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Can we use DATA to make March a little less mad?

Generally, articles will be for subscribers only. However, we wanted to show bettors a preview of the of the type of analysis we will provide to give them an edge.

Best mascots. Familial connections. Coin flips. There are infinite ways to fill out a March Madness bracket, but absolutely no “right” way. Most don’t have the time to watch tape or learn the starters of sixty-four teams, not to mention each team’s strengths, weaknesses, styles and experience. To help you quickly get an edge on finding those Cinderellas, avoiding high-seed busts, and beating the coin flippers, we dove deep into the data to come up with guidelines for building a bracket.


March Madness is known for its upsets, but overall the higher ranked teams tend to predictably win. In the first round, one seeds have lost just one time since the tournament was expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Similarly, two seeds win 95% of the time. Three seeds win on average 7 out of 8 first round games. These basic data points tell bracket builders to steer clear of trying to land the huge upset for bragging rights and take the easy wins. On average, picking the top three seeds to advance to the second round will yield 11/12 correct picks.

Further, one seeds make the Sweet 16 85% of the time, while ten to twelve seeds make the Sweet 16 just 15% of the time. For perspective, that means only one double-digit seed on average will make the Sweet 16. Want to pick a few HUGE upsets? Go ahead, but buyer beware.


So far, we’ve discussed what not to do, but how do we find those Cinderellas? Upsets happen and picking them correctly often determines pool winners. This is especially true for larger pools where picking only the favorites is usually not enough to stand out and win.

There is one simple combination to not only look out for, but dig deeply to find. Teams that are slow paced and efficient defensively represent a massively disproportionate amount of Cinderellas.

Why is this? The answer is surprisingly straightforward. Smaller sample sizes leave a larger chance of the unexpected happening. If I flip a coin 3 times, it is much more likely to be all heads then if I flip the same coin 100 times. As more iterations are added, it is more likely that any outcome will move towards the mean.

Putting this in basketball terms, if a team plays at a slow pace and limits the number of possessions for each side, they limit the number of coin tosses. If they are good defensively, they can keep the overall score low, amplifying the low number of “coin tosses” and in turn raising the chances of a “random” outcome occurring.

Two schools that recently made surprisingly deep runs matched this profile to a tee. Remember Sister Jean’s Loyola of Chicago in 2018? The team was in the bottom 15% in tempo and had a top-twenty defense. Syracuse’s 11th seeded runs in 2016 & 2018? You betcha, bottom 10% in tempo and 5th & 18th in defense in the country.


The last key to crafting a strong bracket is avoiding early round upsets and putting your bracket in the strongest possible position moving into the tournament’s second weekend and, eventually, the Final Four. Identifying and avoiding potentially weaker teams that are likely to be ousted early requires some digging.

Of the twenty-one #1 and #2 seeds that have lost in the first weekend since 2011, 38% were from the ACC and 28% from the Big East. These two conferences lost at a rate 50% greater than all other conferences. Because the seeding committee is human and has human biases, they tend to overrank popular and hyped “Blue Blood” programs. These teams sometimes get ranked higher than they deserve because of their name and reputation.

To avoid picking #1 and #2 seeds that are placed too high in the rankings, examine their performance in and out of the conference. Every conference is going to finish exactly .500 within its’ conference schedule, so how did they perform outside of it?

Further, going back to our earlier focus on slower tempo, about 40% of these early ousted favorites were in the bottom 30th percentile in tempo. Just like playing slow can help an underdog overcome their inefficiencies, it can prevent a favorite from taking advantage of their strengths.


These guidelines will help give you a slight leg up, or maybe even two, over the mascot deciders and coin flippers. Yet, they call it March Madness for a reason, so may the odds be ever in your favor.


**** This article was written prior to the 2022 tournament. As noted, 11/12 of the top 3 seeds moved on to the 2nd round. Plus, everyone's favorite CInderella, St. Peters, was 25th in the nation on defense and in the bottom 30% in tempo, the main recipe for huge upsets.


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