Each year, 140 million Americans enter a March Madness pool. Sure, the chances of filling out a perfect bracket are 147,000,000,000,000,000,000-1, but follow these 16 strategies (ranked in descending order of effectiveness) and you will at least have a chance of taking your coworkers to the cleaners. Let the madness begin!
Photo: Tara Moore / Getty Images
16. Mascot Madness
Push numbers aside and pick your victors based on which team’s mascot would win in a fight. Just don’t expect it to work - last year’s Final Four were the Orange, the Wolverines, the Cardinals, and the Shockers (really). By this logic, you’d pick the Wolverines, right? But alas, the Cardinals took the title, which either means that this strategy is bogus, or that wolverines are actually total pussies.
15. The Blues
Picking winners based on their uniforms is the kind of strategy someone who watches more Project Runway than SportsCenter might employ. Although if you had to pick one color, blue isn’t a terrible choice: Last year, Louisville was the first champ without blue in its uniform in a decade. Powerhouses like Duke, UNC, Kansas, and Florida all rock it, so don’t be afraid of a little blue ball.
14. Following the Leader
As it turns out, our President is pretty boring when it comes to March Madness. Tim Chartier, an associate professor of mathematics at Davidson, says studies show that Obama’s been successful some years and not so much in others. In the end, copying his bracket is kind of a cop-out and not all that different from just going with the favorites: In 2011, his Final Four were all number-one seeds. You read it here first: Obama is a conservative!
13. The “Winners” Circle
Is being a “winner” endemic? Sure, there are a number of players who have won at both the college and professional levels, so you might think players who won big in high school or AAU tournaments would have what it takes to win in March. Well, not necessarily, although ultra-competitive types like TreyBurke last year, or Kemba Walker in 2011, tend to rise to the occasion.
12. The Costanza Theory
You remember the Seinfeld episode (or at least you should): George decides to go against his better judgment and do the opposite of his instincts. “You don’t want to pick a 16 to beat a one, but this works for an eight versus a nine - traditionally more of the latters advance,” says RJ Bell of Pregame.com. So is this a good strategy? Not really. Which means yes, definitely.
11. Home Away from Home
As we’ve noted, all games in the tournament are essentially away games, or at least neutral-court games. Except…that’s not exactly true. “The year Davidson went to the Elite Eight, our first game was in Raleigh, North Carolina, and a lot of fans went because it was so close,” says Chartier. So if Memphis, say, is playing near Memphis, a win (as well as delicious barbecue) is pretty likely.
10. Small Wonders
Increasingly, it’s guard-driven teams that succeed in March, especially guards who drive the paint. Last year’s tournament is a prime example, with the Russ Smith–led Cardinals defeating the Trey Burke–led Wolverines in the final. “In the ’80s, the average team got 40 percent of its points from guards,” says Peter Tiernan of BracketScience.com. “Now teams get 60 percent of their points from guards.” Good news for Wichita St.!
9. The Young Ones
It’s tough to recall a season in which freshmen dominated the game quite like this one, but that’s not a guarantee of anything in March. Last year, John Calipari’s frosh-heavy Kentucky squad didn’t even make the tournament. “Calipari has defined his program by bringing in young talent,” says Tiernan. “But last year was a good demonstration of how it can fail.”
8. The Power of Three
Teams that rely on three-pointers are hit or miss, literally. If they get hot, they’re tough to beat, but if they go cold, they go home. “It’s a high-risk, high-reward play,” says Tiernan. “So teams that shoot a high percentage of threes have a propensity for upsets.” If you’re looking for underdogs in your bracket, squads that excel - or jack it up a ton - from long range are a solid bet.
7. Tenacious D
If you’re looking for Cinderellas, it’s worth considering a team’s ability to force turnovers. “These are road games, and shooting can be a challenge at these venues,” says Bell. “There’s an old saying: Defense travels well. So teams that can lock down their opponents have an even greater margin for success in the tournament than they do in the regular season.”
Illustrated by Michal Dziekan
6. The Easy Way Out
If you simply make your picks based on the higher seed, you’ll probably do well, especially in a small pool. “The truth is, very few people really know how to fill out every single game in a bracket, so this strategy is easy,” says Chartier. But while a number one has never lost to a 16, there are always a few upsets. The bottom line, though, is: It’s boring, and life is too boring to be boring.
5. Road Warriors
Winning before a home crowd is great, but once March Madness arrives, those Cameron Crazies aren’t going to do Duke much good. “Basically, every tournament game is on the road,” notes Chartier. “So teams don’t have a home-field advantage.” The bottom line? Look for the squads with the happiest EZ Pass.
4. Star Power
Cinderella stories are great, but if you want to win your office pool, look for teams with at least one elite talent. Remember, legends like Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan all led their schools to titles. As gambling guru Bell points out, “The best players step up their games when the lights are brightest.” So make like Casey Kasem and reach for the stars!
3. The Hot Stay Hot
The truth is, teams with a hot hand at the end of the regular season - and especially teams that win their conference titles - tend to stay hot. Last year Louisville won the Big East tournament before taking the NCAA title, and in 2011 UConn did the same. In fact, there have been only five champions in the past 15 years who failed to win their conference championships. Winners win!
2. Who’s The Boss?
As Tiernan says, “Coaching experience is critical in making a deep run in the tournament. Since 2000, every single championship coach has had at least three trips under his belt and at least one Elite Eight run.” In college basketball, as in so many other aspects of life, success breeds success, so your Coach Ks, Pitinos, Donovans, and Boeheims have a good chance to go deep.
1. Winning Big
Here’s a good rule: Dominant teams dominate! So schools that crush foes in the regular season tend to do so in the big dance. “If you look at the ultimate champion, their scoring average is usually between five and eight points better than the rest of the field’s,” says Tiernan. In other words, it doesn’t matter who wins; it matters who wins by a lot, like Louisville, Wichita St., Florida, Arizona, and Duke.