It’s finally here: March Madness, that glorious time of year when national productivity takes a nosedive as Americans shirk their responsibilities to watch a bevy of college basketball games instead of doing pretty much anything else.
And hey, even if it’s been a few years—or maybe more like 30 or 40—since you set foot on a college campus as a student, there’s nothing like pinning your Final Four hopes on a bunch of 19- and 20-year-old sharp shooters to make you feel that old school spirit again. Even if your alma mater didn’t make it to the Big Dance this year. Or was never actually in the running.
What feels even better? Winning your March Madness pool to capture bragging rights for the next year.
Of course, winning a March Madness pool isn’t easy. But you can greatly increase your odds of coming out on top with a smart pool strategy, says Ed Feng, a data scientist who runs The Power Rank, a website devoted to making accurate football and March Madness predictions based on data and algorithms. Feng, who holds a Ph.D. from Stanford, claims to have accurately predicted 71.2% of NCAA tournament winners since 2002, based on his pre-tournament data analysis.
Below, Feng, who is also the author of How to Win Your NCAA Tournament Pool, shares his best hacks for coming out ahead. Since the first set of games starts on Thursday, March 21 and you typically must complete your brackets before the first games tip off at noon eastern time, better get cracking.
1. Choose the right-sized pool
The best way to improve your odds of winning a March Madness pool? Skip those giant pools with hundreds of entrants.
“It’s hard to beat 100 people,” says Feng. “Even if you’re really good and better than a lot of other people at picking winners, your chance of winning a pool drops off exponentially the bigger it gets.”
Your best chance, he suggests, is a small pool of 10 people. If you pick all the favored teams in a pool of that size, Feng says your odds of winning are between 30% and 40%.
Of course, you might not be able to find a small pool—or your friend’s or co-worker’s pool might just keep attracting entrants. And what fun is it to beat nine other people? The bigger the pool, the greater the bragging rights.
The next best thing, then, is a medium-sized pool of between 20 and 30 entrants. “That’s the perfect size to start using some contrarian ideas to get ahead,” says Feng (see tip No. 5 for those contrarian ideas).
2. Let someone else do the work for you
You’ve been watching college hoops like a fiend all season, and while everyone else has only been oohing and aahing over Zion Williamson’s highlights every night on ESPN, you know that Tennessee’s Grant Williams is the real deal and how impressive Texas Tech’s defense is.
That’s nice and all, but guess what? It’s not necessary. Even if you haven’t seen a minute of college basketball this year, you still have a good shot at winning a bracket.
The reason? Analytics.
You don’t actually need to watch basketball games to figure out which team is most likely to win. You just need to find the people and websites that are already crunching the numbers to tell you which teams have the best odds of winning any given matchup. Because while human beings may be biased, numbers don’t lie.
“You should definitely use analytics,” says Feng. “There are a lot of people who spend time thinking about how to rank teams.” These people typically have websites that crunch all the pertinent numbers, including wins and losses, and factor in variables like strength of schedule, to determine how teams rank—far beyond what an individual fan of the game, however well informed, could assess.
3. Don’t bother focusing on upsets—the higher seed almost always wins
Skip researching which 5-seed vs. 12-seed games might boast an upset. The truth is, the 5 seed wins two-thirds of the time.
And it’s very difficult to predict why or when an upset might occur. What’s more, in most March Madness pools, you don’t earn many points for correctly guessing an upset, so why waste your time on it?
In fact, Feng writes that from 2002 to 2018, there have been 1,112 NCAA tournament games. In 1,057 of those games, the opponents facing each other had different seeds. And when that happens, 71.7% of the time, the higher-seeded team wins.
Sure, 16-seed University of Maryland Baltimore County made history last year by toppling 1-seed Virginia. But the probability of that occurring is exceedingly slim—and the chance you’ll guess it accurately is even slimmer.
Team seeding has become even more accurate over the years. Which means that choosing the favorite, or the higher-ranked team, is almost always the best bet.
But isn’t that the obvious answer? “It’s the intuitive strategy,” says Feng, “but it’s also one the common person doesn’t want to do.”
4. In fact, don’t sweat the early rounds at all
In most March Madness pools, early round games don’t matter much. Even if you choose the right winner, you’re typically only awarded one point for each one. Conversely, choosing the national champion correctly will typically net you 32 points. You’ll get 16 points for getting each team in the final game correct, eight points for each team in the Final Four, and so on.
“Don’t spend time on those first-round games—they’re so insignificant, they don’t matter at all,” says Feng.
Instead, Feng suggests that focusing on picking the top eight teams correctly—the ones that make it to the Elite 8—is what will pay off. And picking the right champion, he says, is the most important decision you will make.
5. Find the contrarian champ
If you’re in a small pool of 10 people or less, selecting the obvious and most likely champion is probably going to help you secure a win. That means that this year, overall No. 1 seed Duke, which features phenom and future NBA All-Star Zion Williamson, is probably the best bet.
But in those medium-sized March Madness pools? You’ll give yourself an edge if you go with the contrarian strategy, says Feng. That’s because most people are going to pick the most likely champion. If you can find a team that most people are overlooking but still has a good overall chance of winning, you’ll put yourself ahead.
This year, the most obvious pick to win the national championship is Duke. According to FiveThirtyEight’s model, Coach K’s Blue Devils have a 53% chance of making it to the Final Four, and a 19% chance of winning the whole thing.
But you know what that means? A lot of people are going to pick Duke in their brackets. (ESPN usually breaks down which team gets the most votes to win it all each year—pay attention to that.)
That’s why it might pay off to go with Gonzaga, the No. 1 seed in the West Regional and No. 4 overall. FiveThirtyEight says it has a 15% chance of winning it all, but a lot of college basketball snobs don’t think the Bulldogs have the goods because, while they boast a strong overall record, they play in a weak conference and don’t have a lot of top competition.
Or maybe you put your eggs in Virginia’s basket, which has a 17% chance of winning, according to FiveThirtyEight. After getting bounced in the first round last year despite being the overall No. 1 seed, many hoops fans don’t believe that Tony Bennett (yes, the other Tony Bennett) and his Cavaliers have what it takes to win. Bennett has never gotten past the Elite 8.
But the numbers say this year Virginia’s team—the No. 1 seed in the South and No. 2 overall—with just three losses all season, is pretty impressive.
One thing to keep in mind when choosing that contrarian champ: who else is participating in your bracket. If you’re a Virginia alum in a pool with a bunch of other UVA grads, chances are that many of them will pick Virginia—thus eliminating it as the contrarian champ. So be sure to consider who your competition is when completing your bracket.
And if your alma mater or other favorite team didn’t make it to the tournament this year? Don’t worry. That’s the perfect opportunity to jump on another school’s bandwagon—preferably one that will earn you March Madness bragging rights in the end.