2021 Bracket Picks Writeup

Jason and Tom from TeamRankings run through some customized brackets for 2021, explaining the rationale behind key picks and pointing out how picks change based on a bracket pool’s size and scoring system.

Update Friday 11:49am ET: We’ve updated our News & Notes article with information about the pick implications of Johnny Juzang’s ankle injury yesterday for No. 11 UCLA. In short, we’re not making a big adjustment.

Thursday Update to Bracket Picks Writeup

We’ve made it to Thursday, and to our last scheduled writeup update for 2021. First, three important notes:

  • Final Brackets for 2021 are now available. As of 1:46pm ET on Thursday, our final planned release of brackets for pools you set up in the My Brackets section is complete. If you already set up a pool and generated picks for it before this release time, you will see a button to update them to our newest brackets. If your brackets aren’t due until later (tonight, tomorrow morning, etc.), you should update your picks and use these latest brackets.
  • Earlier writeup notes follow below. This article starts by summarizing the latest data updates we made that went into our Final Brackets released today. We also did a detailed initial writeup on Monday, after our first bracket release, and another writeup update on Wednesday. If you haven’t read the Monday writeup yet, you should go read that first because it contains a lot of our analysis about the 2021 bracket in general.
  • COVID-19 issues could still prompt changes to recommended picks. The chance remains that a team has to drop out of the tournament at the last minute because of a COVID outbreak, or that a team loses one or more key players to a positive COVID test either today or tomorrow. We are prepared for these situations, but we have to play it by ear. If news that significantly impacts the 2021 bracket breaks today (Thursday), we may be able to do another bracket release by very late tonight or tomorrow (Friday) morning. If big news breaks very late tonight or tomorrow morning, doing another bracket release will not be feasible. In that case, we will post advice about how to alter key picks in our Final Brackets accordingly, and send out an email alert notifying all subscribers.

Remember that it’s always best to wait as close to the deadline as possible to submit your picks into pools, in case late breaking news like this happens. You can only end up getting an edge over any opponents that miss it.

Now back to the present. Below we review the most important changes you may see in your brackets after today’s Final Brackets release, compared to the earlier Monday and Wednesday releases. This update will (hopefully) be the last major revision to our 2021 writeup, unless major news breaks before Friday morning that significantly impacts bracket pick strategy.

What Has Changed Since The Wednesday Bracket Release?

As we discussed in yesterday’s update, there are two primary inputs to the bracket simulations we run that can drive changes to our recommended picks:

  1. Further adjustments to team predictive ratings that we make, based on new information that comes to light, and/or further analysis that we’ve now had more time to do.
  2. Changes in pick popularity trends as more people nationwide fill out brackets, and as the public also potentially reacts to any big breaking news with its picks.

Here are the changes since Wednesday that are incorporated into our Final Brackets release today:

Team Ratings Changes

We’ll be brief here, but you can visit our new Teams page to see how we are adjusting season predictive ratings for all tournament teams this year. From there, you can link out to deeper notes on each team if you want more context.

Increases (4)

  • No. 7 Connecticut: Based on news that R.J. Cole will play.
  • (Play-In / No. 11) Wichita State: Based on news that Isaiah Poor Bear-Chandler will play.
  • (Play-In / No. 11) Drake: Based on news that ShanQuan Hemphill will play.
  • No. 12 Georgetown: Based on additional historical analysis of how low seeds that performed at an extremely high level in their conference tournament did in the NCAA tournament.

Decreases (5)

  • No. 1 Baylor: Based on additional analysis of past high seeds that performed poorly in the few weeks leading up to the tournament.
  • No. 2 Alabama: Based on news that Josh Primo is not making much progress in recovering from his knee injury, so unlikely to play the first weekend.
  • No. 3 Kansas: Based on additional details about its COVID situation (Jalen Wilson to miss at least one game, Tristen Enaruna to miss the first weekend).
  • No. 8 Oklahoma: Based on news that De’Vion Harmon will miss the first weekend due to COVID protocols.
  • No. 9 Georgia Tech: Based on news that ACC Player Of The Year Moses Wright will miss the first weekend due to COVID protocols.

