Building a March Madness bracket

An NCAA basketball bracket expert does the math.

Sheldon Jacobson, professor of computer science

You follow NCAA basketball all season, trust your knowledge of the teams and follow your gut. And that’s why your March Madness brackets never quite take you all the way, says Sheldon Jacobson. The computer science professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign oversees a student project called BracketOdds, which applies an analytical model based on historical results to determine the probability that certain combinations of seeds will advance in the men’s college b-ball tourney. The worst thing you can do, Jacobson says, is fill out the brackets when you know who’s playing. Here’s the prof’s tips on beating the odds as the tourney begins Tuesday 19.

Pick by seeds, not emotions As in Moneyball, the teams matter but the data matters more, Jacobson says. It’s worth remembering the obvious truth: Better-seeded teams tend to do better in the tournament. So compile your bracket based on the 1–16 rankings, not on which squad has a flashy, high-scoring guard you love to watch. Filling out the bracket, you might have a No. 1 seed beating a No. 16 seed, a No. 2 besting a No. 15—and so on for all four regional brackets (East, West, Midwest, South) all the way to the championship.

Shake up your seeds Don’t pick the same seeds for all four regions; mix up the numbers. The prof does have a bit of a strategy for choosing one seed over another. To be conservative, carry eight 1, 2 and 3 seeds to the Sweet Sixteen along with four 4, 5 and 6 seeds. Tack on two 7, 8, 9 and 10 seeds as well as two seeds ranked 11–16. “You will do no worse than if you decided to do it any other way,” Jacobson assures. If you’re feeling risky (or you want to humanize your bracket), decrease your underdogs or increase your favorites—but keep in mind: Both moves are against the odds.

Know the odds Jacobson and his students have done the math and determined that the most likely combination of Final Four seeds is 1, 1, 2, 3. “Building a good bracket is challenging,” he writes on the BracketOdds site. “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.

Calculate the probability of your March Madness bracket at BracketOdds.