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After 15+ years of publishing data-driven bracket advice, we have a simple mantra when it comes to picking the optimal March Madness bracket for your pool: “Every Year Is Different.” 

What we mean, specifically, is that every NCAA tournament bracket presents a unique set of dynamics that you need to understand and incorporate into your pick making. When it comes to maximizing your edge in a bracket pool year after year, it’s adapt or die.

In this post, we’ll first dig a bit deeper into why it’s so important to adapt your bracket pick strategy to each year’s dynamics — especially in 2021. Then, based on the analysis we’ve done on the 2021 bracket and all the teams in it, we’ll highlight three things every bracket picker needs to know to get an edge in bracket pools this year.


There Are No Golden Rules For Bracket Picking

Before you pencil any team names into that 2021 bracket of yours, you need to understand that the sharpest bracket pickers work like doctors treating a sick patient that walks in off the street.

First, the patient staggers in and presents with a combination of symptoms never seen before in your entire storied career of bracket picking. Examples may include:

  • Questionable decisions by the Selection Committee across the 3-5 seed lines.
  • Two of the tournament’s top four teams, based on power ratings, in the same region.
  • One No. 7 seed that has a better chance to win it all than most 4-6 seeds.
  • Several top contenders that were cruising until the very end of the regular season, then closed out the year with sub-par performances after injuries hit.
  • A nationwide pick popularity distribution where 37% of the public has the top seeded team as its champion.

Just as you’re starting to get a handle on what’s going on with this guy, a sinking feeling hits you — you can’t just prescribe the good old “Pick an undervalued champion” antibiotic you gave the last patient, because the only undervalued champion picks this year are too risky for the small pool he’s playing in!

So now what? You’ve only got a few days to prescribe the remedy that gives this patient the best chance to live!

OK, that analogy may be a bit macabre, but you get the point. There are no Golden Rules when it comes to maximizing your odds to win a bracket pool. Those popular adages like “Always pick a 12 seed over a 5 seed” aren’t only dangerous because they ignore the context of the current year’s bracket. They also reduce the strategy of picking a bracket to a series of lower-level decisions made in a vacuum, when it’s far more important to first figure out the most pivotal “bets” you’re going to make across your entire bracket, and go from there.

Context is critical, and in that regard, there’s one especially unique angle to the 2021 NCAA bracket. 


COVID Complicates Bracket Analysis In 2021, But Also Creates Opportunities

It’s an unfortunate situation, but you’re not going to maximize your edge in a 2021 bracket pool unless you understand the likely impacts and additional uncertainty brought about by COVID-19. A college basketball season played during a pandemic has meant that teams endured shortened schedules, frequent disruptions, and in many cases a midseason stoppage (or two) that halted practices and games for weeks.

The impacts have not been uniform, though. Some teams had to deal with multiple issues related to player availability and roster changes throughout the season. Other teams actually benefited when, by sheer chance, they got to play an otherwise very tough opponent that was rusty after coming off a COVID-forced season pause.

Heading into the tournament, some teams look like they have fully recovered from a blip in performance after a COVID-mandated pause. Others haven’t been quite the same since. That’s not an angle a bracket picker should ignore, since there is evidence that for some people, at least, getting COVID may have lingering effects on things like physical stamina.

In addition, because the NCAA Selection Committee seeds teams based on season resumé, there are almost certain to be value pick opportunities in the 2021 bracket if you are better than your opponents at understanding the effects of COVID on teams this year.  

As part of our research for making bracket picks, we study every game log for all 68 tournament teams, reviewing data like starting lineups and player usage trends. We focus a lot on “before vs. after” performance splits for events like key player injuries and lineup changes, and this year, we did similar analyses for COVID-related stoppages of play.


What You Need To Know About The 2021 Bracket

The insights we gleaned from that research informs adjustments we make to team power ratings for the 2021 tournament. Then, once this year’s bracket is announced and other important data like pick popularity trends become available, we can start to recommend the bracket picks that give our subscribers the best chance to win their pools.

Here are few important highlights of what our research has uncovered this year.

1.  Two No. 1 Seeds Have Been Negatively Impacted By Injuries and COVID

Last week, we talked bracket strategy with Adam on the ETR podcast, before the 2021 NCAA bracket was announced. At the time, we said that this year looked like an overall stronger group of projected No. 1 seeds, compared to recent tournament average. However, a couple things have happened with significant negative implications for two of them.