Variance Increase (1)

  • No. 2 Houston: Based on additional analysis of how Houston has performed against the toughest teams on their schedule.

It’s probably not obvious what “Variance Increase” means, so let’s explain. Houston is ranked 5th in our adjusted tournament power ratings, making them one of the top contenders. Overall, Houston has performed at an extremely high level when all core players have been healthy.

However, Houston’s schedule this season has been very easy, and if you look at their performance in only their toughest games, the quality is not quite up to par with the rest of their games.

We’re not certain this is a real effect. It’s a small enough difference, and few enough games, that it could just be statistical noise from a very small sample size. Still, we do believe there is at least a small chance that Houston could be considerably worse than what we have them rated. So we adjusted our tournament simulations to account for that, giving Houston a slightly higher chance of a “dud” performance in the tournament than other teams with the same rating.

Public Pick Data Changes

Though a few earlier round games had some slight shifts in nationwide pick popularity trends (likely due to some of the same breaking news that drove our latest ratings changes), there have been no notable shifts in later round public picking trends since yesterday. So the changes in today’s bracket release are mostly driven by predictive rating adjustments as opposed to pick popularity changes.

What Picks Have Changed In Our Final Brackets For Your Pools?

Based on the updates described above, here are the most likely changes you might see in your brackets today (Thursday), if you generate new brackets or update picks you generated before 1:45 pm ET on Thursday.

Rather than present a big list of specific picks like yesterday, we’re going to summarize the overall pick strategy changes you’ll see by region, especially if you are playing a portfolio of multiple brackets. (Remember that we create 5 brackets for every pool you set up, a Best Bracket and four alternative brackets designed to all be played together in a multi-entry strategy.)

Keep in mind that these changes won’t happen in all subscriber brackets, as the risk/reward profile optimal for your pool may or may not warrant them. (Not to mention that the original pick may not have been in your recommended Best Bracket in the first place.)

West Region

  • No. 9 Missouri replacing No. 8 Oklahoma as a First Round pick.
  • No. 1 Gonzaga appears an even stronger play, but that doesn’t change brackets much.

We’ll start with the West, because it’s the simplest. With Oklahoma’s predictive rating dropping on account of De’Vion Harmon being ruled out, Gonzaga’s second game gets a little easier. So Gonzaga’s odds to advance to every subsequent round have increased a little. However, Gonzaga was already being suggested as champion pick in the majority of standard scoring brackets, so not much is changing picks-wise.

Of course, the other impact of Oklahoma’s lower rating is that they’re less attractive as a first round pick.

East Region

  • No. 7 Connecticut making a deep run in some brackets, as far as the title game in some cases.
  • No. 5 Colorado no longer making a deep run, and in some cases being upset by No. 12 Georgetown.
  • Less exposure to No. 2 Alabama as a Final Four pick in alternate portfolio brackets.

After the latest ratings updates, with No. 2 Alabama dropping and No. 7 Connecticut and No. 12 Georgetown increasing, the East region is even wider open than it already was. No. 2 Alabama is the favorite to reach the Final Four according to our Survival Odds, but they have only an 18% chance to get there. A whopping nine teams have at least a 6% chance (the top 8 seeds, plus No. 12 Georgetown).

With no large favorite, our alternate brackets for the popular 1-2-4-8-16-32 scoring system are now generally splitting their East region Final Four picks among the three teams with the highest chance to advance that far: No. 2 Alabama (18%), No. 1 Michigan (15%), and No. 7 Connecticut (11%). In addition, Connecticut is now being included as a dark horse Final Four pick in Best Brackets for pools as small as 150 entries.

No. 5 Colorado was making some deep runs in some earlier brackets, but with No. 12 Georgetown’s predictive rating boost making for a tougher First Round matchup, it now looks a bit too risky to pick Colorado to go far.

