Bracket Tips — Strategies & Trends For Winning Your 2021 Pools

NCAA Bracket Guide

It’s been over 700 days since we’ve last seen an NCAA Tournament game, and now we finally have brackets to fill. For college basketball diehards Selection Sunday is a national holiday, as it should be. As soon as the committee announces the field, NCAA basketball fans begin joining March Madness pools with friends and family. If you’re like me, you’re already scrambling for information and bracket tips in hopes of having a profitable tournament.

In this article, I’ll help you with the latter as I break down NCAA bracket tips and strategies that will give you a leg up on the competition — whether it’s high stakes or free bracket pools that you can find at legal U.S. sportsbooks. Follow along as we analyze a decade’s worth of historical college basketball data and show you how to win your bracket pool using standard-rules scoring (1-2-4-8-16-32 points awarded per correct pick, by round).

And, of course, if you’re looking for help at the sportsbook, take a look at our best March Madness bets, a list of special sportsbook offers, and other NCAA basketball betting tips.

Bracket Tips

There are typically two types of people in your bracket pool. The first, is the chalk donkey who makes their picks based on nothing but seeding. These people have three 1-seeds in the final four. Their bracket looks something like this.

On the other side of the spectrum is the contestant who is a bit overzealous in their upset picks. They make their picks based on seeding, too, but as if they’re on a kamikaze mission. The only problem is they drop all of their bullets before they cross enemy lines, picking so many first-round upsets that they give themselves no chance to actually contend for the big prize.

Sure, the ones who win March Madness pools are typically the ones who are brave enough to take contrarian stands while filling out their bracket. However…

You can’t simply be contrarian for sake of being contrarian.

How contrarian you want to be will depend on the size of your bracket pool. If it’s a pool with 10 people, you can pick more favorites than you would in a pool with 100 people. If you’re in a pool with 500 or more, then you’re going to have to find early upsets in hopes of gaining leverage over the field.

Bracket Tips: The optimal strategy largely depends on the size of the pool. For smaller pools, you can afford to be more conservative; if you’re in a larger pool, you’ll want to be more contrarian.

Bracket Tips — Picking Upsets In Rounds 1 & 2

Basketball, particularly at the college level, is a fickle game. These are 18 to 22-year-old kids and sometimes no matter how great they are, the shots just don’t fall. Upsets and bracket busters happen every year, and although we can’t know exactly who the next Cinderella story is, we can use recent history to find potential candidates as we fill out our bracket for this year.

Let’s start with data from the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

Bracket Tips — Look At These Early Round Trends

It’s apparent the best place to pick early-round upsets is with your 10- thru 12-seeds. On average, we’ve seen 5.3 of these teams advance past the first round over the last 10 years. In the nine years that we’ve had play-in games, seven times have at least one of the participants moved on to the round of 32, and four times have they survived to play the second weekend. So why are upsets so common here?

This is where we see the top mid-major automatic qualifiers and our last four at-large qualifiers, the latter of whom have already won their play-in game. These teams are likely playing their best basketball of the year, carrying momentum from a late-season tournament push. Or, if they’re a mid-major automatic qualifier, then they’ve won something like 19 of their last 21. Just look at Winthrop who is 23-1, or Colgate who is 9th in NET and 11th in RPI.

UPSET WATCH: Ohio vs. Virginia

If you are in search of a 13-seed that can knock off a 4-seed in your bracket, Ohio over Virginia should be the first place you look. Double-digit seeds that provide upsets or make a run in March often have a star player steal the show. Steph Curry at Davidson, Ja Morant at Murray State, Thomas Walkup at Stephen F. Austin to name a few. Jason Preston can be that guy for the University of Ohio. The 6-foot-4 point guard averages 16 points, 7 assists, 7 rebounds, and nearly 3 steals per game. He’s not the only scorer on this team, though. Ohio has five players averaging double figures per game. They combine to score the 17th-most points per game in the country. Virginia teams of old would scoff at high-scoring offenses. They’d counter with suffocating defense and a slow offensive temp while holding them well below their season average. But this isn’t Virginia team we’re used to. Sorry Virginia bettors, but Deandre Hunter, Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, and Mamadi Diakite aren’t on the floor this year. This team is 33rd according to KenPom in defensive efficiency, which is shocking considering they entered the season with seven consecutive top-7 defenses. Look for the Bobcats to outscore Virginia with Jason Preston leading the way. 

Bracket tips: 5 vs. 12, 6 vs. 11, and 7 vs. 10 matchups are primed for upsets (as the data suggests), and often provide leverage against the rest of your pool. Also remember that some of these teams aren’t as big of underdogs as their seed might suggest. In some games, the 6-seed may only a 4-point favorite to win, which suggests there’s a higher likelihood of an upset. Look at CBB odds to see the spread and moneyline for each game.

Final Four Bracket Tips

Now that you’ve picked out your leverage spots and differentiated your bracket with a couple of early-round upsets, it’s time to pick your Final Four. Let’s again turn to the data.

Final Four Trends

Over the last 10 years:

Picking the correct longshot to make the Final Four is a lot easier said than done, of course. However, if you’re in a deeper pool and are looking for dark horse candidate to make the Elite Eight and potentially the Final Four, I have a team in mind.

