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Bracketology for Beginners: How to Win Your March Madness Bracket Pool

Olivia Hungerford
From exhilarating buzzer-beaters to inspiring underdog stories, there’s nothing quite like March Madness.

1 in 9.2 quintillion.

Those are the odds of a perfect March Madness bracket. If you casually follow college basketball, your odds improve to a whopping 120 billion to one

Despite these incredible odds, thousands of people fill out their brackets each year, hoping to win money and gain bragging rights among their friends. Even if you’re virtually guaranteed to get a pick wrong at some point, a little bit of basketball knowledge can go a long way.

If you’ve entered a bracket pool without knowing anything about college basketball, have no fear — I’ve already done the research for you. Here are my four biggest tips to pick a winning bracket.

1.Check KenPom.

Since 2002, analytics expert Ken Pomeroy has published and consistently updated his rankings of every college basketball team in the country, which has revolutionized college basketball’s analytics movement thanks to its tempo-based formula. Fortunately for you and me, this monumental body of work is available for free online at

There are a lot of intimidating numbers on the screen, most of which you can largely ignore. All you really need to pay attention to is who he has ranked highly, because KenPom’s algorithm is almost always correct about who will succeed in March. Since Pomeroy first began publishing his rankings, 50% of his top-ranked teams have won it all, with all but three of the 22 national champions since the founding of his website ranked in his top five.

KenPom also has a penchant for calling deep Cinderella runs. For example, in 2021, 11-seed UCLA was ranked 13th by KenPom, ahead of every three and four seed in the tournament. The Bruins repaid this bold ranking by going from the First Four to the Final Four, coming within a few seconds of a national championship appearance. KenPom also called UConn’s dominant 2023 tournament run, placing the Huskies atop the rankings despite their standing as a four-seed. If there’s an outlier in his top 20, it’s probably for good reason.

Whether you’re looking for a surefire championship pick or a sneaky upset, KenPom will have you covered.

2. Be wary of teams with too much tempo.

First of all, what exactly is “tempo,” and how is it quantified? 

Tempo is statistically defined by the number of possessions a team has per game. Faster teams will have the ball more often, and generally take more shots in transition than teams that play at an average pace. Up-tempo basketball also tends to be more aesthetically pleasing, as it generates lots of dunks, three-point attempts, and long scoring runs.

However, an up-tempo attack also offers a variety of ways for teams to get exposed. For starters, teams with slow offenses can slow the game’s overall tempo, especially if they’re making their shots. By reducing the number of possessions and transition opportunities, you can take a fast team out of their comfort zone, forcing them to run a half-court offense. 

Teams that excel at on-ball defensive pressure also tend to find success against up-tempo attacks, as they can both slow the game down and force turnovers in transition. San Diego State’s Sweet Sixteen upset over top-seeded Alabama last season was the perfect example — by pressuring Alabama’s guards and slowing down the pace, the Aztecs controlled the flow of the game and punched their ticket to the Elite Eight.

It’s tempting to pick fast teams because they play fun basketball, but if you’re going to pick an uptempo offense to go deep, you have to make sure they can succeed in other aspects of the game. For example, despite North Carolina’s 42nd-ranked pace of play, I like their chances in March because of their stellar rebounding and defensive efficiency. 

I’m especially wary of Arizona this season, as they’ve been upset in back-to-back years running the exact same up-tempo offense that they currently feature. While I think this Wildcats squad is capable of a Final Four run, they still feature the same risks that doomed them in previous tournaments. I would also steer clear of Alabama  — despite their blinding pace and top-ranked offense, the Crimson Tide can’t play a lick of defense. 

3. Make sure your picks have steady guards.

Picture this: you’re watching from the stands, and your team just fell behind against an inferior opponent. You haven’t scored in what feels like forever, you’re turning the ball over every other possession, and every single one of your players has a “deer-in-the-headlights” look on their faces. 

This is the scenario that confronted Purdue last season against 16th-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson. Unfortunately, the Boilermakers were starting true freshman guards — Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer — who appeared completely overwhelmed by the moment they were tasked with meeting. Over and over, they were unable to break FDU’s press, turning the ball over constantly and bricking the open looks they were given. With four seconds left, Smith airballed the potential game-tying three, giving Purdue the dubious honor of being the second one-seed in tournament history to lose in the first round.

Purdue’s shocking loss was perhaps the most brutal example of a fact that has been proven time and time again: to win in March, you need experienced guards. College basketball is a sport that relies on young adults to navigate some of the most pressure-packed situations imaginable, and point guards are responsible for almost every decision a team makes on offense. This means that experienced guards are at a premium, giving a huge advantage to teams with superstar ballhandlers.