Midwest Region

  • No. 2 Houston less likely to make a deep run.
  • No. 4 Oklahoma State and No. 8 Loyola-Chicago occasionally making a deep run in alternate brackets in very large pools.

We discussed Houston’s variance adjustment above. Basically, increased performance variance gives Houston a slightly higher chance of an early exit. That tips the scales against them some, so fewer of our Final Brackets will have Houston in the Final Four. However, if Houston does get to the Final Four, they are now more likely to also be suggested as the pick to reach the title game (again, higher variance).

Fewer deep Houston runs opens the door for the occasional dark horse run by No. 4 Oklahoma State (whose predictive rating we bumped up on Wednesday) or No. 8 Loyola-Chicago (whose first round opponent, No. 9 Georgia Tech, was just adjusted downward in this last update after losing the ACC Player Of The Year to COVID protocols).

Of course, that Loyola pick, in particular, is quite risky. It only shows up at the back end of portfolios for very large pools, meaning that in most cases you’ll only get exposure to it if you end up playing 5 brackets. Since those portfolios also feature an Illinois champion pick in another bracket, this Loyola value play is specifically designed to be helpful in cases where an Illinois-champ bracket does not pan out (which means a relatively higher chance that Illinois lost early).

South Region

  • No. 3 Arkansas and No. 4 Purdue replacing No. 1 Baylor to reach the Final Four

Baylor’s lowered predictive rating because of its relatively worse recent play makes picking an alternative team to emerge from the South more attractive. In smaller pools with 1-2-4-8-16-32 scoring, you’ll generally still see Baylor as the Final Four pick in the Best Bracket; even though Baylor’s odds have dropped, they’re still the favorite to emerge from the region. However, as pool size increases in size you may see No. 3 Arkansas or No. 4 Purdue as a value Final Four pick in Best Brackets. In addition, No. 2 Ohio State may be featured as a Final Four pick in alternate brackets at all pool sizes.

We’ll conclude today’s update by addressing one final challenge we encounter every year with the NCAA Bracket Picks product.

Where Are All The Upsets?!

We have heard from some subscribers this week, as we do every March, that the bracket we are recommending for their pool is simply “all” favorites. That they didn’t need our help to tell them to make these picks. That any stray dog off the street could have come up with the bracket we’re recommending.

Here are some examples of support emails we received:

  • Bought less than an hour ago. Tried three things and it’s basically just every top seed in every scenario. Pretty pointless and dumb. Will never purchase again.
  • It was 100% chalk to the final four. That was not helpful at all and did not do any analysis on the many, many, probable upsets. I will not be a repeat customer next year.
  • I purchased the NCAA bracket picks and they’re almost all chalk. Literally. Is there any way this is a mistake? I mean I coulda figured that one out without paying $40.
  • I just signed up a few minutes ago and the bracket gave me all favorites.  I can do that on my own.  This is absolutely not worth one penny.

Where It All Goes Wrong

At the heart of these sentiments is a belief, shared by many bracket pool players, in one or more of the following falsehoods:

  • Since a bunch of early round upsets always happen, you should pick a bunch of them in your bracket.
  • Since all No. 1 and No. 2 seeds never make the Final Four / Elite 8, picking all 1’s and 2’s is a bad strategy.
  • Since favorites are the most popular picks, picking all favorites gives you the same bracket as everyone else.

In short, our subscribers win bracket pools more than four times as often as expected largely because so many players believe these things.

Early Rounds

First, early round games are worth barely any points in the popular 1-2-4-8-16-32 scoring system. As a result, it’s rarely worth taking on the risk that the favorites you have getting upset in your bracket go on deep runs, in exchange for the meager potential reward (if you get super lucky) of hitting a couple more 1- or 2-point games than everybody else. We cover this logic extensively in our article on the danger of picking too many upsets.

That isn’t just a theory. They may look boring, but those “chalky” brackets of ours have outperformed the public in First Round points scored for the last three tournaments straight, including in 2018 where there was havoc in the First Round.

