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How To Fill Out Your Men’s NCAA Tournament Bracket Like A Pro

This article is part of our March Madness series.

The opening act of the 2022-23 men’s college basketball season was characterized by the rise of unfamiliar top dogs, the preseason favorite falling flat and the game’s great innovators continuing to ride off into the sunset. But now we’ve finally reached the sport’s perennially entertaining, often perplexing, denouement. On Sunday night, the 68-team NCAA Tournament field was revealed, and millions of fans have already commenced the time-honored tradition of filling out their brackets — an exercise that promises to derail all return-to-office plans this week. 

That’s where we can help. With the usual disclaimers — no, we wouldn’t make these wagers in Warren Buffett’s tournament challenge, and no, we don’t have advanced analytics for those of you picking based on mascots and team colors — here are a number of superlatives to consider when filling out your bracket. And be sure to check out FiveThirtyEight’s interactive prediction model while you’re puzzling through all the different permutations that could make — or break — your bracket this March.  

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Best matchups to watch

For those of you who enjoy closely contested, exciting basketball, this is the category for you. (And depending on how this early slate of games pans out, the teams that advance are well-positioned to provide a thrill for fans — and a scare for the top dogs.) Taking the harmonic mean of both teams’ power ratings in each matchup, according to FiveThirtyEight’s model, here are the games to watch from the round of 64:

Keep an eye on Arkansas-Illinois

Best matchups in the round of 64 of the 2023 men’s NCAA Tournament, according to the harmonic mean of FiveThirtyEight’s team ratings

Region Seed Team Rtg Seed Team Rtg Harmonic Mean
West 8 Arkansas 85.1 9 Illinois 84.5 84.8
Midwest 8 Iowa 84.5 9 Auburn 84.9 84.7
South 6 Creighton 87.5 11 NC State 81.4 84.4
East 6 Kentucky 86.0 11 Providence 82.8 84.4
South 8 Maryland 84.5 9 W. Virginia 84.1 84.3
West 4 UConn 89.2 13 Iona 79.6 84.1
Midwest 7 Texas A&M 85.5 10 Penn State 82.7 84.1
West 5 Saint Mary’s 85.9 12 VCU 81.4 83.5
East 7 Michigan State 83.8 10 USC 83.1 83.4
East 8 Memphis 84.2 9 FAU 82.6 83.4

Thursday afternoon’s tilt between No. 8 Arkansas and No. 9 Illinois promises to be a doozy — if not a rock fight — between two programs looking to vanquish long Final Four droughts. The Razorbacks started the season with lots of promise — rising as high as No. 9 in the AP poll — but were beset by injuries midway through the season, including to highly touted freshman Nick Smith Jr. and athletic sophomore forward Trevon Brazile. Smith is back, but the Hogs have struggled as of late nonetheless, dropping four out of their last five games heading into the Big Dance. Illinois, meanwhile, saw a midseason departure and December swoon threaten its postseason chances, but managed to trudge through the Big Ten meat-grinder with a winning record. Each side is stingy defensively (Arkansas ranks 16th in KenPom’s defensive efficiency, Illinois 32nd) and challenged offensively (51st and 58th in offensive efficiency, respectively). Expect lots of turnovers and missed shots.

Moving further down the list, No. 6 Creighton and No. 11 NC State promises a contrast in styles and a juicy upset opportunity for one of the most exciting backcourts in the country, the Wolfpack’s tandem of Terquavion Smith and Jarkel Joiner. No. 5 St. Mary’s, an analytics darling all season long (and, naturally, a favorite of our model), was done no favors by the selection committee, as the Gaels will get a No. 12 VCU squad that ranks No. 17 in adjusted defense according to KenPom. And No. 4 Connecticut is in a similar boat, boasting the predictive metrics of a No. 2 seed but still receiving a first-round matchup with No. 13 Iona and Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino.

Looking just a little ahead past the Thursday-Friday slate of games, we can see some potentially blockbuster matchups bubbling up. Should the first round hold chalk in the West region, then No. 1 seed Kansas would face Arkansas in the toughest challenge to a No. 1 seed in the round of 32. And should Kansas survive those early-round tests, it could face off in a Sweet 16 matchup against UConn, the best game of the tournament to that point according to our combined team ratings. Meanwhile, if things go according to plan in the Midwest, No. 1 Houston will greet No. 2 Texas in the best matchup of the Big Dance to that point — and for the right to the sweetest home-court advantage in the event.

