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Score some tips from a bracket brainiac.

Photograph: L. Brian Stauffer
Sheldon Jacobson, professor of computer science

You trust your knowledge and follow your heart, and that’s why your March Madness brackets never quite take you all the way. Worst of all, says professor Sheldon Jacobson, a computer science professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, you fill out your brackets after you know who’s playing. Here's how to beat the odds.

Pick by seeds, not teams.
Jacobson says the teams matter, but the data matters more. Compile your bracket based on numbers (the seeds), not the actual teams, by picking which seed numbers might advance—e.g., You might have a No. 1 seed beat a No. 16 seed, a No. 2 beat a No. 15 (etc.), and continue filling out each of your four regional brackets that way, by seed only, all the way to the championship.

Shake up your seeds.
Don’t make all four regions the same; mix it up. When teams are seeded, decide which bracket picks you want to apply to which region. “You will do no worse than if you decided to do it any other way,” Jacobson says.

But Jacobson does have actual tips on how to choose one seed over another. To be conservative, carry eight 1 through 3 seeds to the Sweet Sixteen along with four 4 through 6 seeds, two 7 through 10 seeds, and two 11 through 16 seeds. To be risky and go for gold, decrease your underdogs or increase your favorites, both moves being against the odds.

Know the odds.
The most likely combination of Final Four seeds is 1, 1, 2, 3. As Jacobson writes on his site, BracketOdds, “Building a good bracket is challenging. It is difficult to imagine teams seeded No. 1, No. 2, or No. 3 losing early in the tournament, yet they do, with great regularity. The challenge is deciding which of these seeds will lose, and when exactly they will lose.”

The likelihood of zero No. 1 seeds in the Final Four is greater than three No. 1 seeds in the Final Four.

For more specifics, visit BracketOdds.