March Madness 2018: Non-traditional ideas to spice up your bracket pool

Henry Bushnell
March Madness 2018 is upon us. (Getty)
March Madness 2018 is upon us. (Getty)

March Madness is here. And that means your nightmares of failed brackets are about to come flooding back.

It’s OK. You can admit it. Your bracket, in all likelihood, stunk last year. You signed up for Yahoo Sports Tourney Pick’em, confidently placed Villanova or Duke in your Final Four, then watched your bracket bleed on the NCAA tournament’s first weekend.

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Oh, but you weren’t alone. Far from it. You were one of millions who invested time, emotional energy, and perhaps money in filling out what initially looked like the perfect bracket, only to have your dreams dashed days later.

So you were frustrated. And still are. Frustrated by the old routine of hope and dejection every year. Perhaps it’s time for something new.

You can, and should, still fill out your Tourney Pick’em bracket. It takes five minutes, and brings unparalleled excitement to your March Madness experience. But perhaps you want to spice up that experience on the side. Perhaps you want to enhance it. We’ve come up with some inventive suggestions that will allow you to do just that.

1. The fantasy draft

If you haven’t tried a March Madness draft, you’re missing out. Grab 3-5 friends – 4-6 people in total – and pick rosters of teams rather than games. Do it like a Yahoo Fantasy Football snake draft. Gather at somebody’s house or a bar on Sunday night. Find a creative way to determine draft order. Then take turns selecting the tournament’s 68 squad, with the draft order reversing in even-numbered rounds, until all 68 are off the board.

It’s crucial, though, to adopt a scoring system that incentivizes the selection of lower-seeded teams. That makes the draft twice as fun. For example, you could use the traditional system – one point per first-round win, two per second-round win, all the way to 32 for the champion – but then assign a multiplier to every seed (as Twitter user @KorverAintMe has done here). Or you could lay out round-by-round rewards by seed line, like Brandon Anderson has done here.

A simpler option is to legislate bonus points for upsets: Use a 1-2-3-4-5-6 scoring system, rather than 1-2-4-8-16-32, but add one point for an upset where the seed differential is 4-7; two if the seed differential is 8-11; three if the differential is 12-13; and end the whole dang competition and declare a champion if a 16-seed beats a 1.

Oh, and get creative. Give one extra point for a “road win” – a victory by a team at least two time zones away from its campus over an opponent playing in its “home” time zone.

At the end of the tournament, the highest cumulative roster point total wins. More importantly, the lowest cumulative point total is subject to a predetermined punishment.

And by the way, if you want to try this but think your pool is too big? Split it up into groups of 4-6 each. Each group holds its own, separate draft. So the same teams will be owned by multiple people in the pool, but in all likelihood, nobody will have identical rosters. Everything else stays the same, with the top cumulative point total in the pool taking the crown.

2. The auction

Even better, turn March Madness into a Yahoo Fantasy Baseball-style auction. Each participant – again, limit it to 4-6 – starts with an imaginary budget of $200. They then take turns nominating teams and bidding on them until all teams are off the board – or everybody is out of money.

Use the same scoring system as you would for the draft pool above. And enjoy the endless amounts of strategy, agonizing decisions and fast-paced fun. This is the best way to really make March mad.

3. The survivor pool

Familiar with NFL survivor pools? Co-opt the concept for the NCAA tournament. Everybody in the pool picks one team per window – so four total – on the first Thursday. Pick wrong, and you’re done – for the time being. Pick right, and you’re still alive.

The caveat is that each participant can only pick a given team once throughout the tournament. So while Virginia might be the most likely to win in its first-round time slot, you probably don’t want to waste your Cavaliers pick that early. The strategy is to find teams who are sure-fire victors in the current round, but likely losers one round later; and to save top seeds for the Sweet 16 onwards.

If you have a relatively small pool, make four picks each on Thursday and Friday until only one person is left standing. Award that person a point, then start over. Everyone is back in. But selections don’t reset. So if you successfully picked Duke in the first window on Thursday, but then missed on Kentucky in the late-afternoon slot, you can’t pick Duke again on Saturday.

Keep going all the way through the tournament: three teams per day in the second round, two per night – one per game window – in the Sweet 16, one per day in the Elite Eight, one in the Final Four, and one in the title game. If somebody has no possible picks left – if, say, Michigan State and Kansas reach the title game, but a participant picked both Sparty and the Jayhawks in earlier rounds – they’re out of luck. (Tweak detailed rules like this as you see fit.) Whoever has the most points at the end – whoever has been the last man/woman standing most often – wins.

If you have a bigger group, you can scrap the restarts and just go NFL-style. You could also cut down the number of picks being made, and/or give everybody one strike, so that their fun doesn’t end until they’ve missed two picks.

4. The round-by-round classic

The simplest, most boring alternative – but one that you might find more engaging than the traditional format – is to pick individual games rather than filling out a full bracket. Pick all 32 in the first round, awarding one point per correct choice. Then, regardless of first-round score, pick all 16 second-round games, awarding two points per correct choice. Award three per correct pick in the Sweet 16, four in the Elite Eight, and so on, so that games in the latter rounds are more consequential, but don’t ultimately determine the pool champion on their own. The person with the most total points wins.

Oh, and add multipliers or bonus points to incentivize upset-picking.

5. The Vegas special

Mesh your bracket pool with Vegas odds. Using a combination of round-by-round scoring and an elimination-style pool, pick games against the spread. (Hat-tip to Twitter user @KylePTAgent for this concept.)

This explanation is best given using an example. Say North Carolina is a No. 2 seed, and is favored by 17 points over 15-seed South Dakota State. In the same pod, 7th-seeded Texas A&M is a 3.5-point favorite over 10th-seeded USC. You pick A&M to win by four or more points, and South Dakota State to lose by less than 17 or win. If both A&M and Carolina win by 10 – thus making both your picks correct – you get two points for your correct picks. (Use the 1-2-3-4-5-6 scoring system.) You also move on to the next round.

Had Carolina won by more than 17, though, and had A&M won by three or less, you would not be allowed to make a pick in that second-round game. So in making correct picks against the spread, you’re doing two things: accumulating points, and moving through the bracket yourself, regardless of which team actually is.

Finally, if South Dakota State covers but Texas A&M doesn’t – if you get one of two picks correct in the pod – you may still pick that second-round game, but you must pick South Dakota State or Carolina. You’re required to pick the team advancing from the first-round game you won your bet on. (Pushes count as correct picks.)

6. The seed pool

Pretty simple: Everybody in the pool picks one team per seed line. Each person, therefore, ends up with one No. 1 seed, one No. 2 seed, and so on. But unlike the fantasy draft concept, all teams are available, regardless of which ones others in your pool choose.

And unlike other formats, the No. 1 seed is the least important pick, because scoring is also simple: Every win by your No. 1 seed is worth one point. Every win by your No. 2 seed is worth two points. Every win by your No. 6 seed is worth six points, and so on. Points correspond to seed. So if a No. 7 seed wins one game, it gets you more points than a title-winning 1-seed would.

Most points at the end of the tournament wins the pool.

7. The Top Gun pool

The only one of our seven alternative pools where participants don’t pick teams; they pick players.

The goal is to pick the ones who will score the most total points in the NCAA tournament. All 800-some players are eligible. Organize a snake draft – or auction, if you feel so inclined – and select rosters of 6-10. The person with the most combined points scored on his roster at the end of the tournament wins.


Have a better idea? Or have a suggestion to make one of ours better? Tweet it to @HenryBushnell, or email him at the address below, and perhaps we’ll add it to the list.

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Henry Bushnell covers soccer and college basketball for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.