NCAA Tournament Bracket Pool Cheat Sheet: Strategy To Help You Win March Madness

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Written By Brett Gibbons | Last Updated
march madness strategy

It’s the most wonderful time of the year: March Madness bracket pool season! If you’re still looking at a blank bracket – or just want to refine your picks – bookmark this guide. Below, we’ve outlined a strategy to get ahead in your March Madness pools using pick leverage, NCAA Tournament odds, and PoolGenius’ Bracket Predictor Tool. Let’s win that office pool and put you ahead in large, national contests!

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March Madness Bracket Strategy: A Numbers Game

Strategies for picking March Madness brackets can range from bizarrely ingenious to laughably simple. What team has more wins? What mascot would win in a fight? Where might you want to go more on a vacation? The bottom line is that winning March Madness bracket pools is a numbers game.

“Bet numbers, not teams” is common wisdom in the betting space. It also applies to contest pools like the NCAA Tournament and college football bowl season. Locating over-picked teams and using leverage will vault you ahead before you pick a single upset. Of course, victory takes quite a bit of luck. But approaching your pool from a numbers standpoint puts you in a competitive position.

First, let’s avoid those March Madness bracket busters. Get heavily-picked teams with worse odds to make a run out of your Final Four (or Elite Eight!) out of there. Second, pick your March Madness underdogs to ride into April.

Just breaking back into college hoops? Dust up on your college basketball knowledge with Eli Hershkovich.

OK, now let’s get into the weeds.

Most-Picked Final Four Teams

Pick rates are pulled from ESPN Tournament Challenge. Odds and pick rates as of March 20.

TeamPick%OddsWin Rate
North Carolina29%+33023.3%

It’s not surprising to see all four No. 1 seeds as the most popular Final Four picks. As we’ve seen year after year, picking chalk doesn’t get the job done. 2015 was the last time three No. 1 seeds made it to the national semifinals and 2008 was the only year all No. 1 seeds made it. Last year, not a single top seed made it through the carnage.

It takes stones to pick a team other than No. 1 overall seed UConn as your national champion. However, history says you should. The last time a tournament’s top overall seed won the title was Louisville back in 2013. A whopping 71% of brackets put UConn in the Final Four, but the Huskies’ odds to make it that far land at an even 50% (at +100 odds). That 21% leverage might be a risk worth taking.

Instead, a look at the No. 4 seed Auburn Tigers might prove to be fruitful. Haslametrics ranks Auburn fourth in the nation, as does KenPom. Should UConn lose along the way, finding another candidate in the East Region vaults you ahead of nearly three-fourths of national brackets.

In fact, all four top seeds have higher representation in the Final Four than each of their odds suggest.

Still spooked by Purdue’s first-round exit from last season? PoolGenius suggests another team from the Midwest Region might be one of the best bets of the entire tournament. But we’ll save that one for subscribers.

March Madness Strategy: First-Round Leverage Picks

It’s not all about who makes your Final Four. Depending on the scoring system, there’s at least 32 points to be had in Round 1 alone – potentially worth two Final Four teams (or more!). Don’t overlook the importance of your Round 1 selections. Here’s some teams that have a higher pick rate than their win rate suggests.

Under-Picked Upsets

TeamPick%Win RateOpponent
No. 11 New Mexico47%57.5%No. 6 Clemson
No. 8 Nebraska47%53.9%No. 9 Texas A&M
No. 8 Mississippi State39%50%No. 9 Michigan State
No. 11 Colorado State25%45.5%No. 7 Texas
No. 12 UAB21%31.3%No. 5 San Diego State
No. 13 Samford18%29.4%No. 4 Kansas

As access to betting odds grows, these leverage picks are becoming fewer and further between. But getting a 7% edge over bracket pools at-large? That’s still too good to pass up.