Michigan Loses Top Producer Livers

First, No. 1 Michigan lost forward Isaiah Livers to a stress fracture foot injury in the Big Ten quarterfinal. He’s almost certainly out for the tournament. The 6’7” Livers leads Michigan in made three pointers, and is their best wing defender and probably most versatile player. 

Michigan’s starting lineup is very good, but the team plays with a very limited bench. The two players most likely to have to pick up the slack for Livers have gone a combined 7-for-24 from behind the arc in very limited action during the season so far.

An injury to a key player right before the NCAA tournament creates increases uncertainty and risk. As recently as 2018, Virginia’s NBA-bound DeAndre Hunter got hurt right before the tournament. No. 1 Virginia, another top team without great depth, was promptly stunned by 16-seed UMBC in the first ever First Round upset of a 1-seed. In 2000, Kenyon Martin of Cincinnati broke his leg in the conference tournament; Cincinnati ended up with a No. 2 seed and was upset in the second round. 

We don’t know exactly how the Livers injury will impact Michigan, because Michigan has only played a bit more than one game without him. However, it’s not a stretch to say that, assuming Livers is out or severely hobbled, Michigan will have a tough time playing like the team that rolled through the Big Ten and earned a No. 1 NCAA seed as a result.

Our best judgment, looking at Livers’ role, production, and the impact of past similar situations, is to dock Michigan’s predictive rating by about 4.5 points. That would take Michigan from a top national title contender to a merely good team, bunched up with a lot of other good teams in the tier below 2021’s remaining top contenders.


Baylor Down Since COVID Issues In February 

A week ago, Baylor looked like a team that was perhaps starting to rebound to prior form, after playing two poor games upon its return from a three week stretch without games in February due to COVID. Then they put up two sub-par games in the Big 12 tournament, beating Kansas State in a close game then losing to Oklahoma State. 

That means Baylor’s four worst games have all come in their last seven games of the season, since returning from its second COVID impact in February. Adjusting for opponent quality, five of Baylor’s seven best games this season came before Christmas. None have come since late February. 

The defense has been the biggest culprit. Only two Baylor opponents scored at least 70 points in Baylor’s first 17 games, and one of those cases was a blowout win by Baylor over a small school. In contrast, five of Baylor’s last seven opponents have reached or exceeded 70 points scored.

Can Baylor play at its earlier-season performance level in the NCAA tournament? Maybe. But at this point, you have to make an educated gamble if you’re picking a bracket.

As a result, we have downgraded Baylor because of the risk that this recent performance dip continues as Baylor’s “new normal” for the immediate term. Baylor still ranks a very high 4th in our adjusted ratings for the 2021 tournament, but the gap between No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 1 Illinois has widened.


2.  The East Region is Wide Open

With downgraded Michigan as the No. 1 seed, the East Region was already going to be one of the most open to win in 2021. However, other factors are contributing to an increased chance for a dark horse team to emerge and claim the Final Four spot from the East.

The rest of the teams on the top four seed lines in the East are just okay, considering their seed level. Alabama is a solid No. 2 capable of a run, but also a team that depends heavily on the fickleness of three pointers. By power ratings, No. 3 Texas and No. 4 Florida State are a bit worse than you’d expect for their seed lines, particularly Texas. That’s not just us talking; Ken Pomeroy’s pre-tournament ratings rank Texas, a 3-seed, way down the list at No. 26.

Finally, the East region also has several teams in the middle seed levels that begin to look like potential sleeper picks after we adjust their predictive ratings upward based on past injuries and lineup changes. Some examples:

  • No. 7 Connecticut went 4-4 without its best player James Bouknight, but 11-3 with him, and the last six wins since his return have all come by double digits. The past losses without Bouknight are a big reason Connecticut doesn’t have a better seed. (However, we should note that we are monitoring point guard R.J. Cole’s concussion status and availability, as that could be a negative impact.)
  • No. 8 LSU came within a shot attempt at the buzzer of knocking off Alabama in the SEC title game. LSU is a young team with NBA-level talent and when the current lineup is fully available, the team has played much better than a typical 8-seed.
  • No. 6 BYU played well later in the season, and even better since making two starting lineup changes and shifting around some player minutes in early February.

