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Five Tips for Filling Out Your NCAA Tournament Bracket

The first edition of SI's Morning Madness newsletter for 2021 is here.
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When March Madness was canceled in 2020, it also meant a year without one of America's favorite (and sometimes, most frustrating) seasonal competitions: bracket pools. Now that the tournament is back, we're kicking off the first Morning Madness newsletter with some advice. Here are five guiding principals for 2021:

1. Understand where the early upset value is

How often does a men’s NCAA tournament upset happen? Check out these historical first-round matchup breakdowns:

No. 10 vs No. 7 seed upsets: 39.3% of the time
No. 11 vs. No. 6 seed upsets: 37.1%
No. 12 vs. No. 5 seed upsets: 35.7%
No. 13 vs. No. 4 seed upsets: 20.7%
No. 14 vs. No. 3 seed upsets: 15.0%
No. 15 vs. No. 2 seed upsets: 5.7%

It’s pretty common to pick a No. 11 or No. 12 seed to win in the first round, but what if I told you that of the ones in those seeds that reach the second round, 42.2% have gone on to make the Sweet 16? There have been a combined 102 No. 11 or No. 12 seeds to win a first-round matchup; 43 have won a second game.

If you’re going to pick the first-round upset among those two seeds, understand there’s probably a higher chance than you realize of them doing it again. But there’s one caveat: when it comes to No. 12 seeds, the last mid-major to reach the Sweet 16 was back in 2011. 

2. Remember where the most points are

Correctly predicting an upset in the first or second round is certainly a thrilling feeling, but in traditional bracket pool scoring systems, any singular pick early on carries much less weight than getting picks in rounds like the Elite Eight, Final Four and national title game right. Having a clairvoyant first weekend is only going to win you your pool if your bracket doesn’t fall apart later on, so don’t spend too much time researching which No. 12 seed you think will reach the Sweet 16 and neglect the more important process of figuring out exactly which top seeds you trust to go deep—and especially to win the whole thing.

3. In the end, don't get too wild

It's true that in six of the last seven men's tournaments (2019 was the exception), at least one team seeded No. 7 or lower reached the Final Four. But in those seven tourneys, 11 of the 28 Final Four spots (39.3%) were occupied by No. 1 seeds, and 18 of the 28 (64.3%) came from the No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3 seed lines. Additionally, 10 of the last 14 champs were a No. 1 seed. At some point, the bulk of the madness tends to give way to order.

4. Consider COVID-19’s influence on this season

This has been a college basketball season like no other. There have been pauses (of both short and long durations), postponements, cancellations, makeups, individual players and coaches held out of games and more. Data crunched by Evan Miyakawa has shown a tangible negative effect on teams coming off of COVID-19 pauses, which means you should be careful in reading too much into certain past singular games (for example, when Michigan State came off a 20-day pause, it scored 37 points in a 30-point loss to Rutgers).

5. ... And make peace now with the fact that it could turn your bracket upside-down

Look, no one knows what’s going to unfold over the next few days, let alone weeks. That’s always true in March, but this season, it’s true on a new level. The NCAA will be taking unprecedented steps to try to pull off a safe and successful tournament, but it will not be easy, and it could very well involve forfeits. In the end, the health of players, coaches, stadium workers, referees and everyone else involved is infinitely more important than anyone’s bracket.

The men's NCAA tournament bracket is seen on a Marriott hotel in Indianapolis

ICYMI

SI's college hoops writers have filled out their men's brackets. Do you agree? 

Gonzaga appears to be in a good position to get out of the West Region. (By Jeremy Woo)

What to watch for in the Midwest Region: Surging Illinois, two disrespected seeds and, oh yeah, Cade Cunningham. (By Pat Forde)

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Baylor has wobbled a bit of late, but the Bears still look like the class of the South Region. (By Jason Jordan)

Is a Michigan team currently without Isaiah Livers vulnerable atop the East Region? (By Kevin Sweeney)

It was a rough Selection Sunday for Louisville, which earned the badge of biggest surprise snub. (By Pat Forde)

For you gamblers, the opening lines are out from oddsmakers. (By Frankie Taddeo)

Get ready for a big weekend with the full first-round TV schedule.

Best Thing We Saw

We really missed these moments a year ago.

Pick 'Em: West Region

SI's Molly Geary makes her picks for the initial slate of games in the West Region.

No. 1 Gonzaga over No. 16 Norfolk State/Appalachian State: March locks don't get bigger than this, folks.

No. 8 Oklahoma over No. 9 Missouri: These teams stumbled their way into this pairing, but I give the slight edge to Austin Reaves and the Sooners.

No. 12 UC Santa Barbara over No. 5 Creighton: It's hard to gauge which Creighton will show up, especially after the Big East championship debacle, and the Gauchos are no slouch.

No. 13 Ohio over No. 4 Virginia: This is a classic clash of styles (the Bobcats play fast and the Cavaliers, well, don't), but news that most of UVA is quarantining until Thursday gives me pause.

No. 6 USC over No. 11 Drake/Wichita State: Evan Mobley and the Trojans' interior defense is going to be a handful for whoever wins on Thursday.

No. 3 Kansas over No. 14 Eastern Washington: This is another COVID-19 situation to watch, but after getting a scare from UTEP recently, I think the Jayhawks will be focused enough even if they're short-handed.

No. 7 Oregon over No. 10 VCU: The Rams' patented havoc defense runs into a team that's sure-handed and not prone to getting its shots blocked.

No. 2 Iowa over No. 15 Grand Canyon: The Antelopes are a fun story and even have a very capable 7-footer (Asbjorn Midtgaard) to throw at Luka Garza, but the Hawkeyes' shooting will prove too much.

Crystal Ball

While ultimately it will be in a losing effort, 6' 1" Oral Roberts sophomore guard Max Abmas will drop at least 30 points on Ohio State on Friday afternoon in one of the first brilliant individual efforts of the tourney.

At the Buzzer

Before you go, here's a link to our printable men's NCAA tournament bracket (check back Monday night for the women's). Be sure to sign up to play Sports Illustrated's Bracket Game as well. And we'll leave you with this:

Twenty years ago, SI's 2001 March Madness preview issue included a story by Jack McCallum titled "The Spirit of ‘76." The story's tagline read: "A quarter century has passed since there has been a champion—the ’75–76 Indiana Hoosiers—tough enough to go undefeated."

Well, it's 2021, and we're still waiting for a men's team "tough enough." All eyes are on Gonzaga, the first men's team since 2014–15 Kentucky to reach the Big Dance with a perfect record, to see if Mark Few's team can do what no one's done in 45 years. (For what it's worth, I say yes.)