Though pick rates may shift after the play-in round, Colorado State remains the best leverage pick on the board. Only 25% of brackets advance the Rams despite a 45.5% implied win rate against Texas. No. 10 seeds also have a 38.8% win rate over No. 6 seeds since 1985. PoolGenius’ in-house model advances Colorado State in 45% of simulations and gives them a 52% win expectancy according to its power ratings.

Mississippi State, New Mexico, Samford, and UAB all have a 10% or greater discrepancy between their Round 1 pick rate and win rate. PoolGenius lines No. 11 New Mexico with the best chance to win its first-round matchup, lining them with a 54% win expectancy according to their power ratings and advancing them in 41% of simulations. UAB is the only other team PoolGenius advances at a higher rate then its pick rate (24% win rate vs. 21% pick rate).

Under-Picked Favorites

TeamPick%Win RateOpponent
No. 6 BYU74%84.6%No. 11 Duquesne
No. 6 Texas Tech54%69.2%No. 11 NC State
No. 9 TCU58%65.5%No. 8 Utah State

Sometimes, the public relies too much on first-round upsets. There’s three instances where picking the favorite gives you leverage because the favorite is under-picked in the national scheme. Texas Tech is the best example of that, likely due to recency bias toward ACC Champion NC State. PoolGenius is more in-line with the pick rate when it comes to this matchup, advancing the Red Raiders in 53% of simulations.

BYU and TCU also offer 10%+ leverage advantages in Round 1. No. 9 seeds have an all-time edge over No. 8 seeds, holding a 78-74 record (51.3%). Despite its No. 11 seed denotation, Duquesne is the lowest-rated No. 11 or No. 12 seed, according to KenPom. Conversely, KenPom ranks BYU as the best No. 6 seed, ranking them higher than three No. 5 seeds and a No. 3 and No. 4 seed. It’s best to look elsewhere for an 11-over-6 upset in Round 1.

Be Careful Advancing These Teams

Too many times we’ve found that one non-No. 1 seed to advance to the Elite Eight (or even Final Four!) that loses their first round matchup. By lunchtime Friday, you’re already thinking about scrapping your entire bracket. Here’s a quick glance at top seeds (1-5) that have the lowest Round 1 expected win rate (as of March 20):

TeamOddsWin RateOpponent
No. 5 Wisconsin-21568.2%No. 12 James Madison
No. 5 Saint Mary’s-23069.7%No. 12 No. 12 Grand Canyon
No. 5 San Diego State-27573.3%No. 12 UAB
No. 4 Kansas-28574%No. 13 Samford
No. 4 Alabama-45582%No. 13 Charleston

Right off the bat, Kansas is a team worth being cautious about. Star Hunter Dickinson will return to the court, but guard Kevin McCullar Jr. is out for the entire tournament. McCullar scored 18.3 points, grabbed 6 rebounds, and added 4.1 assists per game this season. The All-American is also a critical piece on defense. His absence led to a shortened price on Samford in Round 1.

In a twist, this might actually make Kansas a first-round value, but with a potential date with Gonzaga (or even McNeese) in Round 2, its probably good practice to ditch Kansas before your Final Four. ESPN Tournament Challenge entries are split, moving Kansas past Gonzaga in 50% of entires (and likely falling). PoolGenius advances Gonzaga in 56% of simulations and lines them with a 56% win expectancy, according to their power ratings.

60% of ESPN entries advanced Alabama over Saint Mary’s, as well.


Now that you’ve got an understanding of key strategies and interesting high-probability and contrarian picks for 2024, the hard part is figuring out exactly who to include in your Final Four.

Fortunately, our partners at PoolGenius are here to help those without the deep analytical skill (or time!) to figure out the game-by-game pick decisions that will maximize your edge. Their Bracket Predictor product generates ready-to-play picks for your March Madness pool, all customized for your pool’s size and rules. And best of all, the product’s recommendations automatically update for betting line movement multiple times per day.

Sign up for PoolGenius and give yourself the best edge to win your bracket pool.