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Most likely first-round upsets

We’ll look at potential upsets starting with No. 10 seeds here, since No. 9 seeds have won nearly half of the 172 No. 8 vs. No. 9 first-round matchups in tournament history — so any 9-over-8 upsets wouldn’t be terribly shocking.

Even if we were including No. 9 seeds, it wouldn’t matter. According to our model, the likeliest first-round gate-crasher in this tournament is Utah State, which ranked among the nation’s top 20 of the NET, the NCAA’s in-house predictive metric, and in Ken Pomeroy’s metric, despite being seeded behind more than three dozen teams. On KenPom, the Aggies actually rank ahead of all four No. 7 seeds, all four No. 8 seeds, three out of four No. 9 seeds, two No. 4 seeds, three No. 5 seeds and one No. 3 seed.

Utah State leads the upset brigade in the first round

Highest chance of a first-round upset for teams seeded 10th or worse in the 2023 men’s NCAA Tournament, according to the FiveThirtyEight model

Region Seed Team Seed Team Upset%
South 10 Utah State 7 Missouri 64.1%
West 10 Boise State 7 Northwestern 58.8
Midwest 11 MSU/Pitt 6 Iowa State 42.3
Midwest 12 Drake 5 Miami (FL) 40.5
West 12 VCU 5 Saint Mary’s (CA) 40.3
Midwest 10 Penn State 7 Texas A&M 37.5
East 10 USC 7 Michigan State 36.4
East 11 Providence 6 Kentucky 33.5
South 12 Charleston 5 San Diego State 32.9
West 11 ASU/Nevada 6 TCU 32.1

Upsets are defined as a lower-seeded team defeating a higher seed.

Led by coach Ryan Odom (who, in 2018, guided the UMBC Retrievers to the first-ever No. 16 over No. 1 seed upset), the Aggies are no paper tiger. They are hyper-efficient on offense, featuring the No. 13 adjusted offensive efficiency according to KenPom, aided by elite (38.5 percent on 3-pointers) and frequent (42.1 percent of field-goal attempts) long-range marksmanship. Leading scorer and assist man Steven Ashworth embodies the Aggies’ machine, boasting the 20th-best individual offensive rating according to KenPom and shooting the lights out from 3-point range (43.9 percent on better than seven attempts per game).

And on the other side of the matchup, Missouri is arguably the most over-seeded team in the tournament, checking in at an average of No. 48 overall in its KenPom, Sagarin and NET rankings, which means the Tigers are seeded above five slots higher than a perfectly seeded bracket would suggest. That’s also true for some of our other likeliest first-round upsets: No. 7 Northwestern is about four seeds too high (No. 10 Boise State is a seed too low), while No. 5 Miami is four seeds too high. Maybe the only reason to doubt Utah State is its conference: If there’s one thing we’ve learned from March Madness over the past 20-plus years, it’s that you can’t trust the Mountain West Conference’s metrics in March.1

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Most vulnerable top seed

Behind one of the slowest tempos and fiercest defenses of any tournament-qualifying team, Houston has methodically passed nearly every test it’s faced over the past five months,administered by Memphis.

">2 trekking to a 31-win campaign in its final season as an AAC member. Under coach Kelvin Sampson, Houston is perhaps the most balanced team in the countryKenPom’s advanced metrics. ">3 and has held the top spot in the AP Poll each of the past three weeks. However, that consistency is under threat at the worst possible time.

In perhaps the biggest injury storyline of the tourney, Houston lost leading scorer and AAC Player of the Year Marcus Sasser to a strained groin in the semifinals of the AAC Tournament. Without the senior available in the championship game against Memphis, the Cougars’ offense, which ranks sixth in the nation in offensive rating and offensive rebounding rate, struggled to its sixth-worst performance of the season. 

