March Madness Bracket Cheat Sheet (2023)

Mar 13, 2023 - 12:56 AM

March Madness is always one of the most thrilling sporting events of the year, with the marathon slate of first-round games on Thursday and Friday especially captivating the nation. Even the most casual of fans watch intently on those days with their filled-out brackets in hand, waiting in anticipation and hoping their brackets are not busted within the first 48 hours of the tournament.

Depending on the size of one’s March Madness bracket pool and the amount of competition one will face, there are different strategies to give contestants an advantage and an optimal chance for success.

This article offers tips for navigating smaller bracket pools vs. larger pools and provides sample picks for each. In addition, we discuss teams we like and teams to avoid entering the tournament, citing which teams are prime to be bracket busters and which are on upset alert.

Check out all of our coverage for the 2023 NCAA Tournament >>

2023 NCAA Tournament Guide (March Madness)

Bracket Tips for Smaller Pools

Know Your League’s Scoring Format

There are several different ways bracket pools are scored. One of the most common ways is that the points for each correct pick double each round. First-round games would be worth one point, culminating with awarding 32 points for predicting the right national champion. Under that format, it becomes imperative to pick the correct winner.

Other pools offer incentives for picking upsets based on points awarded for correct picks relative to a team’s seed. For example, if you correctly picked a No. 1 seed to win a game, you might earn one point but would earn ten points for successfully choosing a No. 10 seed to advance. Under this format, the winner’s total points are much higher, thus making identifying the correct champion less crucial.

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Do Not Go Crazy With Upsets

There is not as much competition in smaller pools, so one, in theory, would not have to go too crazy picking upsets everywhere. However, no NCAA Tournament goes entirely chalk either (it’s “March Madness,” after all), so one would want to separate themselves by picking some surprises.

Keep in mind the following historical trends about No. 1 seeds. First, just one No. 1 seed (2018 Virginia) has ever lost its opening-round game (No. 1 seeds are 147-1 overall vs. No. 16 seeds), so go ahead and advance all four No. 1 seeds to the Round of 32. In addition, since 1985, No. 1 seeds have advanced to the Sweet 16 84.6% of the time (132 of 156), so losing to the winner of the 8-9 game in their region is not likely to happen either. However, in each of the past two NCAA tournaments, one No. 1 seed was upset in the Round of 32. By comparison, No. 2 seeds advance to the Sweet 16 62.2% of the time (97 of 156).

Bracket Tips for Larger Pools

Diversify Your Picks With Multiple Brackets

Some people find issues with contestants who submit multiple brackets. But if league rules allow for more than one submission, why not take advantage? When entering numerous brackets, make sure to diversify your Final Four and national championship selections since those are the rounds that are worth the most points.

It is also wise to occasionally pick a national champion that is not among the top pre-tournament favorites, as one would earn a significant advantage over the competition that mainly picked favorites. Your national champion does not automatically have to be a No. 1 seed, as just 64.9% of all national champions (24 of 37) since 1985 have been a No. 1 seed, though each of the previous five has been.

Get Creative With Upsets

The most fun part of March Madness is the Cinderella stories, the underdogs that pull surprising upsets and advance further than most thought possible. One area to identify a potential sleeper is in the “First Four” games, as teams like VCU in 2011 and UCLA two years ago made the Final Four despite being chosen as one of the few teams needed to “play their way into” the tournament.

The following table (courtesy of details how often a first-round upset has occurred since 1985. As you will see, No. 5 and No. 6 seeds are seemingly much better teams than the No. 11 and No. 12 seeds, but those games are often some of the likeliest upsets.

#1 vs. #16 147-1 .993
#2 vs. #15 138-10 .932
#3 vs. #14 126-22 .851
#4 vs. #13 117-31 .791
#5 vs. #12 95-53 .642
#6 vs. #11 91-57 .615
#7 vs. #10* 89-58 .605
#8 vs. #9 72-76 .486

Thus, find the right balance between upsets and higher-seeded teams advancing. Also, remember that no team lower than a No. 11 seed has ever reached the Final Four, and just one year (2008) has seen a Final Four comprised of all No. 1 seeds. In fact, three No. 1 seeds have made the Final Four on just five other occasions.

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Sleepers To Target

No. 7 Texas A&M- The Aggies have a legitimate claim to being the most underseeded team in the field. Texas A&M went 15-3 in a conference that sent eight teams to the NCAA Tournament. The Aggies held opponents to lower than 30% from 3-point range in SEC play, which will come in handy against the perimeter-happy Nittany Lions, and they average 25.3 free throw attempts per game (most in D-I), so you better be a deep team if you are going to face them.

No. 13 Kent State- No. 13 seeds went 0-4 SU in last year’s NCAA tournament but are 5-7 SU over the previous three. The Golden Flashes ripped through the MAC tournament, winning the three games by an average of 13.3 points. They drew an Indiana team in the first round that struggles to force turnovers (11th in Big Ten play), allowed the 12th-highest offensive rebounding percentage in league play, and ranked dead-last in its league in free throw attempts per field goal attempt. Kent State is 0-3 in the NCAA tournament since the 2002 Elite 8, but this team is good enough to reach the second weekend.

No. 11 Pittsburgh- Two First Four teams have reached the Final Four, so there is a precedent for these teams to get hot. Pittsburgh’s first opponent is a Mississippi State team with the worst 3-point field goal percentage among all D-I (26.6%) teams. The Panthers could also get by an Iowa State team that allows 19.9 paint PPG (2nd fewest in D-I), as they were the ACC’s third-best 3-point shooting team (36.4% in league play) and the second-best in terms of adjusted offensive efficiency.

Teams on Upset Alert

No. 4 Virginia- The Cavaliers have been prone to an NCAA Tournament upset or two (ahem, UMBC) and play at the 360th slowest tempo in the country, which means they tend to play closer games due to limited possessions. Furman ranks 11th nationally in effective field goal percentage and leads all D-I teams with a 59.1% 2-point shooting percentage. That could be an issue for a Virginia team without one of its best rim protectors, Ben Vander Plas, for the last three games.

No. 5 San Diego State- The Aztecs are one of the oldest teams in the country, ranking 21st in average D-I experience. However, they did not get the kindest of draws with facing a 31-win Charleston team that beat Virginia Tech and Kent State in the non-conference and led a solid CAA in adjusted offensive efficiency and offensive rebounding percentage.

Sample Picks to Enter For Small Pools

  • Elite 8 matchups: Alabama/Baylor, Duke/Marquette, Houston/Texas, Kansas/UCLA
  • National Championship: Alabama over Kansas

Sample Bracket to Enter For Large Pools

  • Elite 8 matchups: San Diego State/Arizona, Tennessee/Kentucky, Miami/Texas, UConn/Gonzaga
  • National Championship: UConn over Arizona

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Mike Spector is a featured writer at BettingPros. For more from Mike, check out his archive and follow him @MikeSpector01.

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