2021 NCAA College Basketball Preview: March Madness Brackets

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. With Selection Sunday slated for March 14, March Madness brackets and college basketball betting season is upon us!

The 2021 NCAA Men’s College Basketball tournament (now, with even more Indianapolis!) runs from Thursday, March 18 until Monday, April 5. Late that Monday evening, one team will cut down the nets in Lucas Oil Stadium as champion of this most unusual season. Based on the current NCAA tournament odds, this year’s winner will likely not be one of college basketball’s traditional blue-blooded programs.

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March Madness Brackets: 2021 Tournament Schedule

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021 tournament will take place entirely within the state of Indiana. While the Hoosier state has a rich basketball history, this move is driven by convenience. Not for the players, of course, but for the NCAA itself, which is headquartered in Indy.

Selection Sunday
 Sunday, March 14, 2021
6:00 p.m. Eastern
First Four
Thursday, March 18, 2021
4:00 p.m. Eastern
First Round
Friday, March 19 and Saturday, March 20, 2021
Noon Eastern starts each day
Second Round
Sunday, March 21 and Monday, March 22, 2021
Noon Eastern starts each day
Sweet 16
Saturday, March 27 and Sunday, March 28, 2021
2:00 p.m. Eastern Saturday and 1:00 p.m. Sunday
Elite Eight
Monday, March 29 and Tuesday, March 30, 2021
7:00 p.m. Eastern Monday and 6:00 p.m. Tuesday
Final Four
Saturday, April 3, 2021
5:00 p.m. Eastern
Championship Game
Monday, April 5, 2021
9:00 p.m. Eastern

The players will be locked away in their individual hotel rooms for the duration of the tournament. Their only respite will be practices and meals. For their sacrifice, I’m sure they will be paid handsomely. Meanwhile, the current plan is to allow fans into the games. At the claimed level of 25% of a venue’s capacity, this means the Final Four may have 17,500 supporters in the stadium.

Due to the strangeness of the 2020-21 college basketball season, the public generally knows less about teams than they have in the past. It will be hard to determine how shorter resumes will affect bracket odds. Does this mean March Madness brackets are ripe for busting?

This guide to all things March Madness brackets should help you dominate your pools, and maybe make some smart bets on the side. Read our comprehensive reviews of the best online sportsbooks for the best books to bet on (and hopefully) fatten your wallet.

March Madness Brackets: Large Versus Small Poolsbasketball underneath basketball net

Maybe you have a strategy you employ every year to fill out your NCAA March Madness brackets. Some people make choices based on their favorite mascot. Others throw darts and pick whichever team name gets hit. There are even those that even have their young children make selections for them.

However, the first thing you should do once brackets are live is to learn your pool’s rules and size. It is a winning strategy to play the odds by tailoring your picks to your specific pool.

Standard March Madness brackets award points on an escalating scale per round. For example:

First round correct picks earn 1 point.
Second round picks: 2 points.
Sweet Sixteen picks: 4 points.
Elite Eight picks: 8 points.
Final Four picks: 16 points.
Picking the right champion: 32 points.

Because they are only 32 first round games, picking the correct champion is the equivalent of getting every opening round game correct.

For that reason, your bracket is never ‘busted’ as long as your Final Four teams remain alive! Pay more attention to teams you have advancing far—even if your friends are celebrating an upset or two. So long as you had the team that was upset falling out of the tourney in the next round, you will be alright.

It is also critical to consider the size of your pool. The tactics for winning a tight-knit group pool are much different from those with a massive number of entries.

In both types of pools, the number of teams that you correctly advance each round are important. Winning a pool will almost always require picking the champion. And really, do we care about anything besides winning?

For larger pools, you should consider riding a Cinderella team all the way to the Final Four. In small groups, playing it safe with your Final Four squads is typically your best bet. Here’s why:

Historically, top seeds are much more likely to advance far into the tournament. Some facts covering the last ten tournaments:

The mean seeding of every Final Four team was 3.825.
The average seed of the eventual champion was 1.9!
No seed lower than an 11 has made the Final Four.
Eight out of ten tournaments were won by a 1 or 2 seed.
2011 UConn as a 3 seed and 2014 UConn as a 7 seed are the exceptions.

However, winning a bracket pool is all about variance. Imagine you select a favorite (and 1 seed) to win the whole thing—and you are lucky enough that your pick cuts down the nets, which is exactly what occurred in the last tournament with Virginia.

If you are in a pool with 20 people, maybe five or so will select your champion. Now consider a 500-person pool. With an equal percentage of your adversaries picking the same favorite, you are still competing against 125 other brackets!

Again, in both scenarios, you correctly picked the winner! What differentiates the rest of your selections and gives you the best odds to win? If there are only five other people in the same situation, you do not need to hit a home-run with all your other late-round picks.