However, unlike last season, most of the top seeds are blessed with excellent guard play. The absolute cream of the crop (in my opinion) is North Carolina’s RJ Davis, a 6’0” speedster who is legitimately unstoppable when he’s hot and unshakable late in games. Houston’s Jamal Shead and UConn’s Tristen Newton also stand out as two guards who can fill just about any role imaginable. Even Purdue has turned their guard play into a strength, with Braden Smith maturing into a genuine floor general that can take the pressure off Zach Edey when needed.

A few lower seeds also feature elite guards who are capable of carrying their team to an upset bid by themselves. Northwestern’s Boo Buie is particularly dangerous, and he powered the Wildcats to an overtime upset against Purdue with 31 points and 9 assists in December. Colorado’s KJ Simpson and Drake’s Tucker DeVries also stand out as dangerous scoring guards. If any of these three get hot during March, it could spell doom for a top seed.

However, there are still some top seeds with suspect guards. Auburn stands out as a prime example, as true freshman Aden Holloway has had a nightmarish season efficiency-wise. Arizona is another example — superstar point guard Caleb Love has been ice-cold recently, shooting a dreadful 20% from the field over the Wildcats’ past three games. Arizona struggled mightily without his usual scoring output, going 1-2 in these games. This makes both teams increasingly untrustworthy as the tournament progresses.

4. Pay attention to away records.

If there’s one thing that has become apparent over the course of the 2024 season, it’s the prevalence of home-court advantage. Simply put, “good” teams can’t win on the road. Top-10 teams have a lukewarm 65.1% winning percentage away from home, and multiple other preseason contenders have had it even worse. Now more than ever, it’s crucial to examine which teams can succeed away from their home environment.

Houston particularly stands out in this regard, with a 7-3 away record in Big 12 play. It should be noted that the Big 12 currently has five teams in the top 25, so the Cougars’ success away from home is infinitely more impressive in such a difficult conference. Tennessee has also impressed with eight road wins, three of which have come against ranked opponents. Purdue, St. Mary’s, and North Carolina also stand out as squads who have found success on the road, albeit in significantly easier conferences.

Away records are perhaps most useful for predicting upsets, as every March Madness game is played at a neutral site, calling into question the ability of certain teams to win in these environments. Kansas is a popular upset pick due to their paltry 3-6 road record, which includes ugly losses like a 29-point shellacking at unranked Texas Tech and an upset at the hands of Big 12 bottom-feeder UCF. Some other tournament teams with mediocre road records include Baylor, BYU, Nebraska, San Diego State, Auburn, Alabama, and Florida.

Contenders: These five teams have the talent, experience, and seeding necessary to bring home a national title on April 8.

Houston (1)

Watching Houston play defense feels unfair — almost as if they have an extra player on the court, or some sort of secret advantage in the rulebook. The Cougars are simply that good, leading the country in opposing points per game and adjusted defensive efficiency. Their defense centers around attacking ballhandlers — the Cougars are constantly looking for opportunities to press or double-team point guards, forcing a boatload of bad passes and turnovers. But Houston’s personnel is what makes their scheme truly special. Houston features five players that can each play excellent one-on-one defense, led by Big 12 Player of the Year Jamal Shead, a point guard who may be the single best defender in the country. However, the Cougars are certainly no slouch offensively. Although they play at a slower pace, they’re among the most efficient teams in the country, ranking 11th in points per 100 possessions. Their squad feels eerily similar to the 2019 national championship-winning Virginia Cavaliers, a team with a stifling defense, excellent guards, and an incredibly efficient (but slow) offense. Don’t be surprised if Houston replicates their success this March.

Tennessee (2)

Recently, Tennessee has garnered a reputation for playing incredibly ugly, defensively-focused basketball. While that mentality still remains, the 2024 Volunteers have one thing that sets them apart, and his name is Dalton Knecht. Simply put, the man is a walking bucket — an intimidating scoring presence that Tennessee has been missing for the past few seasons. If it wasn’t for Purdue’s Zach Edey, Knecht probably would have won National Player of the Year this season. Knecht is joined by point guard Zakai Ziegler, an experienced junior and lockdown defender who also serves as an elite distributor for the Volunteers. For the first time in a half-decade, the Volunteers have a squad offensively capable of breaking through and giving head coach Rick Barnes the first Final Four of his tenure in Knoxville.


