March Madness lived up to its billing a year ago. Dramatic upsets and plucky underdogs allowed the madness to truly reign during the 2021 edition of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. At least one team from the No. 9, No. 10, No. 11, No. 12, No. 13, No. 14, and No. 15 seed lines won a first-round game for the first time since 2016. With fans and regional sites back in the mix in this year's tournament, the feeling that anything wild and unexpected can happen has grown only stronger.
Bracket chaos helps make March Madness popular year after year. People love seeing underdogs destroy millions of brackets to make an unexpected Sweet 16 or Final Four run. This sheer unpredictability also makes correctly forecasting the winners a mostly futile exercise. If you harbor dreams of filling out a perfect bracket this year, prepare to be disappointed. You face much better odds of successfully navigating an asteroid field while evading a few TIE fighters.
Still, you can craft a winning strategy to help you conquer family, friends, or colleagues in your bracket challenge of choice. Filling out a bracket is never an exact science. Luck plays a crucial part when it comes to correctly predict which teams will advance and which ones will head home.
To improve your odds of winning, you can apply a few useful guidelines to give your 2022 NCAA Tournament bracket a longer life.
Never pick a No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed
UMBC pulled off a seemingly impossible feat in 2018. The Retrievers dismantled Virginia to claim a spot in the history books, becoming the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 seed. Such historic games are what make March Madness so fun to watch.
Don't bother searching for the next UMBC among this year's 68-team field. No. 16 seeds were 0-135 all-time against No. 1 seeds before Virginia lost. Their current record is 1-143 since 1985.
Close calls do occur from time to time. A pair of No. 16 seeds took No. 1s down to the wire in 1989. Georgetown held off Princeton 50-49 on two late blocks from Alonzo Mourning while Oklahoma edged East Tennessee State 72-71 after rallying from a 17-point deficit. Murray State pushed Michigan State to the limit in 1990, before falling 75-71 to the Spartans in overtime. Purdue survived a 73-71 thriller against Western Carolina in 1996 only after the Catamounts missed a potential game-winning basket in the final seconds.
Still, only 15 games pitting a No. 16 seed against a No. 1 seed have been decided by single digits. Will a No. 16 beat a No. 1 again? It will happen again at some point. Do you want to sabotage your bracket based on a minuscule chance you'll correctly guess such a monumental upset?
Pick at least one No. 1 or a No. 2 seed to lose before the Sweet 16
Playing it safe with top-two seeds is never a wise strategy. No. 1 and No. 2 seeds lose games before the field is whittled down to 16 teams more frequently than you think.
In the 2021 NCAA Tournament, two No. 2 seeds and a No. 1 seed failed to reach the Sweet 16. It marked the 10th time in the last 11 tournaments where two or more teams among the top eight seeds were upset in the first or second round.
Strangely enough, teams who pull off these upsets often carry that momentum all the way to the Final Four. At least one No. 7, No. 8, or No. 9 seed that dispatched a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the second round has made it to the tournament's final weekend in five of the last nine tournaments.
Striking a balance is crucial when advancing top teams. Since the NCAA began seeding teams in 1979, all four No. 1 seeds reached a Final Four only one time — in 2008. On the other hand, you should always include at least one No. 1 seed among your Final Four picks. Only two tournaments since 1985 have featured a Final Four without a top seed — 2006 and 2011.
Don't go overboard advancing underdogs in your bracket
Everyone loves a good underdog story. Smaller schools claim a spot on the basketball map and win legions of new fans after emerging from nowhere to make deep tournament runs as double-digit seeds.
March Madness produced multiple underdog runs in 2021. UCLA went from First Four to Final Four as a No. 11 seed. The Bruins were the fifth 11-seed to reach the Final Four, joining LSU in 1986, George Mason in 2006, VCU in 2011, and Loyola Chicago in 2018. Oral Roberts became the second No. 15 team to obliterate brackets and reach the Sweet 16, following Florida Gulf Coast in 2013. Oregon State was just the second 12-seed to advance to the Elite Eight, following Missouri in 2002.
