Skip to main content

Essential Tips for Picking Your 2016 NCAA Tournament Bracket


Everyone wants to be that person who wins their NCAA Tournament office pool. Picking a bracket isn't an exact science. Underdogs rise up out of nowhere and pull off upsets nearly every season, winning legions of fans even as they destroy a sea of brackets before the second weekend.

Image placeholder title

Your odds of getting every pick right in your bracket are in the same neighborhood as getting hit by an asteroid while sitting in your living room. But that doesn't mean you can't have a winning strategy to best family, friends or coworkers in a friendly bracket challenge.

Related: NCAA Tournament 2016 — March Madness Bracket Cheat Sheets

Here are a few tips to follow if you want to give your 2016 NCAA Tournament bracket a longer life:

Never pick a No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed

All sorts of memorable upsets happen during March Madness. A No. 16 seed knocking off a No. 1 seed is not among them. Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, 16 seeds have gone 0-124 against top seeds.

There have been close calls. In 1989, Georgetown beat Princeton 50-49 and Oklahoma edged East Tennessee State 72-71. Murray State took Michigan State to overtime in 1990, before losing 75-71. Purdue escaped from Western Carolina 73-71 in 1996, after the Catamounts missed a potential game-winning basket in the final seconds.

Only 15 games pitting a 16 against a 1 have been decided by single digits. Will a 16 beat a 1 eventually? Maybe. But it isn't worth sabotaging your own bracket right out of the gate just so you can potentially be the one who correctly guesses that historic upset.

Pick at least one No. 1 or a No. 2 seed to lose before the Sweet 16

While seeing a No. 1 or 2 seed fall in the first round is extremely rare, at least one or two of those top teams usually don’t make it to the Sweet 16. Top two seeds have lost games during the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament more frequently than you think. At least two of the top eight teams have failed to reach the Sweet 16 in each of the last six years. The last time all No. 1 and 2 seeds made it to the second weekend was in the 2009 NCAA Tournament.

Going all chalk to the Final Four rarely works out. Since the NCAA Tournament began seeding teams in 1979, all four No. 1 seeds made it to the Final Four just one time – in the 2008 NCAA Tournament. On the other hand, you need at least one No. 1 seed in your Final Four. At least one top seed has reached the Final Four in every tournament since 1985 with two exceptions – 2006 and 2011.

Avoid advancing underdogs too far into later rounds

We all love seeing a double-digit seed rise out of nowhere and put themselves on the basketball map with a run to the Sweet 16, Elite Eight or, on rare occasions, the Final Four. VCU and George Mason reached the Final Four as No. 11 seeds in 2006 and ‘11. Davidson made the Elite Eight as a No. 10 seed in 2008. Florida Gulf Coast reached the Sweet 16 as a No. 15 in 2013.

Still, picking double-digit seeds to tear up brackets past the Sweet 16 isn’t a wise idea. Only three No. 11 seeds have reached the Final Four since 1985 and three others reached the Elite Eight. Seven No. 10 seeds have reached the Elite Eight – most recently Davidson in 2008. Only one No. 12 seed, Missouri in 2002, has made it to the Elite Eight.

Advance at least one First Four at-large winner to the Round of 32 or Sweet 16

When the NCAA Tournament expanded to a 68-team field in 2011, it created an opening round that matched the last four at-large teams and four automatic bid winners in four games played before the Round of 64. The First Four has injected drama into the NCAA Tournament every year since that time.

At least one First Four at-large winner has advanced to the Round of 32 every season. Two First Four winners, La Salle and Tennessee, reached the Sweet 16 in 2013 and ‘14 respectively. And, of course, VCU famously went from the First Four to the Final Four in 2011. It's a safe bet at least one First Four team will rattle off a couple of victories again this year.

Pick against vulnerable No. 4, No. 5 and No. 6 seeds

Once you get past the top three seeds in a region, odds for picking an early upset increase significantly. This could definitely be the case in 2016 with a strong crop of No.  11, 12 and 13 seeds.