That’s not to mention other East Region teams like Michigan State, St. Bonaventure and Georgetown, all of which stepped up their game later in the season. In fact, we gave every single East team seeded No. 5 through No. 12 (except for No. 11 UCLA in the First Four game) a boost after considering lineup, injury, and COVID factors that can mislead season-based power ratings. 

In short, the East is an extraordinarily deep region in 2021, with a weakened top seed and a below average No. 3. According to our round survival odds, which take into account both adjusted power ratings and betting market odds, no less than eight different teams in the East have at least a 7% chance of reaching the Final Four. 

It certainly wouldn’t surprise us if a high seed in this region lost early, or a lower seed made a run to the Final Four. Whether it makes sense to go with a dark horse pick to come out of the East in your bracket, though, still depends heavily on factors like your pool’s size, scoring system, and other contrarian gambits you may be making elsewhere in the bracket.


3.  The Middle of the Bracket is Strong in 2021

The East Region is the most extreme example, but across the bracket this year, the middle seeds are stronger than the recent historical average.

The table below shows how the No. 3 to No. 10 seeds this year compare to the average of the  five most recent NCAA tournaments. We list the projected title-winning odds for all four teams at each seed line, as well as the average predictive rating.


Seed Number Avg Title Odds 2021 Title Odds Difference Avg Rating 2021 Rating Difference
3 Seeds 8.4% 6.0% -2.4% 17.3 16.6 -0.7
4 Seeds 5.0% 5.2% +0.2% 15.6 16.5 +0.9
5 Seeds 4.3% 4.4% +0.1% 15.5 15.8 +0.3
6 Seeds 1.8% 3.0% +1.2% 14.1 15.6 +1.5
7 Seeds 1.3% 2.7% +1.4% 13.4 15.0 +1.6
8 Seeds 0.4% 2.5% +2.1% 11.5 15.1 +3.6
9 Seeds 0.3% 1.2% +0.9% 11.4 13.8 +2.4
10 Seeds 0.8% 0.6% -0.2% 12.1 12.7 +0.6

No. 8 seeds in 2021, for example, cumulatively have a 2.5% chance of winning the title this year. That’s still a long shot, but it’s
five times more likely to happen than the recent average. Loyola-Chicago, LSU, North Carolina and Oklahoma are a very strong group.

You can also see from the table that the No. 3 seeds are a little worse than the recent average, but other seed lines, particularly the No. 6 to No. 9 slots, are better.

The unique challenges of 2021 are probably contributing to this dynamic. The median “at-large bid quality” team has played 26 games, with some teams playing as few as 20 games. In a typical year, almost every team has played 32 to 34 games entering the NCAA tournament. 

A drop of 20% or more in games played leads to higher uncertainty. Some of the teams that are currently at the middle seed levels, but appear to have some hidden quality based on predictive factors and other hardships incurred this season, may well have been seeded higher by the Selection Committee had they played more games.

Further, there has just been more, well, craziness this season. COVID disruptions, player absences and lineup shifts, and long layoffs between games have made for some wild results. 

With fewer games played, outlier results can have a bigger impact on perceptions of a team. If a team has two games that clearly stick out as negative outliers, and those games happen to be the first games back after two different COVID pauses without any practices for weeks — well, the results of those games probably aren’t as meaningful for making tournament predictions. However, those two games could represent 5%-10% of the inputs into a season-based power ratings system this year.

In the end, after adjustments, we rate the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds in the 2021 tournament as only about 1.5 points better than the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds, on average. That’s certainly not the case in most years.

What does that mean for bracket pick strategy? A lot of things, and we’ve gone on long enough here. But we’ll leave you with one.

Instead of looking at the 3-4-5 seed lines for a contrarian Elite 8 or Final Four pick this year, you may be able to get great value with little to no added risk by dropping down even deeper, to the 6-7-8 seed level. (Especially if you think your opponents will focus mostly on 3-4-5 seeds as their own contrarian picks, and double especially if your pool has upset bonuses.)

Good luck with your brackets in 2021, and we hope you learned something you didn’t know when you started reading this article a few hours ago.


If you’d like to see our customized pick recommendations for your bracket pool(s), along with our analysis of all the top upset and contrarian picks in the 2021 NCAA bracket, please check out our premium product: NCAA Bracket Picks.


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