2023 March Madness Strategy

by Michael Tomlin
2023 March Madness Strategy

My 2023 March Madness strategy has more to do with pool size and setup rather than X’s and O’s of matchups.

The thing about the 2023 March Madness strategy is that the majority of people are not watching college basketball much, if at all, until this week. Besides that fact, it is called ‘Madness’ for a reason. Crazy things happen.

So to use the 2023 March Madness strategy to try and win your pool, I am looking at statistical trends with both seeds and pool sizes. I will have completely different 2023 March Madness strategies for my different pools.

2023 March Madness Strategy

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Know Your Pool Rules

This is something that we stress about in Fantasy Football as well but is just as important in 2023 March Madness strategy.

There are different ways to score “points” in March Madness brackets. The most common way is that each winner successfully picked is given a certain point total for each round. For example, you may get a single point for each first-round winner, two points for each second-round winner, four points for the third round, and doubled onward.

The first variance can be how much the point totals increase with each round. Say it goes from a single point in the first round to a more escalated curve that gets to 80 points for the Final Four and 160 points for the champion. Whenever you have these sharp escalations, you want to be more chalk-heavy to make sure you don’t miss the round completely.

The widest variance comes from the seed-dependent “points” setup. This means that you get your round point total, but the seed of the selected winner is either added or multiplied with the round point total. I.e. you pick a 12-seeded team to win a single-point round, you get 13 or 12 points instead of just one point.

If you have a bracket pool with this setup along with just the doubling setup to where the champion pick only nets 32 points for the round, then you could arguably take every single lower seed from nine through thirteen in the first round.

We all know that there will be several upsets, and if you can catch a couple of 13- and 12-seeded teams you can really start with a bang in this scoring.

Know Your Bracket Size

I am in (some would say too many) quite a few March Madness bracket pools. The biggest factor in my strategy for filling them out after the setup is the size of the pool.

If the pool has less than 20 people or so, I can promise that a top seed will win in my bracket. If the pool has several hundred or even thousands of people, there might not be a number-one seed in my Final Four.

You need to use game theory with the size of your March Madness bracket pool. With only 20 people, the odds of anyone having a ridiculously strong and accurate bracket are slim to none. I have gone back and looked after the tournament to some of these pools and if you went completely chalk until the Final Four, you could win.

I know, that sounds boring. But are we not trying to win here? So, with smaller-sized pools, I am going to be much chalkier with my selections. Most years this will keep you in the hunt until the Final Four, and then you can hedge out if you’re not confident in your champion pick, since you will be +EV already.

In larger pools, you need to take some bigger swings at upsets. I have been in one pool for several years that has over a thousand people. It is a strong competition too. Most years the winner of that pool will have all four Final Four teams picked correctly.

In these pools, you have to try to hit home runs and not just singles.

Top Seeds

Do. Not. Get. Cute. The top two seeds in each region have only lost eight times total in the last 32 tournaments, 256 games. The top two seeds in each region reach the Sweet Sixteen 80% of the time.

For every bracket I fill out, I automatically put the number one and two seeds into the Sweet Sixteen. Period. It is too important to pick against a team that can win the whole tournament in the first two rounds. Having that strikethrough red line from Round Two until the Final Four is a quick trip to the bottom of the standings.

Since expanding to 64 teams 37 years ago, a top-two seed has won the championship 29 times, 79%. You cannot lose one of these teams in the first two rounds so do not try to be smarter than everyone else.
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Picking a Champion

Speaking of champions, since 1988 only two times has a team seeded lower than three won the title. Weirdly, a fourth seed has only won the title a single time and that was in 1997. Besides UConn’s 2017 crazy run as a seven seed, it has been a higher-seeded team to win the title. (That year they actually beat an eighth-seeded Kentucky in the National Championship, showing how much of an outlier that year was in general.)

In fact, outside of UConn’s two miracle runs, since 2006 the champion has been a one seed 12 out of 13 seasons. What I take from this data is that in smaller pools your champion should be a top seed. Even in larger pools, I would lean that way.

The 12 vs. 5 Pick

Unless this is your first time in a March Madness pool, you have heard that 12 seeds upset five seeds. This is true. The 12th-seeded teams have won about 30% of the time. By quick math, that shows that one should win each season. But which one?

Of the 12th-seeded teams to win in the first round, only about 25% won their next game. Put that next to the 50% of five seeds that win in the second round and you see the conundrum.

You can try to pick that upset correctly, but if you are wrong, you are giving up a 50% chance at a Sweet Sixteen team. Since 2013, only two number twelve seeds have reached the Sweet Sixteen.

I hate to beat a dead horse, but your 12/5 picks should be more adjusted for pool setup and size rather than matchup. In a small pool with uniform scoring, I am not picking any upsets in this matchup. If I am getting seeded-adjusted points in a larger pool then I probably will throw a couple of upsets in there.

The Toss-Up Matchups

As we already discussed in our 2023 March Madness strategy, we are sliding the top two seeds into the Sweet Sixteen. That means that the 8/9 and 7/10 matchups are only for a single round in our brackets.

The main thing to look at for these matchups is which team is favored. I say this repeatedly with football betting, but Las Vegas is not trying to predict how the game will end with the spread. It is trying to get equal action on both sides of the spread.

So, if Vegas has a lower-seeded team favored, I am taking that team in my brackets. Barney at the bar will look up and say, “The higher seed is an underdog? I am taking them!” That shows me that the lower-seeded team should probably be an even bigger favorite than they are.

I say all of that with a caveat: in seeded-adjusted scoring, I am taking the lower-seeded team in every single matchup. The seven and eight seeds have won 132 times and the nine and ten seeds have won 123 times since the tournament expanded.

These are true toss-up games, so take the lower seeds in that format to try and get the extra points.

Differentiating Close Games Deep in the Bracket

The last thing I will suggest with my 2023 March Madness strategy involves the closer games deeper in the tournament. When you are debating between a two and three seed to go to the Elite Eight or between a one and two seed to go to the Final Four and need a tie-breaker.

I usually fall back on defensive efficiency and guard play. Once you get into the Sweet Sixteen and further, these games are played in unfamiliar arenas or even football stadiums with tough shooting backdrops. Many times, the shots stop falling.

If shots are not falling, I want the team with the better defensive efficiency. I want the team that will get stops.

The other differentiating factor is guard play. Guards have long ruled the NCAA tournament where they can control the pace of play and zone defense is allowed on big men.

So, if I have a complete 50/50 matchup and both teams have a solid defense, I am siding with the team with the better guards.  Think something like Marquette being able to control the pace against Purdue.

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Final Four Pick

With all that said, my Final Four picks as of right now are Arizona, Texas, Kansas, and Marquette, with the Jayhawks cutting down the nets for a second straight season.

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