NCAA tournament bracket 101: Tips on how to make your picks

March is here. And NCAA men's and women's tournament brackets have been announced.

That means whether you're a die-hard hoops head, a casual observer 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 all, 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 Tourney Pick ‘Em, 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.

[Free bracket contests for both tourneys | Printable Men's | Women's]

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 tournament starts with a field of 68 teams 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.

Jan 28, 2023; Lexington, Kentucky, USA; Kansas Jayhawks forward Jalen Wilson (10) looks to pass the ball during the second half against the Kentucky Wildcats at Rupp Arena at Central Bank Center. Mandatory Credit: Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

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

Pick upsets, but proceed with caution

Picking early upsets 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 Tourney Pick‘Em (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 is generally a bad idea

Only one No. 1 seed has lost to a No. 16 seed since men's tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. No. 16 seed UMBC beat No. 1 overall seed Virginia in 2018 in the biggest seeding upset in tournament history. So if you're picking a No. 1 seed to go down early, know that you're bucking history.

No. 2 seeds aren't quite as reliable, but picking against one in the first round is a highly risky proposition. Only 10 No. 2 seeds have ever lost to No. 15 seeds in the men's first round, with No. 15 St. Peter's stunning No. 2 seed Kentucky last year as the most recent example.

St. Peter's advanced all the way to the Elite Eight last season, 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. But make those selections at your own peril. St. Peter's was the lowest seed to ever win three games in NCAA men's tournament play.

South Carolina's Aliyah Boston (4) drives to the basket as UConn's Dorka Juhasz (14) defends in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, Feb. 5, 2023, in Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

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. Per the NCAA, those teams are 1-336 in NCAA tournament play.

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, 58 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 57 total first-round wins, including three in four games last year. No. 12 seeds have produced 53 first-round winners, No. 13 seeds 31 and No. 14 seeds 22.

According to the data, the men's tournament averages 12.4 upsets total per year, with an upset defined as a team beating an opponent seeded two spots or more higher. That's for the whole tournament, not just the first round. So if you're straying too far away from that number in either direction, you're going against history.

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, 31 women's No. 12 seeds have secured first-round upsets over No. 5 seeds, an average of more than one per year. Ten No. 13 seeds have posted wins since the field expanded. And remember, only one team seeded 14-16 has ever won.

The women's field averages 8.25 upsets per year, according to the NCAA. The most ever was 12, which has happened across multiple tournaments.

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. 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.