2024 March Madness Bracket Strategy

Mar 18, 2024
2024 March Madness Bracket Strategy

While achieving a perfect NCAA tournament bracket is a common aspiration, the unpredictability of March Madness, often characterized by Cinderella runs by lower-seeded teams, fuels the desire for bragging rights and winning your bracket pool.

I have written this column each of the past few years and it has led some encouraging results. Last year I recommended Uconn as one of the primary contenders and the year prior I identified both Gonzaga and Houston as potential champions who ultimately reached the Final Four. This year's exploration will delve into fundamental bracket strategies, analyze the statistical profile of past champions, and unveil advanced techniques for selecting a victor.

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March Madness Bracket Strategy

Everyone has their own strategies for taking down their March Madness pool. With the help of our friends over at PoolGenius and historical metrics, I break down who you should be picking in your March Madness pool.

March Madness Strategy: Pick All the 1-Seeds Over 16-Seeds

I know; Purdue just lost to FDU last year as a 1-seed. No. 1 seeds are 150-2 in the first round of the NCAA tournament—Virginia was the only other loss as a No. 1 seed (2018 against UMBC). I would ignore those outliers and pick all the No. 1 seeds to win their first game.

March Madness Strategy: Use Betting Spreads to Make Picks & Choose “Upsets”

Plain and simple, the betting market is much more efficient than bracket seeding. For example, in 2019, Wisconsin (5) vs. Oregon (12) was a No. 5 seed vs. a No. 12 matchup, but Wisconsin was only a one-point favorite. If we compare this to another No. 5 seed vs. No. 12 seed matchup between Auburn and New Mexico State, Auburn was a 7.5-point favorite. If you want to pick a No. 12 seed to win, you are much better off taking Oregon than New Mexico State. A normal person filling out a bracket sees two No. 12 vs. No. 5 matchups. Looking at the spread tells a different story, though, as Wisconsin and Oregon are essentially 50/50 to win. Oregon won by nearly 20 points while Auburn escaped with a narrow victory, but the point remains true. The same thought process should be applied to every game you pick, especially between No. 8 vs. No. 9, No. 7 vs. No. 10, and No. 6 vs. No. 11 seeded matchups where most bracket entries will likely choose randomly. Early betting lines are out now, and some similar lower-seeded teams are already the favorites.

March Madness Strategy: Understand your Bracket Pool

If your bracket is only with 10 people, you don’t have to pick too many crazy upsets or sleepers. Using websites like PoolGenius to help guide your selections can be a massive advantage just by using their selections. It really isn’t until your bracket pool becomes closer to 100 people that you have to start being more contrarian with your champion choices.

March Madness Strategy: Be Contrarian with PoolGenius

In addition to excellent metrics for every team, I love the “public pick percentage” available at PoolGenius. They do a great job of estimating how many brackets will pick how far each team will go. This is especially useful because it allows you to be contrarian. If only 5% of brackets are going to pick Purdue to win, but PoolGenius’ algorithm predicts Purdue has a 10% chance to win, there would be massive value on Purdue, especially in bigger pools, as I mentioned above. They also have an awesome "tournament predictor tool" that we are hosting and can help you make decisions!

March Madness Strategy: Choosing a Winner for your Bracket

Even if you pick nearly everything right in the first few rounds, you will still likely need to pick the winner in order to take home the money from your pool. Leveraging historical data from KenPom.com to analyze past winners can help guide us in what to look for. This isn’t an end-all-be-all but can help us identify the profile of which teams traditionally take home the hardware.

Before we dive in, below are the key metrics to understand:

  • Adjusted Efficiency Margin: How efficient a team is on offense and defense, adjusted for how good their opponents were.
  • Adjusted Offensive Efficiency: How efficient a team is on offense, adjusted for how good their opponents were.
  • Adjusted Defensive Efficiency: How efficient a team is on defense, adjusted for how good their opponents were.

March Madness Strategy: Balance is Key

18 of the past 21 winners ranked in the top six in adjusted efficiency margin heading into the tournament.

For all the notoriety of upsets and “madness” in the tournament, winners are almost always well-balanced teams heading into the tournament.

This year, the top-six teams in adjusted efficiency margin are:

  1. Connecticut
  2. Houston
  3. Purdue
  4. Auburn
  5. Iowa State
  6. Arizona

March Madness Strategy: Offense Wins Championships

20 of the past 21 winners have ranked inside the top 21 in adjusted offensive efficiency. This includes a smaller trend of six consecutive winners ranking in the top-6 in offensive efficiency heading into the tournament.

