Skip Navigation

Produced by the Office of Marketing and Communications

Subscribe Now

A Method to the March Madness

Professor Gives Advice on How to Avoid a Busted Bracket

By Carrie Handwerker

Basketball hoop

Photo by iStock

With March Madness starting next week, Sean Barnes Ph.D. ’12, an assistant professor of operations management, broke down his bracket advice.

Break out the brackets and dive into the office pool: March Madness is back.

And while workplaces nationwide will famously see buzzer beaters and “boss buttons” take priority over meetings and deadlines when the first round kicks off next Thursday, it’s also an annual opportunity for some good-natured competition. Does your number-crunching colleague promise to predict the winner based on stats? Does your superfan friend flame out with too much faith in their home team? Does someone hit on the next Cinderella by choosing winners based on the most adorable mascots?

Sean Barnes Ph.D. ’12, an assistant professor of operations management in the Robert H. Smith School of Business, has suggestions for everyone looking to become the new master of March and take home an office pool victory.

Take note of the size of your pool. Is it small, containing only a few participants, or large? The larger the pool, the more you may need to differentiate your bracket by making some potentially unique selections. This differentiation could be achieved by picking some upsets early on, or by choosing a dark horse to take down a higher ranked team later in the tournament.

Do your homework. Do at least a little bit of research, whether reading a prediction article from a source such as FiveThirtyEight, or watching some games in the conference tournaments. This minimal effort may be enough to differentiate your preparation beyond what most of your competitors are willing to do. You’d be surprised how much of a better bracket you can build if you have a few good tips on teams expected to go deep in the tournament or pull off an early upset, or if you’ve actually seen the teams play.

Consider the stats. It’s worth digging into the historical data to gain an understanding of how to build your bracket. Read articles that contain statistics about the proportion of games in which each seed (1–16) advanced past each respective round in the tournament. These summaries provide a good frame of reference for how you should structure your bracket. For example, until last year, when the University of Maryland, Baltimore County defeated the University of Virginia, No. 1 seeds were undefeated against No. 16 seeds in the first round, so it’s a good move to pick the No. 1 seeds to advance to the second round. Nos. 2, 3 and 4 seeds are also highly likely to advance past the first round (at least 80% chance or higher), so it’s also not your best bet to go beyond one well-researched upset of a No. 3 or No. 4 seed (if at all). On the contrary, No. 10, No. 11 and No. 12 seeds have won 35–40 percent of their first-round games, which are prime candidates for an upset selection. During the tail end of the tournament, stick with the higher seeds. The top four seeds all have at least double-digit Final Four appearances, and the top three have participated in at least 10 championship games.

Find your Cinderella story. Consider the characteristics of a Cinderella team when choosing those lower-seed teams to advance. Choose a team in the top 50 in point scoring, ideally one with one or more top offensive players and consistently good three-point shooters. Look for a team with a positive turnover advantage, meaning it often gains more possessions per game than its opponents. And look for teams with consistent tournament appearances in recent years, because the players who have been to the Big Dance before are less likely to make mistakes in key moments.

Hedge your risky picks. For example, if you take a chance on an early-round upset, try not to push that team too deep in the tournament. That way, if you make the wrong pick, that mistake won’t propagate for several rounds. Set up those Cinderella teams to lose to a top seed (1–4) at some point down the road. If you get it right, you’ll cash in on the benefits regardless of whether you picked exactly how long that team would last.

Watch the games! Whether or not you’ve wagered money on your pool, having something at stake makes the games more exciting to watch because you have a preferred outcome for many of the games (until your picks get eliminated). The best part about the NCAA tournament is the variability in the outcomes due to the single-game elimination format, which is also why Warren Buffett has been willing to bet $1M a year for life that you won’t get it right.

Barnes usually fills out a bracket himself, but says he doesn’t always have time to do the research it takes to win. If you can’t invest the time for research, he says, watching the teams play leading up to the NCAA tournament offers some of the most valuable information. “When you can see teams in action, you get a better sense of where their strengths are and who might be underrated,” he says.

If you opt in to your office pool, any effort you make to research your picks is better than nothing. “If you’re just blindly picking, you don’t have a much of a chance,” he says.



Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Marketing and Communications for the University of Maryland community on weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.