so good (mainly as a reward for playing well during the regular season).

Across the four geographical regions (conferences), the committee gives teams "seed numbers" of 1 to 16, with 1 being the best team and 16 being the hypothetical worst. Seeding is used to both make matches fair and interesting. Theoretically, the top 4 number 1 seeds should be the last 4 teams standing in the NCAA Tournament. But it rarely ever works like that.

As in never.

Yeah that has literally never happened.

What’s a March Madness Bracket Pool?

Since we can’t all be out on the court (I personally get winded if I dribble a basketball for more than 10 seconds) a fun way to bring the March Madness spirit into your home or office is through joining in with a bracket pool. They’re very easy to play. You just fill in your first-round picks of who you think will progress, and rinse and repeat all the way through the NCAA tournament. It’s fun, simple, and a great way to feel part of the buzz. Fun fact: Tens of millions of people play bracket pools, making it the biggest collective sporting event that people compete in personally in the world.

What Terminology Should I Know?

Most March Madness terminology is easy to grasp in context, but let’s cover some basics before you start watching the games:

  • Sweet 16, Elite 8, Final 4: These are just fun ways to refer to the later rounds of the tourney, where there are 16, 8, and 4 remaining teams, respectively.
  • First 4: The First 4 picks refer to the bottom entries into the tournament. Basically, the 4 lowest-seeded automatic qualifiers playoff against 4 at-large teams, and the 4 winners get entry. This is generally disregarded in  bracket pools because it only leaves the pick window between Selection Sunday and gameplay be a few days.
  • At-large: Some teams get automatic entry into the tournament based on their earlier season. Others are selected by the NCAA as wildcards, and those are your at-large teams.
  • Seed: Seeds in the NCAA are the same as other sports. It’s a rough ranking system of how well everyone qualified.
  • Matchup: Team vs. team, baby!
  • South, West, MidWest, East: The four geographical regions teams are split into.
  • Upset: When something unpredictable happens, like a low seed eliminating a high seed.
  • Buzzer-Beater: Not somebody who attacks birds. That's a buzzard beater. In this case, it's a shot that is released before the final second of the clock that goes in and wins the game.
  • Cinderella: A team that is a low seed (think #9 to #15) that makes it way out of the first weekend of play.
  • Dick Vitale: He's the guy yelling "It's awesome, baby!" every ten seconds.
  • The Bubble: You may notice some websites ranking teams as "Last Four Byes," "Last Four In," "First Four Out," and "Next Four Out." This is basically what consitutes "The Bubble" — a shuffling, ever-changing list of 16 teams that "experts" think will amount to 8 teams that will skirt their way in to the tournament (with the other 8 not making it, but just barely) as at-large bids.

Can I Make The Perfect Bracket?

Heavens no.

Picking a perfect NCAA tournament bracket is near impossible, and even the NCAA’s stats support this (they claim it's 1 in 9.2 quintillion) (there are an estimated 7.5 quintillion grains of sand on earth, for context). If you're the competitive type and think you could beat your colleagues who actually watch basketball all year, remember that the real proof in the pudding lies in your later round picks. Get the National Champion right and you'll likely beat most people in your pool.

Does Conference Play Matter in the NCAA Tournament?

Once upon a time, in the mists of the 00's, somewhere between the puca shell necklaces and hair dye, winning your conference tournament was nearly guaranteed to mean March Madness success. The stats have slipped a little in recent years, but the advice to downgrade teams that flopped in their conference tournaments remains relatively the same. Hot streaks are a thing.

How Should I Pick My Upsets?

You can spend hours pouring over analytics, or pick on a whim. It’s rare for upsets to matter in the long run, so don’t go crazy over this one. Still, there is usually one Cinderella pick that makes the higher rounds. (In the last decade, number 11 seeds have proven very valuable as dark horse contenders.) While we don’t suggest blowing all your March Madness picks on "maybes" and well wishes, it’s fun to add a Cinderella or two to the list. If nothing else, they give you bragging rights.

Should I Concentrate on the Final Four?

Yes and no. A perfect Final Four isn’t necessary to win your pool — and only a tiny fraction of people ever get it in the March Madness brackets. Seriously, it’s way less than 1% of participants! If you get two of the four right, you’re well placed for victory.

What Resources Should I Use to Make My Picks?

While there are a metric ton of composite metrics that basketball nerds use to make their own March Madness picks (something about College Basketball really draws out the statisticians in nerds), they're still no more likely than say, the former President of the United States, at picking a solid bracket.

If you want to pull out all the stops, our friends at TeamRankings have built a killer pick optimizer for NCAA bracket pools. It's the only product that customizes ready-to-play brackets for your pool's size and scoring system, and maximizes your odds to win. (And win they do; every year since 2015, an average of 57% of their subscribers have won a bracket pool prize.)

It also comes with a bunch of additional bracket analysis tools, matchup data, in-depth team notes, bracket strategy write-ups, and even tools for NCAA survivor and team draft/auction pools. It's a premium product, but discounts are available.

If you're looking for some place to go that's free, we like KenPom.

Kenpom is one of the most popular analytics tools when it comes to college basketball. It was created by Ken Pomeroy in 2003 with the intention of providing fans with an accurate, detailed assessment of how good a team really is. The KenPom website collects, analyzes, and calculates basketball data then provides all major college basketball teams rankings in various categories. Two of its most promising categories for determining upsets are AdjO (Adjusted Offensive efficiency) and AdjD (Adjusted Defensive efficiency).

Deep-run Cinderella teams tend to very good at the defensive side of the ball. If you see a team like VCU (which has the third-best defense in the country but is ranked relatively low overall), play another team like BYU, which is rated sort of in the middle of the pack in both AdjO and AdjD, that may be a signal that an upset is on its way.

Forget all this. Just Tell Me Who Should I Pick As the Champion?

A staggering 8 out of the past 13 National Champions were ranked Number 1 by KenPom. Of those five others, one made the Final Four (Kentucky in 2015) and another two made the championship game (Gonzaga in 2017 and The Zags again last year). It's also safe to say that both teams playing in the National Championship game will come from the Top 15 KenPom overall rank, as this has been the case in 12 of the last 13 years.

Check it out below.

2021: Baylor (Ranked #2 KenPom) wins over Gonzaga (#1)
2020: Cancelled for Covid
2019: Virginia (#1) over Texas Tech (#5)
2018: Villanova (#1) over Michigan (#7)
2017: North Carolina (#3) over Gonzaga (#1)
2016: Villanova (#1) over North Carolina (#2)
2015: Duke (#3) over Wisconsin (#2)
2014: UConn (#15) over Kentucky (#13)
2013: Louisville (#1) over Michigan (#4)
2012: Kentucky (#1) over Kansas (#4)
2011: UConn (#10) over Butler (#36)
2010: Duke (#1) over Butler (#12)
2009: North Carolina (#1) over Michigan State (#9)
2008: Kansas (#1) over Memphis (#2)

We're definitely noticing a pattern here. Are you seeing it? We're seeing it.

Celebrate March Madness With RunYourPool

It can be intimidating to join a pool that has millions of people in it. That's why many people throughout the country make their own March Madness pools, be it for friends and family, or the whole office. RunYourPool is proud to offer you only the best online NCAA basketball tournament bracket hosting tools, so you can concentrate on the fun and not the admin. Are you ready to get started? Why not host a bracket with us today?


Nicky G

Dad of 3. WVian by birth. ATX for now.