For reference, the 2019 tournament featured a 2 and 3 seed in the last four, along with champion 1 seed Virginia. Having so many top seeds make it that far is common. Getting the champion and one other Final Four team correct will usually suffice for small pools. Take the teams with the best shot of getting that far!

But if instead you are fighting against a bunch of others in large March Madness brackets, winning will require a grand slam. You will need to vary from the pack mentality. The best way to do that is to correctly identify the team that will bust your competition’s brackets.

New Mexico State forward Johnny McCants (35) and Auburn forward Chuma Okeke (5) during first round men's basketball game

Auburn forward Chuma Okeke fights for the ball with New Mexico State forward Johnny McCants in 2019.

In 2019, this team was Auburn. As a five seed that advanced to the Final Four, if you swerved and had Auburn going far, your bet paid off handsomely. Not only did you get to collect the points for every win, but most of your opponents also failed to capitalize. This boost from choosing a lower-ranked team is what can separate you from the rest of the participants in larger pools. You need to go out on a limb to win in the end.

Bracketology: Top Seeds Versus KenPom

What is the best method to identify the strongest bets to go deep into the tournament? Get familiar with the analytics of March Madness ‘bracket-ology’ and college basketball odds.

Picking the Higher Seed

The simplest method to filling out a bracket is to just pick the higher seed in every matchup. The better teams are supposed to receive the higher seeds, right? Well, it turns out that exclusively choosing the top seeded team in every game will usually lead to a better than average bracket.

In every tournament since 2011, picking only higher seeds results in boosting your bracket into the top half of results. In fact, going with the no-thought selection process ends up beating an average bracket by a score greater than what you would receive for getting a Final Four pick correct.

However, this method is unlikely to win your pool. And winning matters! So, we need to build a better strategy while remembering that in the long run, the higher seeds pay off.

What About the Myth of the 12 Seeds?

Anyone who even pays attention to March Madness only in passing has heard that you need to pick at least one 12 seed to upset a 5 seed. Does the data support this tactic?

Since the NCAA expanded the tourney to 64 squads in 1985, only five years have not featured at least one 12 over 5 victory. According to the Washington Post’s wonderful searchable database:

The 5 seed won 64% of first round games against 12 seeds for the last 35 years. That seems low! But is it an outlier?
In the 4 versus 13 matchups, the higher seed won 79% of the time.
But the 6 against 11 line resulted in a victory for the favorite at the same rate as 5 – 12 battles: 64%.

So, 11 seeds pull the first round upset as often as 12 seeds, but with significantly more regularity than a 13 seed. Therefore, there is some support for the strength of the 12 seeds.

But as first round games are only worth one-eighth as much as correctly picking the winner of an Elite Eight matchup, be careful just tossing aside all the 5 seeds. They still win more often than not—at a nearly two-out-of-three clip. Remember, 5th-seeded Auburn made it all the way to Final Four last tournament.

I reckon Northern Iowa is the first team to end its season beating the same team 3 times.

— Ken Pomeroy (@kenpomeroy) March 6, 2021

Know KenPom’s College Basketball Rankings

Do not fear the analytics! You do not have to do any complicated calculations yourself. Instead, you can use the data built by some powerful algorithms to pull out little nuggets of wisdom.

The gold-standard of NCAA basketball analytics is Ken Pomeroy, or simply KenPom. Parsing his data can help you identify matchups ripe for upsets or teams primed for deep runs. The meteorologist develops a comprehensive ranking of hoops teams based on their “adjusted efficiency margin (AdjEM).” This thorough metric considers how good each team is on both offense and defense, then adjusts for their strength of schedule, pace of play, and even luck, amongst other factors.

One easy way to improve your March Madness brackets is to simply compare matchups based on his rankings. Using this method, you can typically identify outliers and use this information to your advantage. Consider a 5 – 12 matchup in the first round. You know you want to pick a 12 seed to upset a 5 based on their mystique—but which one?

Go through KenPom’s database and see if any of the matchups stand out. For example, a 12 seed will not have a higher AdjEM. However, you may find one 12 seed that is ranked far above the others. If that team is facing a particularly weak 5 seed, you may have just found your upset pick.

Another way to factor in KenPom’s metrics is for spotting the programs most likely to over-succeed their seeding. For example, let’s look at how his 2019 NCAA Tournament Probabilities worked out. Here’s a refresher — Virginia defeated Texas Tech in the championship that year, and Michigan State and Auburn joined them in the Final Four.

mac mcclung of texas tech during NCAA college basketball game against Iowa State

Mac McClung of Texas Tech during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Iowa State.

You will immediately see he had Virginia as his best bet, with a 21.4% chance of winning it all. Good start. But where you can really separate your bracket is by going down the list. He had Michigan State ranked as the best 2 seed (and ahead of 1 seed UNC). Texas Tech was the top ranked 3 seed, and notice Auburn all the way up at twelve, despite being a 5 seed.