North Carolina (1)

Going through the Tar Heels’ roster, it’s hard not to see a team with all the necessary ingredients for a deep tournament run. Rebounding? Check — there may not be a better glass cleaner than fifth-year center Armando Bacot. Defense? Check — transfer forward Harrison Ingram has made a seismic impact as a true lockdown defender, along with guards Seth Trimble and Elliot Cadeau. Quality wins? Check — the Heels have an 8-2 road record with a season sweep of Duke and wins against Tennessee and Oklahoma, all of whom were ranked in the top 10 at the time. But most importantly, when the Heels need a big shot late in a game, there is perhaps nobody more trustworthy than guard RJ Davis, a four-year starter with incredible scoring abilities and ice in his veins. 


UConn (1)

There hasn’t been a repeat national champion since the 2007 Florida Gators, but this year’s UConn squad is perhaps the biggest threat to this streak that we’ve ever seen. Despite losing three starters from last year’s dominant title run, the Huskies haven’t missed a beat, entering the tournament with a sterling 30-3 record and the second overall seed. This has been largely due to the maturation of point guard Tristen Newton, who has become a triple-double threat on any given night. Newton isn’t a one-man show, though — the Huskies have also gotten excellent offensive contributions from Cam Spencer and Alex Karaban, both of whom shoot over 40% from beyond the arc. UConn is also elite defensively thanks to the 7’2” Donovan Clingan, who averages 2.3 blocks per game. And to top it all off, head coach Dan Hurley is one of the best schematic minds in the country, making their offense extremely versatile and difficult to stop. The Huskies have a golden opportunity to go back-to-back in 2024.


Creighton (3)

Despite a relatively slow start to the season, Creighton is a squad oozing with talent and experience that’s hitting its stride at the right time. The Blue Jays put the entire country on notice on Feb. 20, blowing out top-ranked UConn 85-66 at home, and then followed that up by taking down 5th-ranked Marquette 89-75. Creighton also boasts perhaps the most terrifying trio in the country in Ryan Kalkbrenner, Baylor Scheierman, and Trey Alexander, each of whom average more than 17 points per game. Scheierman has been particularly deadly as of late, scoring 26 points and grabbing 16 boards against Marquette. With the firepower to go toe-to-toe with anyone and a penchant for meeting big moments, Creighton is more than capable of making a Final Four appearance. 


Potential Frauds: Whether it’s a bad road record, questionable guard play, or a lack of depth, these five teams simply can’t be trusted. 

Kansas (4)

Everything about this year’s iteration of the Jayhawks screams “early exit,” from their paltry road record to their lack of bench production. Kansas is nearly unbeatable at home, but unfortunately for them, March Madness isn’t played at Allen Fieldhouse. From losing at Big 12 basement-dwellers UCF in January to getting stomped by Houston last week, the Jayhawks have not shown an ability to consistently win on the road at any point this season. While they have two of the best players in the country in Kevin McCullar Jr. and Hunter Dickinson, they also don’t have a single bench player averaging more than five points per game. If one of the Jayhawks’ stars gets injured or fouls out, a quality opponent will easily be able to shut the door.


Alabama (4)

Alabama can flat-out score. They lead the country in offensive efficiency and they’re a threat to score 100 on any night. However, they also can’t stop anybody. While Alabama’s defense was already shaky, the wheels completely fell off after Kentucky hung 117 points on the Tide on Feb. 24. Since then, they’ve been outdueled by Tennessee and embarrassed by Florida, leaving them limping into the tournament. If we’re being honest, a high school team could probably drop at least 70 on Alabama. You can pencil the Crimson Tide in for a quick exit.


Arizona (2)

Purdue’s shocking first-round loss at the hands of Fairleigh Dickinson last year was the best thing that ever happened to Arizona, as it took national attention away from the Wildcats’ equally embarrassing upset loss to Princeton. Coming off the heels of their 2022 Sweet Sixteen loss at the hands of Houston, it begs the question: is Arizona too fast to win in March? Both of their losses came in a nearly identical fashion — the Wildcats ran into a defensively stout team with a slow tempo, stopped making threes, and hit a wall offensively. And while this year’s squad has some new pieces, such as 2023 PAC-12 Player of the Year Caleb Love, their play style is identical to the formula that got them bounced in years past. I can’t trust the Wildcats until they prove that their pace can win them games in the postseason.


