As soon as 16th-seeded UMBC walked off the floor with a 20-point victory over top-seeded Virginia last year, the hardest thing to do in sports — filling out a bracket sheet for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament — officially became mission impossible.
Before the Retrievers sentenced the Cavaliers to a lifetime of explaining how such a thing could happen, a No. 1 seed beating a No. 16 seed was the surest thing in sports. Prior to 2018, No. 1 seeds were 132-0 in the opening round of the tournament. Now they’re 135-1 and the rest of us no longer have a clue about how to fill out our brackets.
That won’t stop us, of course, so here are some time-tested bracket tips.
Be careful picking major upsets in the first round: One No. 1 and two No. 3 seeds lost their opening games last year, but that’s not the norm. So take a No. 16 at your peril. In addition, teams seeded 13 through 15 have only 30 first-round wins in the past 19 years. Major upsets happen, but usually when you least expect them. If you insist on picking an upset or two, look for a mid-major team with experienced guards, a potential NBA player or a unique style. A few to keep an eye on are No. 13 UC Irvine (Kansas State), No. 13 Northeastern (Kansas) and No. 15 Colgate (Tennessee). Irvine is a veteran, defense-first team and the other two rely heavily on the 3-point shot.
The No. 12 seeds own the No. 5s: The No. 12s went 0-4 last year, but the underdogs in the 5/12 matchup have won at least two games in 12 of the past 18 years. This year, No. 5s that look vulnerable are the University of Wisconsin (Oregon), Marquette (Murray State) and Auburn (New Mexico State). Also, the No. 11 seeds have become the new No. 12s, going 8-4 the past three years. St. Mary’s, which plays defending champion Villanova, looks particularly troublesome.
Upsets dominate the first weekend but things settle down after that: Last year’s early carnage left two 1s, two 2s, two 3s and three 4s on the sideline for the second weekend. Most years, only two or three double-digit seeds reach the Sweet 16. Last year, No. 11 seeds Loyola and Syracuse were the only ones to get that far. This year, No. 12 Oregon has won eight games in a row and No. 10 Florida could go on a run after escaping the tough SEC. Others that could break through are No. 11 St. Mary’s and No. 12s New Mexico State and Murray State.
At least one No. 2 seed won’t reach the second weekend: For 20 of the past 22 years, a No. 2 seed failed to reach the Sweet 16. Last year, North Carolina lost to Texas A&M and Cincinnati lost to Nevada in games matching No. 2s and No. 7s. This year’s 7s — Louisville, Nevada, Cincinnati and Wofford — all look capable of springing a second-round upset. The most wary 2 seed should be Tennessee, which could face an under-seeded Cincinnati team. Nevada, which returned five seniors from last year’s Sweet 16 team, has been in a slump but was a top-10 team for much of the year.
It’s not only who you play but where you play that matters: No. 4 or better seeds with potentially the best home-area atmosphere the first weekend are Duke at Columbia, South Carolina; Gonzaga at Salt Lake City; and Texas Tech at Tulsa, Oklahoma. The second weekend is where the real edge could be found. No. 1 Duke and No. 6 Maryland could get to Washington, D.C.; No. 2 Tennessee and No. 3 Purdue would have an easy drive to Louisville; No. 4 Kansas and No. 6 Iowa State could end up in Kansas City; and No. 1 Gonzaga would be very comfortable in Anaheim. As for the strength of the regions, the committee didn’t do No. 1 North Carolina any favors in the Midwest, with Kentucky, Houston, Kansas, Auburn and Iowa State the next five seeds. The top-heavy East looks like it was set up so No. 1 Duke and No. 2 Michigan State would meet in the final. And with mostly defense-first teams, the South looks tailor-made for No. 1 Virginia, which plays that style better than anyone.
Conference strength matters: Two teams from the same conference have reached the Final Four 13 times in 20 years. With three No. 1 seeds, the ACC is in a perfect position to continue that trend. Not only that, Duke, Virginia and North Carolina were considered the top three teams overall by the committee. Don’t discount the Big Ten, though: The nation’s deepest conference put eight teams in the field and has Michigan and Michigan State as 2 seeds and Purdue as a 3 seed. Amazingly, the Pac-12 and Big East don’t appear to have a Final Four-caliber team.
When picking the Final Four, remember the committee usually gets it right: OK, so no one saw No. 11 Loyola coming last year, but the rest of the Final Four was two No. 1 seeds and a No. 3. Of the 120 spots in the Final Four since 1989, only 13 were filled by teams worse than a No. 5 seed. It’s happening more frequently, though. In the past eight years, three No. 7s, a 9, a 10 and two 11s made it to the final weekend. As a rule of thumb, the seeds in the Final Four should add up to single digits or, at most, the low teens.
Don’t go fishing when looking for a champion: No. 1 seeds have won 10 of the past 14 titles, with one No. 2 and two No. 3s also bathing in confetti. Indeed, since 1998 only one team seeded lower than a No. 3 — No. 7 Connecticut in 2014 — has won the title. There have been two or more No. 1 seeds in the Final Four three times in the last four years. Not that it matters much after Villanova’s so-so season relegated it to a No. 6 seed, but there hasn’t been a repeat champion since Florida in 2006-07.
Narrow the field of potential champions by process of elimination: No team has won a national title after losing its first game in its conference tournament, which eliminates No. 3 seeds LSU, Texas Tech and Purdue. No 5 seed has won a national title, which eliminates UW, Marquette, Auburn, Mississippi State. The 2 seeds look stronger than usual, so the chances of the champion coming from the top two seeds lines are stronger than ever.
Talent usually prevails: Since 1994, 20 of the 24 champions have had at least four future NBA players. Among the teams in this field, Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina have the most NBA-bound players, though Gonzaga, Virginia, Michigan State, Michigan, Tennessee and Maryland also have caught the attention of NBA scouts. Lottery-bound players who could carry their team to a title are Duke’s Zion Williamson, Virginia’s DeAndre Hunter, North Carolina’s Coby White and Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver. Guards who could get their team on a roll are Michigan State’s Cassius Winston, Purdue’s Carsen Edwards and Marquette’s Markus Howard.
Efficiency counts for title contenders: In last year’s KenPom.com total efficiency ratings, Final Four participants Villanova (1), Michigan (7) and Kansas (9) were ranked in the top 10. Of the last 17 champions, only one — UConn in 2014 — came from outside the top 10. This year, the top 10 in total efficiency are, in order, Virgina, Gonzaga, Duke, Michigan State, Michigan, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas Tech and Purdue. Teams ranked in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency are Virginia, Duke, Michigan State and North Carolina.
Keeping all that in mind, my picks in the regional finals are Michigan State over Duke, Texas Tech over Florida State, Virginia over Cincinnati and North Carolina over Kentucky. In the national semifinals, it will be Michigan State over Texas Tech and Virginia over North Carolina. Two nights later, in one shining moment of poetic justice, Virginia will win the national championship.
No. 1 seeds have won 10 of the past 14 titles.