One factor that makes these runs so memorable is their rarity. Exercise caution in trying to identify a new bracket-busting plucky underdog. Only five 11-seeds have reached the Final Four since 1985. Four others tapped out at the Elite Eight. Eight No. 10 seeds survived to the Elite Eight. Only one, Syracuse in 2016, reached the Final Four. And only two No. 12s have lasted until the Elite Eight.]
Advance at least one First Four team past the Round of 64
First Four teams have a knack for winning after their opening-round game. Since 2011, the First Four has matched the last four at-large teams in the field and four automatic qualifiers in four games over two days. It has injected additional drama and excitement into March Madness.
Picking an at-large First Four team to advance in your bracket is a smart choice. At least one of those teams has advanced to the Round of 32 every year with the exception of 2019 and a few have gone much further. Five First Four teams have reached the Sweet 16 since the field expanded to 68 teams. La Salle and Tennessee did it in 2013 and '14. Syracuse also achieved that feat in 2019. UCLA became the second team to go from First Four to Final Four in 2021, joining VCU who made a similar incredible run in 2011.
Pick against vulnerable seeds in the No. 3 to No. 6 range
Once you get past the top two seeds in each region, your odds of seeing an early upset dramatically increase. Ignore potential upsets within the No. 3-6 range at your own peril. Vulnerable teams always populate these seed lines in March.
Some teams in the No. 3-6 range possess critical flaws. Their seed may have dipped because key injuries or suspensions led to losses piling up late in the season. Or maybe the team in question inflated their seed with a deep conference tournament run. The point is multiple teams populating this part of the bracket are ripe to fall on the opening weekend.
Since the field expanded to 68 teams in 2011, No. 3 seeds have grown more vulnerable to early upset losses. At least one No. 14 beat a No. 3 in five of the last eight tournaments. Abilene Christian did it most recently, outlasting Texas 53-52 a year ago.
No. 13 seeds have knocked out No. 4s 19 times going back to 2001 and are 5-7 over the last three tournaments. Ohio and North Texas both advanced to the second round as 13-seeds in 2021. The Bobcats beat Virginia 62-58 and the Mean Green knocked off Purdue 78-69 in overtime.
All four No. 5 seeds have made it to the second round just five times since 1985. Oregon State took out No. 5 Tennessee 70-56 last season to ignite a run to the Elite Eight where the Beavers finally bowed out against Houston.
At least one No. 11 seed has beaten a No. 6 in 16 straight tournaments. Two 11-seeds prevailed in these matchups in 2021. UCLA eliminated BYU and Syracuse took out San Diego State.
Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 68 teams in 2011, No. 5 seeds are 24-16 (.600) against No. 12s. No. 6 seeds are 19-21 (.475) against No. 11s in that same span.
Vulnerable seeds in the No. 3 to No. 6 range this year: LSU, Alabama, Texas, Colorado State, UConn, Iowa, Saint Mary's, Arkansas, Providence, Texas Tech.
Potential giant killers in the No. 11 to No. 14 range: UAB, Richmond, South Dakota State, Chattanooga, Vermont, Akron, New Mexico State, Michigan, Iowa State, Rutgers.
Watch out for homecourt heroes
You can always find a few teams in the Field of 68 who pile up shiny regular-season records by dominating opponents inside their home arenas. Send them on the road or to a neutral arena and you will see a much different scenario unfold.
Be careful about advancing these so-called homecourt heroes deep into your bracket. Consider a team's win/loss record on the road and at neutral venues when filling out your bracket. It offers a useful barometer for how those players and coaches perform under pressure outside a friendly environment.
If a team frequently drops games against good or average opponents on the road and sports a sub-.500 record in road or neutral-site games, that's a major red flag. Teams fitting this profile are ripe to suffer a quick NCAA Tournament exit.
Homecourt heroes to avoid in 2021: Texas Tech, Texas, TCU, Iowa State, Marquette, Ohio State, Rutgers, Michigan State, LSU, Alabama, Colgate.
Free-throw shooting separates contenders from pretenders
NCAA Tournament games go down to the wire more often than regular-season games. Surviving these pressure-packed situations can spell doom for teams who struggle at the free-throw line.
Free-throw shooting is a useful measuring stick for separating contenders from pretenders. Teams who struggle to knock down free throws will eventually shoot themselves out of a close game. Such a scenario unfolds sooner rather than later.
