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It’s March, and it’s time for madness.

On Sunday, the selection committee revealed the 68 teams vying to win this year’s national championship. That bracket unveiling also marked the beginning of one of the biggest gambling events of the year. A survey from the American Gaming Association estimated that Americans wagered $15.5 billion on the NCAA Tournament in 2023. Much of that is in the forms of gambling that are popular all year long (spreads, money lines, totals, etc.), but bracket pools are still wildly popular — and the most accessible way to get skin in the game on March Madness — as well.

Most people don’t spend that much time on their bracket, or they spend too much time on things that don’t improve their bottom line very much. Making a bracket is supposed to be fun, and approaching it exclusively from a game theory optimal perspective may not sound like fun to some of the population, but you know what’s fun? Winning. And if you take the time to put some thought into your bracket, you can significantly improve your chances of winning some money since there aren’t many games with as much soft money in the ecosystem. Today, we’ll dig into optimal bracket strategy to give you an edge over the competition.



When you fill out a March Madness bracket, the optimal strategy usually isn’t just to pick who you think will win every game. Otherwise, your bracket would basically be chalk (maybe a chalk bracket based on KenPom) because the better seed (or higher-rated KenPom team) usually has a >50% chance to win.

The goal is to beat everyone else in your pool. That might sound like the same thing as picking all of the winners, but it’s not. We’ll rewind to 2021 and use the Gonzaga Bulldogs as an example. That year, the Zags were the No. 1 overall seed and entered the NCAA Tournament undefeated. 34.4% of brackets picked them to cut down the nets in April. Coincidentally, KenPom also gave Gonzaga — whom he had rated as one of the best teams of the previous two decades — a 34.4% chance of winning the title. If we use KenPom as our source of truth for this exercise, which isn’t perfect but will do better than most free resources, there was no actual edge in picking the Zags to win it all. Their true probability of winning the title was roughly the same as the percentage of brackets that picked them. Even if the Bulldogs had beaten Baylor in the national championship game, any bracket that picked them still would have had to beat out one-third of the rest of their pool to actually win.

If your bracket pool is you and one of your friends, Gonzaga likely was the optimal choice in 2021 because your opponent probably didn’t pick them, and even if they did, it’s easy enough to give yourself an edge over one other person. But in a pool with thousands of entrants, there were likely better choices. Just like in DFS, it’s not as easy as simply playing the best plays; you also have to take ownership into account.

Payout structure is also an enormous factor here. The explanation above assumes you’re in a somewhat top-heavy pool where either the winner takes all or only a few spots get paid out. If your pool simply cuts the field in half at the end and everyone in the top half doubles their money, then picking one of the top seeds would be optimal almost regardless of ownership. But, in general, as your pool gets larger and payout structure gets top-heavier, the more contrarian you need to be.

Lastly, scoring settings are pretty critical as well. On ESPN, correctly picking the winner of a first-round matchup is worth 10 points. Picking the correct champion is worth 320 (plus all of the points that team accumulated from winning in previous rounds). Most years, it’s impossible to win a decent-sized pool on ESPN without correctly picking the champion and usually a few of the other Final Four teams. Just something to keep in mind when you are stressing over a random 7-10 game in the Round of 64 — unless your pool is truly massive, it’s much more important to focus on optimizing the later rounds.

Most pool-hosting sites make it pretty easy to see ownership. On Yahoo, there’s a public pick percentage tab that shows you not only champion ownership but also the public percentages for every team in every round. Other platforms have similar versions. ESPN did away with their “Who Picked Whom” tab this year, but they at least show the public bracket and the champion ownership. Checking ownership one last time on either Wednesday night or Thursday morning before brackets lock will give you the best sense of who the public is picking. From there, you can compare those percentages to sites like KenPom, TeamRankings, or sportsbook odds to figure out a team’s true chances of winning the natty and build your bracket out from there. It’s also important to personally reflect upon your pool’s demographics. I went to the University of Illinois, so some of my pools skew very Illini-heavy, especially in years like this one where they are a relatively good seed. I’ll root against my bracket when the Illini are playing, but picking Illinois to lose in the first couple of rounds could be optimal if half the field I’m competing against has them making the Final Four.



With that in mind, the next question is how contrarian you need to be. The answer depends primarily on your pool and who you picked as your champion. If you’re in a pool with tens of thousands of opponents and you picked UConn to win the title, you probably need to project some chaos elsewhere to have a chance to win. If you pick a team like BYU to win it all, you probably don’t need to get too crazy elsewhere because you won’t need to beat very many people to take home the grand prize if the Cougars somehow win it all. However, you probably do need to get contrarian somewhere to win a big pool. That means:

  • If you pick a chalk champion, you need to be contrarian elsewhere, whether that means picking a Cinderella Final Four team and/or making riskier picks in the early rounds.
  • If you pick a contrarian champion (or generally go high-risk in the final rounds), there’s no need to strive for perfection early on, and you can play it safe by mostly relying on the models and odds.