Duke (4)

On paper, Duke might be the most talented team in the country. Their starting lineup is entirely comprised of former five-stars, including potential lottery picks Kyle Filipowski and Jared McCain. But on the court, there’s just something missing with the Blue Devils this season. They’ve squandered multiple opportunities to prove their championship mettle, with only one win against a top-10 opponent (a 78-70 victory against Baylor in December). Their two losses against arch-rivals North Carolina were extremely telling — when Carolina went on scoring runs, Duke struggled to respond, allowing the Tar Heels to dictate the tempo and control the game. If a similarly talented opponent gets a lead on the Blue Devils, one has to wonder whether they’ll be able to fight back.


Auburn (4)

Bruce Pearl has done a remarkable job with Auburn this season, turning a roster that lost multiple key contributors from last season into a top contender in the SEC. Despite this impressive coaching effort, there are multiple concerning signs that Auburn may be an early exit in the tournament this year. For starters, their guard play is extremely uninspiring, which is a recipe for disaster in March. Although shooting guard Chad Baker-Mazara has been a nice addition, the Tigers have had underwhelming seasons from Aden Holloway and K.D. Johnson, both of whom were expected to be key contributors. One of these two will have to step up in order to take the pressure off of star forward Johni Broome. Additionally, although the Tigers are borderline unbeatable at home, they’ve been lifeless on the road, with a 5-5 record that doesn’t include a win over a ranked opponent. Auburn’s season has been a nice story, but don’t expect them to have a fairytale ending.


Early Upsets: Here are five first-round matchups where I believe the underdog will come out on top.

Wisconsin (5) vs. James Madison (12)

In an absolutely loaded crop of 5 vs. 12 matchups, this game is the best of the bunch. Wisconsin has played themselves back into a high seed after a mid-season swoon, highlighted by big wins over Northwestern and Purdue in the Big Ten tournament. Unfortunately, the Badgers have to play James Madison, who boasts the longest winning streak in the country at 13 games. JMU is extremely well-rounded and features an elite inside-outside offensive attack that will pose plenty of problems for Wisconsin defensively. While I think this game could truly go either way, I’m picking the Dukes to pull off the upset.

Gonzaga (5) vs. McNeese (12)

This is a brutal draw for Gonzaga, who overcame doubts about their tournament prospects with massive road wins against Kentucky and Saint Mary’s down the stretch. Their reward is a matchup with McNeese, who ripped through the Southland and won 30 games thanks to the play of star guard Shahada Wells and the leadership of first-year head coach Will Wade (who has plenty of March experience). The Cowboys are also elite offensively, ranking top-10 nationally in field goal percentage and three-point percentage. Make no mistake — this is going to be an awesome game, but I have McNeese taking down Gonzaga and moving on to the second round. 


Washington State (7) vs. Drake (10)

Washington State defied the odds in 2024. After losing four members of last season’s starting lineup in the offseason, the Cougars have shocked the country, finishing second in the PAC-12 regular season standings and making their first appearance in March Madness since 2008. However, coach Kyle Smith’s squad hasn’t exactly entered the big dance on fire, with a 3-3 record to close the regular season and upset losses to Arizona State and Washington. It doesn’t help that the selection committee matched the Cougars up with Drake, a formidable squad that features a bona fide superstar in guard Tucker DeVries. I predict a comfortable win for the Missouri Valley champs.

South Carolina (6) vs. Oregon (11)

It’s been a storybook campaign for South Carolina, who went from being projected to finish last in the conference before the season to challenging for the SEC regular season title. But the dream ends here for the Gamecocks, who face off against a red-hot Oregon squad. The Ducks struggled with injuries during the regular season, but they stole a bid by winning the PAC-12 tournament with a fully healthy roster. This team is extremely dangerous and well-rounded at full strength, led by former five-star center N’Faly Dante and star shooting guard Jermaine Couisnard. Oregon’s X-factor in this matchup will be freshman point guard Jackson Shelstad — if the West Linn product has a big game, it could spell doom for South Carolina.


Kansas (4) vs. Samford (13)

Kansas (4) vs. Samford (13) - Just when everyone thought Kansas’ season couldn’t get any worse, the selection committee paired them up with Samford — a nightmare for the Jayhawks. Samford likes to go fast and shoot a lot of threes, and they’re seventh in the country in both field-goal percentage and three-point percentage. This translates to an offense that scores a blistering 86 points per game, which is good for fifth in the country. On paper, you couldn’t draw up a worse matchup for the Jayhawks, a squad that lacks depth and may not have stars Kevin McCullar Jr. and Hunter Dickinson at full strength. If Samford can turn this game into a track meet, it’s hard to imagine that Kansas will be able to keep up.

Here’s my March Madness bracket. (Brooks Coleman )

Fill out a bracket before the tournament starts on Wednesday with ESPN’s Tournament Challenge or March Madness Live.

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