Later Rounds

Second, looking at an Elite 8 filled with No. 1 and No. 2 seeds and immediately characterizing it as unoriginal and thoughtless is extremely shortsighted.

Starting from the Elite 8, there are over 100 different pick combinations you can choose, from your Final Four to your finalist and champion picks. Since those picks are all worth much more than First Round games, a huge part of the value of this product comes from identifying which specific combination out of those 100+ options to pick.

Consider our “chalky” bracket for very small pools and 1-2-4-8-16-32 scoring this year. It has No. 1 Gonzaga over No. 1 Illinois for the title, with No. 1 Baylor and No. 2 Alabama in the Final Four.

Here’s how that bracket is different than how other people are picking this year:

  • 63% of brackets nationwide have a team other than Gonzaga winning the title.
  • 64% of brackets do not have Illinois advancing as far as the title game.
  • 52% of brackets have a team other than Baylor in the Final Four from the South.
  • 76% of brackets have a team other than Alabama in the Final Four from the East.

Based on our estimates, only 2 or 3 out of every 200 brackets this year (1 to 1.5% of brackets) will have that exact same combination of Final Four, finalist, and champion picks.

In a 15- or 20-person pool, for example, you would have a great chance of being the only entry in the entire pool that has this specific combination of picks from the Elite 8 onward. Best of all, you didn’t even need to take any reckless risks on dark horse Final Four picks to achieve that level of differentiation.

In short, be careful about what you label as a “chalky” bracket that any Tom, Dick, or Harry off the street would have easily put together. We’ve done a lot of math to figure out the smartest risks to take based on your pool’s size and scoring system. Please don’t shoot the messenger if the answer isn’t as sexy as you might have hoped.

We Have Alternate Brackets

Finally, if having the best chance to win (in a boring looking way) doesn’t suit you, this product has plenty of options for you to spice things up:

  • Alternate brackets. Don’t forget that you’ve got four alternate brackets to choose from. Even for the smallest size pool with 1-2-4-8-16-32 scoring, this year we have an alternate bracket with no No. 1 seeds in the Final Four, and another with a No. 7 seed in the Final Four. So if you can’t get on board with our recommended Best Bracket, you’ve got other (still good, but not quite as good) brackets available to choose.
  • Data Grid. The Data Grid feature lets you identify the most likely lower seeds to advance and the most undervalued picks in the bracket, with just a few clicks. If you feel like a bracket needs more risk in the Sweet 16 picks, you can go identify a few undervalued teams to flip in there.

We also highlight a number of First Round value upset picks in our Monday writeup, which follows below.

Signing Off…

That’s it for now. Fingers crossed that nothing else happens between now and the start of the tournament that blows a bunch of this analysis up! 🙂

We hope this writeup helped you understand the fact-based rationale behind our recommended brackets this year. We’re certainly going to get plenty of picks wrong (see our note about having realistic expectations at the very end of this post for more on that), and who knows whether our brackets will end up with more hits or misses in 2021. The pandemic, for one, has certainly injected a much greater degree of uncertainty into tournament analysis, and luck is always a factor in any given year.

With that said, all we can do is put our best effort into the analysis, and trust that the results will take care of themselves over the long term.

Good luck in your pools, and from our whole crew, thanks for investing in TeamRankings this year! We welcome any feedback or suggestions you have, either in the Q&A forum or via email at support@teamrankings.com.

Here’s the start of the Wednesday writeup…

Wednesday Update to Bracket Picks Writeup

Because of the uncertainty of 2021, we added a third bracket release to the NCAA Bracket Picks product this year.

We usually release our initial brackets on Monday, then a set of final updates on Wednesday. This year, we’re updating brackets on both Wednesday and Thursday.  Here’s why:

  • The First Round has been moved back a day this year, and starts on Friday.
  • The NCAA announced a plan that replacement teams could be swapped into the field if any team had to withdraw by Tuesday on account of COVID-19 protocols.