While Iowa State is 5th in adjusted efficiency margin, they are 55th in adjusted offensive efficiency. This tends to matter over a multi-game stretch. Since 2002 only five teams have made it to the final four with worse offense. No team has won the national championship with an offense worse than 57th and that was the 2014 UConn team with Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright where Napier dropped 19+ points in 5-of-6 tournament games.

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March Madness Strategy: Getting Defensive

20-of-21 teams to win the championship had a defense that went into the tournament ranked 37th or better in adjusted efficiency margin. 17-of-21 teams were top 30 defensively, and 13-of-21 were in the top 20 defensively.

The winner with the worst adjusted defensive efficiency to win was Baylor in 2021 (44th), while the average winner’s defense ranked 17.6, and the median was 13th. With that being said, there is a massive asterisk next to Baylor, who dealt with COVID issues for a chunk of their 2021 season. They had a ton of talent and were capable of playing amazing defense, but they had a stretch where key players played poorly. They were good to go by the tournament and played defense at a top-10 level.

All of the six teams listed in our initial list have top-44 defenses this year.

March Madness Strategy: Contenders

Given the statistical thresholds that we see teams succeed with, there are eight teams that I’ll be selecting to go far in brackets this year. This includes the initial list of 5 teams who are top-6 in efficiency margin, top-21 in adjusted offense, and top-37 in adjusted defensive efficiency. The last three teams meet both the offensive and defensive thresholds but aren’t top-6 in total efficiency margin. There are

  • Connecticut: The Reigning champs enter the tournament ranking 1st in adjusted offense and 11th in adjusted defense. They have only lost three games all season, all of which were on the road. They have been the most dominant team in the country and will likely be a popular bracket pick for good reason.
  • Houston: The Cougars rank 2nd in defense, 17th in offense and 2nd in overall adjusted efficiency margin. They play extremely slow at 348th in tempo and are coming off a horrendous loss to Iowa State in the conference tournament where they only scored 41 points. Despite that, they have multiple seniors, generally have a balanced offense, and elite defense along with strong guard play that leads to few turnovers.
  • Purdue: Purdue ranks 3rd in adjusted offensive efficiency, 21st in defensive efficiency, and 3rd in adjusted efficiency margin. Even with only losing four games all year, a recent loss to Wisconsin and last year’s first-round exit as a one-seed may leave Purdue as an underrated choice for brackets.
  • Auburn: Auburn is another well-balanced team ranking 10th in offense, 4th in defense, and 4th in overall adjusted efficiency margin. They ran through the SEC tournament, winning by nearly 20 in the championship game over Florida.
  • Arizona: Arizona is the last qualifying team in the initial list of top-6 teams in adjusted efficiency margin. They also rank 8th in offense and 12th in defense. They play at one of the fastest rates in the league but are coming off a bad loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament. Oumar Ballo, Caleb Love, Pelle Larsson and Keshad Johnson all bring senior leadership to the team as well, a good bonus.
  • Duke: Duke’s offense is elite, ranking 7th and their defense still meets the minimum threshold at 26th. They play slower, ranking 230th in tempo and are coming off two consecutive losses. They lost to NC State, who wound up winning the ACC tournament, so while back-to-back losses may look like a massive red flag, they are well-positioned to make a run in the tournament.
  • Creighton: Creighton is another well-balanced squad that lost in the first round of the conference tournaments. They lost narrowly to Providence but still rank 12th in offensive efficiency and 24th in defensive efficiency. Both Baylor Cheierman and Ryan Kalkbrenner play massive roles as seniors as well.
  • Marquette: The Golden Eagles are balanced but not elite at either offense (21st) or defense (19th). They were absolutely trounced by Connecticut for the third consecutive time this season and now post a combined scoring margin of -51 in three games.

Fringe Contenders:

These teams meet one threshold and are close to another. As I mentioned at the beginning, these metrics are just a guideline but over a 6-game sample usually lead us to similar results. If a team is just a few rankings off of a guideline, they should still be considered.

  • Texas Tech (23rd in O, 44th in D)
  • Gonzaga (9th in O, 47th in D)
  • BYU (11th in O, 48th in D)
  • Wisconsin (13th in O, 39th in D)
  • North Carolina (24th in O, 6th in D)
  • Colorado (25th in O, 43rd in D)

I would recommend picking one of the Contenders to win your bracket pool, and it will help it to make some bets as well! If you want all of my official bets, find out how you can access that for as low as $5!

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