Auburn, a 5 seed that made a run to the Final Four, won bracket pools for a lot of people in 2019. KenPom identified them as a better bet than not only all the other 5 or lower seeds, but also ahead of two 3 seeds and three 4 seeds!

Conversely, his metrics did not rank Kansas State highly, despite them earning a 4 seed. In fact, his metrics gave the Wildcats less of a chance to make a deep run than 7 seed Wofford. What happened? Kansas State was upset in the first round while Wofford won their first-round matchup before falling in a close game to Kentucky.

Identifying these opportunities only takes a minute or two, but can make a world of difference in your bracket’s success! There are other analytical models you can use to compare with KenPom, such as Sagarin or 538. It is also a good idea to check the point spread, as KenPom’s method does not take into account injury news.

Who Is Hot Heading into March Madness 2021?

Now that we have discussed some pointers for taking advantage of the best odds for March Madness brackets, we can learn about the current trends in college basketball.

Gonzaga and Baylor

jared butler ncaa college basketball baylor bears

Jared Butler of the Baylor Bears during a game against Texas.

From the basketball hotbeds of Spokane and Waco come this year’s top two teams. Both have locked up a 1 seed and have short odds to be the last team standing in Lucas Oil Stadium on April 5. Gonzaga is the favorite at +200 to win the whole thing, with Baylor right behind at +350.* The Zags remain undefeated and largely untested in the West Coast Conference. However, Baylor dropped its first game of the year on Saturday at Kansas.

The Big Ten

There is an outside shot that the midwestern conference could send 11 of its 14 squads to the dance this year, with two of them likely earning a 1 seed. Michigan (+350 to win the title) and Illinois (+700) have done enough to earn top seeds. Nine total teams appear to have locked down a bid, with Michigan State currently one of the last teams in the field. Meanwhile, both Minnesota and Indiana are firmly on the bubble.

The Big Ten tournament will be crucial for those three bubble squads trying get a much-needed boost to their tourney chances. For the top seeds, they will be seeking to end the conference’s twenty-year championship drought.

‘Football’ Schools

Along with Michigan (whether they remain a football school is debatable) earning a clear 1 seed, it appears their arch-rival, Ohio State (+1600), will slot into the 2 line. After flirting with becoming a top seed themselves, the Buckeyes have dropped four straight games.

Down South, Alabama (+1600) is firmly on the rise. The Crimson Tide will likely be a 2 seed, despite an embarrassing loss to Western Kentucky earlier in the year. Joining OSU and Bama in the dance is their perennial college football playoff opponent Clemson (+12500). Florida State (+1600), Texas (+2600), and Oklahoma (+5000) round out the football schools masquerading as basketball powers in 2021.

Who’s Struggling at the Start of March

Not every program or conference is doing that well, and the long title odds for some schools reflect this. On top of all the other weirdness of this season, it is the most hallowed programs who are hurting the most.

The Blue-Bloods

UNC, Duke, Kentucky, Michigan State, Indiana, and UCLA are all +5000 or more to win the tourney. In fact, some of these blue-bloods may miss the tournament altogether.

Mike Krzyzewsk duke head coach cuts net down 2015

Mike Krzyzewski, Duke head coach, cuts down the net after 68-63 victory over Wisconsin in NCAA championship game in 2015—But will they even make it to March Madness this year?

ESPN’s bracketology currently has Sparty as one of the last programs in, with the Blue Devils missing out altogether. Duke has not missed the NCAA tourney since 1995, so this is a storyline worth watching on Selection Sunday.

Kentucky and Indiana are also currently on the outside looking in. UCLA and UNC are 9 and 10 seeds, respectively. Even storied Kansas is currently a 22 to 1 longshot to win it all. Will the lack of big-name programs and coaches make for a more or a less interesting tourney?

The PAC-12

The largest conference on the west coast may only get three teams into the field: USC (+6000), UCLA (+10000), and Oregon (+5000). None of the three projects to be higher than a 6 seed. With its recent slump on the gridiron, Pac-12 fans do not appear to be finding any solace on the hardwood. The conference has an even longer title drought than the Big Ten, with no champion in the past 23 tournaments.

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March Madness’ Atmosphere

Finally, one of the shining moments of the NCAA tournament will be lacking. Without packed arenas rooting on Cinderella stories, this March will be different. Due to COVID restrictions, venues will be limited to an unsatisfying 25% of capacity. This sounds like just enough to not have a funeral-like atmosphere but definitely not enough to add juice to an upset-in-progress. Plus, the school’s won’t have bands to pump up the crowd, at least until the Elite Eight.

Building winning March Madness brackets will always take a lot of luck. However, knowing that a top seed usually wins it all is a good starting point. From there, you should use all the tools at your disposal to create an entry that gives you the best shot of winning. Whether it is for bragging rights or big money, here’s hoping you are the one cutting down the nets come April 5!

*All championship odds per Bovada as of 03/09/2021.