No. 13 seeds have knocked out the No. 4 seed 13 times going back to 2001. All four No. 5 seeds have advanced to the Round of 32 just four times – in 1988, 2000, ‘07 and ‘15 – since 1985. Three of the four No. 5 seeds lost to a No. 12 seed in 2013 and ‘14. At least one No. 11 seed has beaten a No. 6 seed in 11 straight tournaments.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

No. 5 seeds are just 80–44 against the No. 12 seed since 1985. No. 6 seeds have an 81-43 record against No. 11 seeds in that same stretch.

Vulnerable seeds in 4-6 range: Duke, California, Iowa State, Indiana, Maryland, Arizona, Seton Hall, Texas

Potential Giant Killers in 11-13 range: Gonzaga, Michigan, Wichita State, Chattanooga, Hawaii, Stony Brook, Little Rock, Northern Iowa, South Dakota State

Free throw shooting can separate contenders from pretenders

Games are often closer in the NCAA Tournament than during the regular season. These pressure-packed situations can be a disaster-in-waiting for a team that can't get it done at the free throw line.

Free throw shooting is the best measuring stick for separating contenders from pretenders. Teams that struggle with low free throw shooting percentages will eventually shoot themselves out of a game. And that will happen sooner rather than later.

Top 50 free throw shooting percentage teams: Connecticut, Villanova, Gonzaga, Virginia, Maryland, Miami, Northern Iowa, Pittsburgh, Texas Tech, Purdue, Colorado, North Carolina, Purdue, Michigan, Notre Dame, Arkansas-Little Rock

Bottom 50 free throw shooting percentage teams: California, Middle Tennessee, Green Bay, Florida Gulf Coast, Cal-State Bakersfield, Hampton

Watch out for homecourt heroes

Some teams tend to pile up shiny records during the regular season by dominating opponents in their home arena. When they get outside that friendly environment, it's a different story.

Beware advancing homecourt heroes deep in your bracket. Always pay close attention to a team's win/loss record on the road and at neutral venues. If they lose frequently to good or average teams away from home, and have a sub .500 record outside their own arena, that's a major red flag. Higher- seeded teams and lower-seeded teams that fit this profile are both ripe for quick exits.

Homecourt heroes to avoid in 2016: California, USC, Colorado, Miami, Iowa State, Oregon State, Vanderbilt, Texas Tech, Pittsburgh, Syracuse

Beware extremely hot or cold teams

There are always a few at-large teams who back their way into the NCAA Tournament each season after suffering several losses in their final few games. A handful of teams also get hot down the stretch after a rough start in conference play or non-conference play – masking weaknesses that caused the initial turbulent patch. Both types of teams are ripe for an early exit from your bracket.

Finding consistent winners is the key. Too many losses down the stretch might mean injuries, chemistry problems or some other issues are at play. A lengthy winning streak peppered with multiple blowouts, on the other hand, can make a team ill-prepared to handle close games in the NCAA Tournament.

Extreme hot teams: Wisconsin, California, Fresno State, Yale, Northern Iowa

Extreme cold teams: Iowa, Iowa State, Syracuse, USC, Baylor, Butler

Offensive and defensive balance wins championships

Everyone has heard the saying, “Defense wins championships.” That's only partially true. Teams that are most successful in the NCAA Tournament strike a balance between strong defense and productive offense. If a team is significantly weaker in either area than the other, it usually equals an early exit.

Advanced metrics are useful in identifying balanced teams versus unbalanced teams. A large majority of Final Four and Elite Eight teams each season rank in the top 30 in both offensive and defensive efficiency coming into the Tournament. Vulnerable higher seeds, on the other hand, will always have a glaring deficiency on at least one end of the court.

Top 30 teams in both offensive and defensive efficiency in 2016: Kansas, Virginia, North Carolina, Michigan State, Villanova, Oklahoma, Purdue, West Virginia. 

— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter@johncoonsports.