NCAA Tournament Bracket 101: How to make your picks

March is here.

NCAA men's and women's tournament brackets have been announced. It's time to make your picks.

Whether you're a die-hard hoops head, a casual or someone who's never watched a college basketball game, there's a decent chance you've been invited to fill out a bracket. If you're in one of the latter camps and want to play, don't be discouraged.

Brackets are for everyone, and just because you're cramming doesn't mean that you don't have a chance. Armed with a few fundamentals, you too can compete with the person who's organized your bracket contest and watched college hoops since November.

If you're entering your brackets into Yahoo's bracket game, you'll have two free-to-play chances at $25,000 — one each for the men's and women's NCAA tournaments. Winner takes all in each bracket, so you're going to have to beat out a lot of competition. But the price (free) is right.

Randomly picking teams based on colors or mascot preference obviously isn't an optimal strategy. But if mascot madness makes you happy, by all means. Brackets should be fun. But if you want to go in with a strategy to take down your bracket contest, we've got a few tips to consider.

How the NCAA tournament and bracket scoring works

Understanding how the tournament and bracket scoring works is the first basic step to success. The NCAA tournaments start with fields of 68 teams that were announced Sunday evening. Eight of those teams in each tournament — the last four at-large selections and the lowest-seeded automatic bid winners — will play elimination play-ins called the First Four. For bracket purposes, you don't have to worry about picking those games.

Zach Edey and Purdue lost in the first round as a No. 1 seed in 2023. How will they fare as a No. 1 seed again this year? (Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Zach Edey and Purdue lost in the first round as a No. 1 seed in 2023. How will they fare as a No. 1 seed again this year? (Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Once the eight First Four teams are cut down to four, the true 64-team NCAA fields are set. You can fill out your brackets now, but if you think any of the First Four teams have a chance to make a deep run, it's best to hold off on that section of your bracket to make sure the teams you're picking actually advance to the field.

Tournament games start in Round 1, which is split up into 16 games each on Thursday and Friday for the men and Friday and Saturday for the women. Higher seeds will play their corresponding lower seeds in the four bracket regions — East, South, Midwest and West — which are split up into 16 teams. The No. 1 seed will play the No. 16 seed; the No. 2 seed will play the No. 15 seed — and so on until the No. 8 and No. 9 seeds face off.

[Click for men's printable bracket]

Pick upsets, but proceed with caution

Picking early upsets correctly is key to winning your bracket. Even more important is not losing a team that ends up making a deep run.

There are six rounds of NCAA play, and the stakes double with each round in Yahoo's tourney game (1, 2, 4, 8, 16 and 32 points). Picking first-round winners will earn you one point, while correctly picking the NCAA champion is worth 32 points — the equivalent of correctly picking each of the first-round games. Losing Final Four and championship game teams in the first round is a good way to knock yourself out of the running early.

How do you avoid making that mistake? Well, that's the fun — and the challenge of the bracket. But the first rule is making sure to pick your higher-seed upsets selectively and to know the history of early round upsets.

Picking high seeds to lose early isn't the best idea, but ...

Only two No. 1 seeds have lost to a No. 16 seed since the men's tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Both upsets have happened in the last six years. No. 16 seed UMBC beat No. 1 overall seed Virginia in 2018 in what then stood alone as biggest seeding upset in tournament history. Then Fairleigh Dickinson upended Zach Edey and Purdue last year to match it.

What used to be deemed impossible is now at least feasible in the modern iteration of college basketball with more parity. But it remains an overwhelming long shot.

No. 2 seeds aren't quite as reliable, but picking against one in the first round is a also a highly risky proposition. Only 11 No. 2 seeds have ever lost to No. 15 seeds in the men's first round, with Princeton stunning Arizona last season as the latest example. Princeton went on to beat Missouri in the second round to advance to the Sweet 16, where it lost to Creighton.

In 2022, St. Peter's beat No. 2 seed Kentucky, then advanced all the way to the Elite Eight, meaning that if you picked the Peacocks, you had a seven-point edge over most of the bracket field that picked them to lose in the first round. St. Peter's was the lowest seed to ever win three games in NCAA men's tournament play.

So there's real upside to picking these upsets if you believe a high seed is vulnerable. And higher seeds are more vulnerable than they've ever been before. Just know that this is the riskiest play you can make. It's the ultimate high-risk, high-reward play that in all likelihood will tank your bracket.

Caitlin Clark and Iowa advanced to the national title game as a No. 2 seed last season. Will they cut down the nets this year as a No. 1 seed? (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Caitlin Clark and Iowa advanced to the national title game as a No. 2 seed last season. Will they cut down the nets this year as a No. 1 seed? (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

High-seed upsets are even more rare on the women's side. No. 16 Harvard beat No. 1 seed Stanford in 1998. That remains the lone first-round upset of an NCAA women's No. 1 seed since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1994. In fact, it's the only time a team seeded 14-16 has ever recorded a win in the women's tournament. Per the NCAA, those teams are 1-348 in NCAA tournament play.

[Click for women's printable bracket]

Where to look for upsets

When looking for early upsets, common sense comes into play. Games with teams more closely seeded produce more upsets. The wider the gap, the rarer the upset. The NCAA generally does a good job of seeding teams properly.

Per the NCAA, 10-7 upsets are the most common, followed by 11-6, 12-5 and so on all the way to the elusive 16-1 upset. This doesn't consider 8-9 matchups, which are as close to pick'ems as it gets. Go with your gut in those games.

In total, 59 No. 10 seeds have recorded men's first-round upsets, which works out to a roughly 39% win rate. No. 11 seeds aren't far behind, with 58 total first-round wins. No. 12 seeds have produced 53 first-round winners, No. 13 seeds 32 and No. 14 seeds 22.

Upsets in 12-5 matchups are popular picks each year. Those who went heavy on 12 seeds in 2023 were met with disappointment as none advanced to the second round.

Looking deeper, No. 2 seeds lose in the second round to either a No. 7 or 10 seed 1.2 times per tournament. It's not a bad idea to have at least one No. 2 seed fall short of the Sweet 16.

If you want to look at early upsets in the women's bracket, starting with No. 12 seeds is the way to go. Since 1994, 33 women's No. 12 seeds have secured first-round upsets over No. 5 seeds, an average of more than one per year. Florida Gulf Coast beat Washington State and Toledo beat Iowa State to advance as No. 12 seeds last season. Ten out of 116 No. 13 seeds have posted wins since the field expanded. And remember, only one team seeded 14-16 has ever won.

Advanced analytics and betting lines are your friends

Finally — if you're torn — let the experts be your guide. Analytics guru Ken Pomeroy crunches the advanced data and spits out a ranking system called KenPom for the men's field. Think of it as a top 25 from the analytics set — and one that extends to the entire 363 NCAA Division-I field.

Then there's betting lines, where you can look to BetMGM for first-round point spreads and futures. Keep in mind that point spreads consider which way the public is leaning in addition to expert input.

But mostly, enjoy. Spend as much or as little time as you like with your bracket. Filling one out can be — and often is — a five-minute exercise. Have fun, and good luck.