With or without Sasser, Houston is expected to advance past its opening-round matchup against Northern Kentucky (97 percent win probability). But a second-round matchup against Iowa (No. 37, according to KenPom) or Auburn (No. 29, according to KenPom) looms in the round of 32, opponents who can score in droves and who have each toppled Quad 1 opponents this season. After Houston came within 6 points of a second consecutive Final Four last season, expectations are high, and the Cougars have done nothing but deliver. But a brutal injury to, in the words of Sampson, the conference’s “best two-way player,” could derail an exciting tournament run by Houston before it begins.  

Be careful about picking Xavier for a deep run

Lowest chance to make the Final Four among top-3 seeds in the 2023 men’s NCAA Tournament, according to the FiveThirtyEight model

Region Seed Team Final Four %
Midwest 3 Xavier 5.0%
East 3 Kansas State 5.4
South 3 Baylor 9.8
South 2 Arizona 14.9
East 2 Marquette 16.2
West 1 Kansas 20.3
West 2 UCLA 20.7
Midwest 2 Texas 21.0
West 3 Gonzaga 21.8
East 1 Purdue 26.4

Of course, our model knows about Sasser’s injury and still rates Houston as the co-most likely team to reach the Final Four. Other highly seeded teams don’t look as good in the model; in particular, Xavier, Kansas State and Baylor each have single-digit Final Four probabilities, worst among top-3 seeds. Xavier had a strong performance in the Big East Tournament, advancing to the championship game, but its defense ranks 70th per KenPom, and the Musketeers struggle to limit opponent production along the perimeter. Similarly, Baylor struggles on the defensive end, where it ranks No. 104 — a sharp contrast from recent lockdown defensive teams under coach Scott Drew, who had guided the Bears to finish no worse than No. 22 in each of the past three seasons

Conversely, Kansas State has a championship-level defense, but it lacks the offense to keep pace. The Wildcats have the third-highest offensive turnover rate of any tournament-qualifying team and have experienced some of the worst offensive outputs of the season in recent weeks. With a possible second-round matchup against sharp-shooting Providence, and especially against Marquette in a potential Sweet 16 showdown, that offensive inefficiency could be difficult to overcome.

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Friskiest double-digit seeds

Unlike last season, when the writing was on the wall for the historically lucky Providence Friars to eventually lose in the tourney, our model is high on the Big East founding member to achieve something unexpected: a deep tournament run. 

Providence has an 8.7 percent chance of reaching the Elite Eight, the best odds of any double-digit seed to advance to that stage — and an astonishing number, given that the Friars have lost three consecutive games entering the tournament

To get there, the Friars would need to topple No. 6 Kentucky (33 percent), and assuming everything comes up chalk, No. 3 Kansas State (50 percent) and No. 2 Marquette (42 percent). It won’t necessarily be easy, but it is doable.

Providence could go on a sneaky run

Highest chance to make the Elite Eight among teams seeded 10th or worse in the 2023 men’s NCAA Tournament, according to the FiveThirtyEight model

Region Seed Team Elite Eight %
East 11 Providence 8.7%
South 10 Utah State 7.9
West 10 Boise State 6.6
Midwest 10 Penn State 5.2
East 10 USC 4.8
Midwest 11 Mississippi State* 4.3
Midwest 12 Drake 3.3
South 11 NC State 3.0
West 12 VCU 2.7
South 12 Charleston 2.5

* Play-in team.

The Friars benefit from their best-ever offense under coach Ed Cooley, which consistently attacks the glass and earns a lot of free throw attempts, both of which are prized in tournament games. Providence mostly fell apart after it started the season off 6-0 in Big East play, but a roster that last season advanced to the Sweet 16 has the potential to go even further, according to our model. 

Joining the Friars near the top of the potential Cinderella list are our friends from the most likely first-round upset list — Utah State and Boise State — plus Penn State, who went to the Big Ten title game and even gave Purdue some late trouble there. All of those teams have at least a 5 percent chance to make it to the Elite Eight, making them intriguing picks if you want to take a chance on an under-the-radar team.

A stylized illustration of a basketball bracket

Check out our latest March Madness predictions. »

Footnotes

  1. Since 2000, no conference has undershot the expected performance of its seeds in the tourney more than the MWC, and it’s not even remotely close.

  2. With the exception of one administered by Memphis.

  3. It has the distinction of being the only team in the country with a top-15 offense and defense, according to KenPom’s advanced metrics.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Santul Nerkar was a copy editor at FiveThirtyEight.

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