As a result, we prepared for some potentially drastic shifts (e.g. Louisville, the first team out, subbing in for a withdrawn No. 4 seed somewhere in the bracket would have had ripple effects throughout our recommended brackets). Fortunately, as it turns out, the 2021 NCAA bracket today is still the same as it was on Sunday (phew).

So here’s what you need to know as of now:

  • As of 3:00pm ET on Wednesday, updated brackets for pools you set up in the My Brackets section have been released. If you already generated brackets for a pool before this release time, you’ll see a button to click to update them.
  • We did a full Bracket Picks Writeup on Monday after we did our first bracket release, our Early Deadline Brackets, and if you haven’t read that yet, you should go read that first. There’s a whole lot of content and analysis about the 2021 bracket in general.
  • Our third and final bracket release will be tomorrow (Thursday) at 4pm ET, and we will continue to watch the news and do more analysis in the meantime. If you can, you should wait for tomorrow’s release to get our Final Brackets.

Below, we’ll review the most important changes you may see in your brackets with this interim Wednesday release.

What Has Changed Since The Monday Bracket Release?

First, let’s talk about what can cause changes to our recommended bracket picks as we do follow-on releases during the week. It usually boils down to two things:

  1. Further adjustments we make to team predictive ratings based on new information that has come to light since Sunday night, and/or and further analysis that we’ve had more time to do.
  2. Changes in pick popularity trends as more people nationwide fill out brackets and public picks also potentially react to any big breaking news.

The customized brackets we recommend for pools you set up in the My Brackets section are driven by the results of millions of computer simulations of 2021 bracket pools. Team predictive ratings and pick popularity trends are the two key inputs to those simulations. If those inputs change, the optimal bracket found by the simulations can change.

So here’s what we’ve changed since Sunday night.

Team Predictive Ratings Changes

We’ll be brief here, but you can check our new Adjusted Ratings page and link out to deeper notes on each team from there if you want more context.

Increases (1)

  • Oklahoma State: Based on analysis of the betting markets and performance with/without certain players.

Decreases (7)

  • Ohio State: Based on news that Kyle Young is less likely to play than we originally thought.
  • Colorado: Based on additional analysis of recent performance.
  • Utah State: To move our projections more in line with the betting markets.
  • Florida: To move our projections more in line with the betting markets.
  • Connecticut: Based on news that R.J. Cole’s status was less certain than we originally assumed. (However, more on that below.)
  • Creighton: Based on news that Shereef Mitchell’s playing status is less certain than we originally thought.
  • Virginia: Because of the increased risk from not traveling to Indianapolis until Friday afternoon, and not practicing all week.

As you can see, a few teams we had targeted as value plays were docked. As a result of all these downward adjustments, the chances for the No. 1 seeds, and Gonzaga in particular, to make deep runs and/or win the title have gone up.

Public Pick Data Changes

There haven’t been any huge shifts in public picking trends since we made our initial estimates on Sunday night. However, a couple contenders have seen their numbers move enough to make a difference at the margins:

  • Gonzaga: Champion pick percentage is up more than 1% (relatively large). However, Gonzaga’s odds to win have risen by even more based on our ratings adjustments above, so this has not resulted in Gonzaga becoming a less frequent champion pick in our brackets.
  • Michigan: Pick popularity has dropped some across the board, which makes Michigan slightly less attractive to fade in brackets.

In some years we see substantial shifts in from Sunday to Wednesday, but this year has been fairly stable. So most of the changes in today’s bracket release are driven by predictive rating adjustments vs. pick popularity changes.

What Picks Have Changed In Our Customized Brackets?

Based on the changes described above, here are the most likely changes you could see in your brackets, if you generate new brackets or update older ones you got before 3pm ET today.

Keep in mind that these changes won’t happen in all brackets, as the risk/reward profile optimal for your pool may or may not warrant them. (Not to mention that the original pick may not have been in your recommended Best Bracket in the first place.)