In small pools, a fairly chalky bracket (ideally using KenPom or sportsbook odds as chalk instead of just seed lines) should be close to optimal. If your pool only has ~10 people in it, it might be best to just pick UConn vs. Houston in the national championship game, even if it’s not the most exciting pick in the world. ETR did a podcast last year with TeamRankings’ Jason Lisk (and we have another great one this season), and he noted that he thinks the most common mistake people make is going overly contrarian in small pools. With the reputation of March Madness, many people feel inclined to force upsets, even if the numbers indicate it’s not correct to do so. In fact, there aren’t an outlier amount of upsets in the tournament — it’s just that there are 63 games and the less likely event is bound to happen in some of them.

Even that needs a caveat though, as some pools reward players for picking more upsets. If you get the same amount of points for correctly picking a Round of 64 game regardless of who wins, then you should probably pick a lot of the better seeds to advance. However, if you get bonus points for picking an upset (e.g., you get as many points as the seed of the team that wins), then you probably should consider picking some upsets. Your scoring settings and pool size impact which spots are high-leverage and how contrarian you need to be, respectively.



  • Tyler Kolek (Marquette) missed the Big East Tournament with an oblique injury. It seems like this was Marquette’s plan all along: let Kolek get fully healthy before the NCAA Tournament. Still, there’s always some uncertainty when a guy has missed time, so this is one to keep an eye on. Kolek is an All-American candidate and the Golden Eagles’ best player.
  • Hunter Dickinson and Kevin McCullar both missed Kansas’ Big 12 tournament game against Cincinnati — and the Jayhawks promptly got blown out. Dickinson will be back for the tournament, but Bill Self noted they don’t expect to see McCullar. That’s a major loss, and Kansas will now be without their leading scorer.
  • J’Wan Roberts (Houston) didn’t play in the second half of the Big 12 Tournament title game and is dealing with a minor knee injury. He should be able to go, but again, we aren’t really sure (college injury reporting isn’t the best), and Roberts is the interior anchor of the Cougars’ top-rated defense.



Finally, we’ll touch on some specific team recommendations based on pool size. This is inexact because we are using fairly large buckets (i.e., a 1,000-person pool shouldn’t be treated the same as a 10,000-person pool).

Small pool (<25 people): Purdue, UConn, and Houston (in no particular order) look like they are head and shoulders over the rest of the field this year. UConn is likely the best of the three but will also end up as the highest-owned team. There’s no need to stray from those three since ownership will likely get split between them. You are also probably fine going mostly chalk in the earlier rounds, as most people will force upsets in the spirit of March Madness chaos.

Medium (25-100): You are still probably fine playing it mostly safe, especially if your pool is closer to 25-50 rather than 75-100. Maybe you pick a couple of non-No. 1 seeds to make the Final Four.

Large (100+): Maybe you take a team like Marquette, who should be getting their star point guard back and rates well on both sides of the ball, to win the championship. Or maybe you pick Houston/Purdue as your champion, but pair that with Auburn (fourth on KenPom) as their opponent. You need to get contrarian somewhere in your pool, but you still don’t need to pick a No. 6 seed to win the title. Marquette, Creighton, Duke, and Auburn are good contrarian national championship picks based on their power rating and prowess on both sides of the ball. BYU, Michigan State, and New Mexico all look pretty underrated in terms of chances to make an Elite Eight or Sweet 16 run.

Very large (thousands of entrants): Here’s where it gets fun. If you’re in a pool with thousands of entrants, you can assume the public percentages pretty closely mimic the ownership in your pool. You can pick a team like Purdue or Iowa State that likely comes in under-owned, but you’re still competing with dozens if not hundreds of competitors if they win. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong to pick them — it just means you still need to separate yourself elsewhere. You could also pick an Auburn or BYU to win the title, knowing that you win (or finish near the top) if they win, regardless of what happens elsewhere. As always, it comes down to ownership vs. estimated probability of winning.


P.S. Our friends at PoolGenius run millions of bracket pool simulations to identify the top-EV brackets for all different flavors of pool types. To unleash the algos on your specific pool characteristics, check out their NCAA Bracket Picks product, and take advantage of a 40% March Madness discount for the ETR community.