UCONN (7-seed)

Balanced teams are best suited to make deep runs in March. There are six teams in the country that are top 25 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and half of them are 1-seeds. This isn’t a coincidence. The highest seed to possess similar attributes? The UCONN Huskies. Moreover, don’t judge this time by their record. They have one of the best players in the country in James Bouknight who averages 19 points and 6 rebounds per game. When he’s available to play, they are 11-3. In the eight games they played without Bouknight, the Huskies 4-4. With Bouknight now healthy, UCONN is more of a 3-seed masquerading as a 7-seed. We’ve seen star players carry the Huskies through the NCAA Tournament before. Kemba Walker led the Huskies to five straight wins in Madison Square Garden to win the conference title in 2011, then six straight tourney wins en route to a national championship. Then Shabazz Napier averaged 18 points and 6 rebounds during a season in which he led a 7-seeded UCONN team to the 2014 national title. Can James Bouknight follow in their footsteps?

Bracket Tips — Picking a National Champion

As you probably already know, it is difficult to win your bracket pool without the correct pick to win the NCAA national championship.

This is our top priority. It’s very easy to get caught up in the hype of opening weekend, believing you need to be perfect in your picks to win your pool. But remember: In standard rules scoring, even a perfect 32-0 in Round 1 is worth the same amount of points as picking the eventual national champion. If you get your national champion right, that’s 63 points over the course of the tournament just from one team. This is where the chalk can pay off, and where it’s most tempting. However, there are a few reasons to be leery of picking the favorite.

In the past 10 NCAA tournaments, a 1-seed has won the national championship seven times. Obviously, 1-seeds are 1-seeds for a reason. They are the best teams, typically favored in the betting odds to win the NCAA Tournament. Given this history, it’s pretty smart to take a 1 seed to cut down the nets come the first Monday in April. But perhaps not the number 1 overall seed.

National Championship Trends

Not only has the number 1 overall seed not won the national championship since 2013, they haven’t even made the Final Four since 2015! The top team hasn’t had a lot of success of late, and they will probably be the most popular national champion pick in your pool. And as we’ve already discussed, selecting the same national champion as everyone else does little good for you if you’re trying to win a pool, especially in larger fields.

DFS players, especially tournament players, should be able to grasp this concept better than anyone. Filling out a bracket is a lot like making a tournament lineup, in the sense that it pays to be contrarian.

So what do we do with our national champion spot this year?

Gonzaga or Zig-zaga?

There is a lot to like about this Zags team, no doubt about it, especially on the offensive side of the floor. But how much trust can you put in a team that hasn’t played a Power-6 program since the day after Christmas? The Zags haven’t been pushed, tested, or forced to improve their flaws due to the weaker competition in their conference than Power-6 schools. Gonzaga has a decent chance to be the most popular pick for a national champion in your pool, but with their lack of challenges the last three months—and I still have questions about their defense—is it worth eating the chalk and riding with the favorite of the 68 teams in the bracket? When it comes to picking a national champion, I want to zig while everyone zags.

When you are looking for under-the-radar national title candidates, you want to find balanced teams. A national champion needs to be able to win in a variety of ways. Your team simply won’t have their A-game for 240 consecutive minutes as they battle through eight rounds. When the opposition is taking away what your team does best, do they have other secondary strengths that will allow them to counter?

2018 No. 1 Overall Seed UVA Ranked 30th In Offensive Efficiency

When 16-seeded UMBC got red hot from the perimeter despite Virginia closing out with a hand in their face, Virginia didn’t know how to speed up their pace of play and put the ball in the hole at a high enough level to survive. However, they were able to recognize their flaws, adjust, and become more balanced on the other side of the floor in 2019.

You can see proof of this in their scores on their title run.

In the Sweet 16, they beat Oregon in a defensive battle 53-49 but were able to beat Purdue 80-75 in overtime when Carson Edwards couldn’t miss in the Elite 8 game. In the Final 4 they won another low-scoring contest against Auburn 63-62, but in the championship were able to outscore Texas Tech 85-77 in overtime. 

According to KenPom, since 2008 there have been four teams that have been top-five in both offensive and defensive efficiency: 2008 Kansas, 2010 Duke, 2016 Villanova, and 2019 Virginia. What do all four have in common? All eventual national champions.

That’s why I will zig while others zag.

Here are three balanced teams that are solid national title picks, and my final bracket tips for 2021:

Illinois Fighting Illini

Region: Midwest
Seed: No. 1 (3rd overall)
Off. Efficiency: 9th
Def. Efficiency: 7th

Houston Cougars

Region: Midwest
Seed: No. 2 (8th overall)
Off. Efficiency: 10th
Def. Efficiency: 5th

Michigan Wolverines

Region: East
Seed: No. 1 (4th overall)
Off. Efficiency: 6th
Def. Efficiency: 7th

(Image Credit: Imagn)

About the Author

Coleman Crawley (SharpshotSelect)

Coleman Crawley writes college basketball gambling insights for RotoGrinders Sports Betting. He grew up in Oklahoma and graduated from the University of Oklahoma. Whether it be analyzing data or scouting games, Crawley’s passion is college basketball, and he hopes his observations will help college basketball fans become smarter bettors. Crawley is also the host of a podcast, Mimosas Til March, where he discusses his bracketology and opinions on college basketball as well as gambling information.