Is there a science to bracketology?

A basketball player in a white jersey scoring a goal.
The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets take on the Oklahoma State Cowboys in the 2004 NCAA Final Four Tournament. simonkr / Getty Images

To some people, the month of March means the beginning of spring. To others, it's time to party for St. Patrick's Day. But for college basketball fans, March means only one thing: March Madness. And inevitably with March Madness comes office pools, ­gambling and bookies. Before you place any bets, though, you need to fill out your bracket.

So how do you do that and gu­arantee success? Analysts, sportscasters, networks and amateurs have all tried to nail down the perfect technique for picking teams using bracketology, or the study of the brackets. And they've all hit the same conclusion: There isn't an exact science to guarantee a win. However, there are things to consider that can give you a leg up on your competition.


March Madness -- named because the majority of the tournament takes place in March -- is the culmination of a college basketball season that begins in November. For the teams invited­ to play, it's their c­hance to prove they're the best in the country. But for fans, it's something completely different. While some people genuinely want to see their favorite team win the title, others just want to see the bracket they filled out win the office pool. For some, basketball doesn't even factor into the equation. They treat the bracket as a puzzle or brainteaser. And still others don't care for basketball or the challenge of the bracket. They just want to have some fun with their friends, co-workers or family.

To the bracket novice, the process can seem a little daunting. Where do you start? What teams should you include? What can you do to make sure you beat your colleagues? Read on to find out what you need to know to help you win the bracket and the bragging rights.


The Selection Process

Mark Jones of the University of Dayton Flyers rebounds the ball amidst the defense of the University of Tulsa Golden Hurricanes during the first round of the NCAA Tournament on March 20, 2003, in Spokane, Wash.
Mark Jones of the University of Dayton Flyers rebounds the ball amidst the defense of the University of Tulsa Golden Hurricanes during the first round of the NCAA Tournament on March 20, 2003, in Spokane, Wash.
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Each NCAA basketball season starts with as many as 345 Division I men's teams and 343 women's teams. Don't let that number panic you, though. Before the start of the tournament, a selection committee of athletic directors and conference commissioners narrows those 300-plus teams down to 68 (64 for women's basketball). From there, it's up to you to place the teams in the brackets.

There are 32 conferences in NCAA Division I men's basketball. Each conference, with the exc­eption of the Ivy League, has a championship game. The selection committee automatically extends a tournament invitation to the winner of each championship. The committee then selects the other 37 teams, known as at-large teams, by Selection Sunday, when it reveals its choices.


The committee is sequestered in a hotel beginning the Thursday before Selection Sunday to determine the at-large teams. Each member has watched specific teams during the season and speaks about those teams about during deliberations. Committee members can't, however, speak about their own school or conference and have to leave the room when those teams come up. All decisions made by the committee are final, and there's no appeal process.

The selection committee uses several criteria to choose the teams:

  • Ranking in the national polls
  • Conference record
  • Road record
  • Wins versus ranked opponents
  • The way a team finishes its regular season
  • Rating Percentage Index (RPI)

Most of these are self-explanatory, but the RPI is a little more complicated. It's a mathematical equation applied to a team to determine the strength of its schedule and how well it played that schedule. The committee takes into account how many games the team won, how many games its opponents won and how many games the opponents of its opponents won. The formula is:

  • 25 percent winning percentage
  • 50 percent opponents' average winning percentage
  • 25 percent opponents' opponents' average winning percentage

In 2004, the formula changed to give more weight to teams that win on the road.

After choosing 68 teams, the selection committee seeds, or ranks, them. It divides the teams into four regions -- North, South, East and West -- each with 16 seeds. Four regions with 16 slots equal 64 teams, so the last eight teams selected play one game for a chance to get the final no. 16 spot in each region. The women's tournament skips this step, since only 64 teams are chosen.

The committee also has to keep the location of the schools in mind. Whenever possible, the committee must put each team, especially the top seeds, in the region closest to its school. This is so more fans can attend the games, which will raise more money. There­'s no limit to how many teams from one conference can play in the tournament, but the first three teams from a conference have to be in different regions.

Once the tournament begins, the committee members still have work to do. Each member follows a particular region, and all of the committee members attend the Final Four games and the championship game. About a month after the tournament is over, the committee comes back together to evaluate its work. The next year, the process begins all over again with a new committee.

Read on to learn about what happens when the tournament starts and how to boost your odds as you fill out your bracket.


How to Fill in Your Bracket

A sample bracket
A sample bracket
2008 HowStuffWorks

You can try to be scientific about filling in your bracket, but most experts suggest you use your intuition and hope for a little good luck. All games throughout the tournament are single-elimination format, which means if your team loses, you're out.

Round 1

In this round, the teams are cut from 64 to 32. More people lose in this round than in any other. It's important to remember that the higher-seeded teams may underestimate the other team, and many lower-seeded teams will play as hard as they can to win some respect. There's no doubt that there will be upsets during this round -- you just have to guess who it's going to be. However, a No. 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1, so don't even think about it [source: CBS Sports].