Top 50 free-throw shooting percentage teams: Villanova, Ohio State, North Carolina, Seton Hall, Colorado State, Cal State Fullerton, Saint Mary's, Davidson.
Bottom 50 free-throw shooting percentage teams: USC, Boise State, TCU, Houston, Texas Southern.
Beware of extremely hot or cold teams
Multiple teams each season somehow earn an at-large bid even while finishing out the regular season in a tailspin. They back into the Field of 68 all while piling up losses over their final few games.
Existing on the other end of the spectrum are teams who get unusually hot down the stretch. They reel off extended winning streaks that temporarily mask weaknesses that factored into a string of losses earlier in the season.
Teams fitting either profile reside in the early exit danger zone. Finding consistent winners is crucial. Numerous late-season losses are often indicators of injuries, chemistry problems, or other issues. A massive winning streak peppered with multiple blowouts, on the other hand, can make a team ill-prepared to deal with close games in the NCAA Tournament.
Extremely hot teams: Murray State, South Dakota State, Vermont, Georgia State, Colgate, Tennessee, Villanova, Virginia Tech, Boise State, Memphis.
Extremely cold teams: LSU, Alabama, Marquette, Ohio State, Iowa State, Indiana, Michigan State, Texas.
Offensive and defensive balance wins championships
Defense wins championships is a popular coaching mantra. That saying is only partially correct. Successful NCAA Tournament teams typically strike a balance between strong defense and potent, efficient offense. A team significantly weaker in one area compared to the other is vulnerable to making an early exit.
Advanced metrics are useful in identifying balanced teams versus unbalanced teams. A large percentage of Final Four and Elite Eight teams from season to season will rank within the top 30 in both offensive and defensive efficiency heading into the NCAA Tournament. On the other hand, upset victims usually possess glaring deficiencies on at least one end of the court.
Top 30 teams in the field in both offensive and defensive efficiency: Gonzaga, Arizona, Kentucky, Baylor, Kansas, UCLA, Houston, Auburn, Villanova.
Consider trends among past underdogs and favorites
Conference realignment has shaken up the balance of power over the past two decades, elevating some leagues and weakening others in March. It can complicate properly evaluating teams from smaller leagues.
If you examine the results from recent NCAA Tournaments, however, you will find a remarkable degree of consistency from which leagues produce Final Four teams and national champions and which leagues produce upsets. Paying attention to these trends can give you an edge in correctly identifying potential Cinderellas and Final Four picks alike.
An ACC or Big East team has won nine of the last 12 NCAA Tournaments. The ACC, Big Ten, Big East, Big 12, and SEC have accounted for all but six Final Four teams dating back to 2012.
Teams seeded 13 through 15 have won 20 first-round games since 2011. Conference USA teams have accounted for 20 percent of those upset victories and MAC teams are next with 15 percent. Other one-bid leagues claiming at least two wins on those seed lines over the last 10 tournaments include the ASUN, the Big West and the Southland.
Upset victories on the 11- and 12-seed lines predominantly come from Pac-12 teams. Since 2011, the Pac-12 has accounted for 25 percent of all No. 12 over No. 5 upsets and 19 percent of all No. 11 over No. 6 upsets. Big Ten teams dominate among 10 seeds advancing out of the first round. The league has accounted for four of the last five No. 10 over No. 7 upsets.
Pick against Mountain West teams
The Mountain West is enjoying one of its most successful basketball seasons in the past decade. Four teams from the league earned bids this year. It may be tempting to pick one or two to ride into the Sweet 16. Resist that urge at all costs. Mountain West teams chronically perform below expectations relative to their seed line and produce early exits at a higher rate than any other multi-bid conference.
Since the league formed in 1999, only one Mountain West team with a double-digit seed has advanced past the first round. No. 11 Wyoming earned that distinction in 2002 after upsetting No. 6 Gonzaga. MWC squads are 2-23 (.080) when seeded ninth or lower since 1999. The conference is thoroughly mediocre on higher seed lines as well, going 20-28 (.417) since 1999 with a No. 8 seed or better.
– Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sports journalist based in Utah. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.