Round 2

The teams are cut in half again, from 32 to 16. As the number of teams gets smaller, it gets trickier to pick the winners. The No. 1 seeds are still unlikely to fall to a No. 8 or No. 9 seed, but it's common for at least one No. 2 seed to be defeated. Half of the No. 3 seeds are typically eliminated in this round.

Ro­und 3­­­­

It's in this round, the Sweet 16, that the ­upsets become few and far between. Most of the teams are higher-seeded teams, and the highest-seeded teams win most of their games. You should move these teams to the next round -- but not all of them. There's a good chance that one No. 1 seed will lose this round.

Round 4

The Elite 8 round has only four games, and they're big games. Each team is vying for a shot at the Final Four. Here's where your gut really needs to kick in. You could probably expect at least one or two No. 1 seeds to make it. Other than that, it's anyone's game.

Round 5

The Final Four is another instinctual round. These four teams are trying to win a spot in the Championship game. The 2011 men's Final Four will be in Houston, Texas, April 2 and 4. The 2011 women's Final Four will rock Indianapolis, Ind.

Round 6

Two teams will have each played (and won) six post-season games and played 30 to 35 regular-season games to make it to this round. The winner will be named the national champion. And either team could win. If you just don't know who to pick, go with the higher seed. But if your gut tells you to pick the lower seed, then do it. If you're still in the pool at this point, you can probably trust your intuition.

In the next section, we'll take a look at some fans who take the mania of bracketology to an entirely new level.


The Madness of March Madness

Enthusiasts gather in the sports book inside the Green Valley Ranch Resort and Spa in Las Vegas on Jan. 15, 2005. Sports books see an enormous rise in traffic during March Madness.
Enthusiasts gather in the sports book inside the Green Valley Ranch Resort and Spa in Las Vegas on Jan. 15, 2005. Sports books see an enormous rise in traffic during March Madness.
Todd Bigelow/Aurora/Getty Images

For most fans, March Madness, bracketology and office pools are all in good fun. But there are some who take March Madness further. Some make careers out of it, some make clubs and even religions out of it, and some resort to killing because of it.

­Joe Lunardi and Jerry Palm are arguably the leading experts on bracketology. Lunardi is the resident bracketologist for ESPN, and Palm is an independent analyst who appears on television and works with Division I schools who want to change their schedule in order to receive a higher RPI. Both are extremely well-respected throughout the sport.


A group of college basketball fans in New York City has started "The Church of Bracketology." Members meet at a bar to watch games and compare their brackets. They refer to time in terms of when basketball began. The year A.D. 2005, when the church was founded, becomes 113 AB -- after basketball. Members follow "The Book of Naismith" (the founder of basketball), and their commandments are the original 13 rules of basketball. Their motto: "College Basketball…It's not a science, it's a religion."

Unfortunately, not all followers of college basketball are so lighthearted. One year, the NCAA launched an investigation into student athletes who may have been paid to throw games. Likewise, the FBI is monitoring student athletes who may be contacted during the Final Four. Organized crime members are known for trying to contact and bribe student athletes so they can win their own bets.

And betting on the games is a big business. In 2006, Las Vegas saw a spike in basketball betting during March Madness season -- the Gaming Control Board reported $195.7 million in bets compared to $95.9 million in February. Illegal gambling in office pools, online sites and bookies reaches $6 billion a year [source: USA Today].

Although some people view pools and bets as harmless, betting on the NCAA tournament has sometimes had fatal consequences. College student Joseph Kupchik used his tuition money to bet on the 2006 NCAA championship and on online gambling sites. He lost it all and eventually stabbed himself in the chest and jumped off the ninth floor of a parking garage. While this story isn't typical of the normal NCAA college basketball fan, it's an example of what can happen if gambling gets out of control.

For more information on bracketology, basketball and related topics, see what we found on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • Bonsor, Kevin. "How March Madness Works."
  • Canepa, Nick. "Only Sure Bet is No One Will Pick Perfect Bracket." San Diego Union Tribune.
  • CBS Sports. "Bracketology: Step by Step.
  • College RPI FAQs.
  • The First Church of Bracketology.
  • Garcia, Marien. "NCAA Bracketology Isn't an Exact Science." USA Today.
  • Garrison, Chad. "Two SLU Professors Say They've Solved the World's Most Challenging Math Problem: Your Office NCAA Pool." River Front Times.
  • Lunardi, Joe. Bracketology FAQ: 2007-2008. ESPN.
  • McCarthy, Michael. "Gambling Madness Can Snag Court Fans." USA Today.
  • Minor, Ben. "How to Master the NCAA Basketball Tournament Bracketology." Associated Content.
  • Principles and Procedures for Establishing the Men's Bracket. NCAA Sports.
  • Prisbell, Eric. "Need for Information is Creating a Bracket." Washington Post.