  • No. 1 Baylor replacing No. 2 Ohio State to make the Final Four
  • No. 3 Arkansas replacing No. 2 Ohio State to make the Elite Eight

Ohio State’s rating decrease is a bit of a bummer, as it makes a key value pick in some small to mid-sized brackets (OSU to the Final Four) less attractive. However, on the flip side, it makes an Arkansas pick slightly less risky, so you may see that show up in larger brackets.

  • No. 3 Arkansas replacing No. 4 Purdue to make the Final Four, and to reach the title game

Then, once Arkansas is past Ohio State, their path opens up a little bit, and they are sliding in as the dark horse title game opponent for Gonzaga in some large brackets, replacing No. 4 Purdue.

  • No. 4 Oklahoma State replacing No. 5 Tennessee to make the Sweet 16
  • No. 4 Virginia replacing No. 5 Creighton to make the Sweet 16
  • No. 4 Florida State replacing No. 5 Colorado to make the Sweet 16

These are three cases where a 4/5 matchup is near the tipping point for value in some pool sizes, and the recent rating adjustments have tipped them back toward the favorite. This is generally happening in pools of size 100 to 500, with these upsets still sticking around in larger pools. (They weren’t there to begin with in some smaller pools).

  • No. 1 Michigan replacing No. 5 Colorado to make the Elite 8

This one is affected by both a rating adjustment and a public data shift. Colorado’s rating was bumped down, lowering the chance of an upset. In addition, Michigan’s pick rate has dropped a little, lowering the reward for the upset.

  • No. 2 Houston replacing No. 1 Illinois to make the Final Four, and to reach the title game

This deeper run by Houston is being added to some mid-sized to large brackets, despite no major changes to the inputs for Houston or Illinois. It’s a great example of the interplay between picks, and how your picks in one part of the bracket affect what the smartest play is in a totally different part of the bracket.

Essentially, several former value plays got removed from some brackets in this Wednesday release — in particular, No.2 Ohio State reaching the Final Four — so that opens up a spot for a replacement value play, and Houston is filling that void.

This shift to Houston is also helped slightly by Oklahoma State’s rating bump. Oklahoma State is the No. 4 in Illinois’ region, and it makes the path to reach the Elite Eight slightly tougher for the Illini, which of course helps Houston.

  • No. 4 Purdue replacing No. 1 Baylor to make the Final Four

This shift is only in really large pools, where the Best Brackets have Gonzaga vs. Illinois as the two title game participants (chalky for a big pool), but counters that chalk move by having two value play longer shots in Connecticut and Purdue as the teams that also get to the Final Four, rather than another No. 1 seed in Baylor.

This change was driven in part by Utah State’s predictive rating being lowered, which led to moving off that upset pick in the First Round. Other earlier picks were also shifted a little more conservatively, such as Florida State (the more popular public pick) over Colorado and West Virginia over San Diego State, to help make up for the added risk of taking into two contrarian Final Four picks instead of just one.

What Breaking News WASN’T Baked Into This Wednesday Bracket Release?

It takes hours to run our bracket pool simulations and spot-check all the results before we release them, so they never incorporate up-to-the-minute breaking news.

Here are two things that have happened very recently that will affect our Final Brackets that we release tomorrow, but are not factored into the brackets released today.

  1. Connecticut: News has broken that Connecticut point guard R.J. Cole is now out of concussion protocol and actually will play on Saturday, so expect UConn’s predictive rating to be bumped back up, and factored into our Final Brackets.
  2. Oklahoma: De’Vion Harmon, Oklahoma’s second-leading scorer and perhaps most important player, is now out for this weekend due to COVID-19. Oklahoma’s rating will be adjusted downward in tomorrow’s bracket update.

Until Thursday Night…

Again, our Final Bracket release will be tomorrow, scheduled for 4pm ET, and we continue to gather news and will react to anything else that happens in the hours ahead.

A few hours after the Final Bracket release, around 7pm ET, we plan to publish the final installment of this writeup detailing any other changes to recommended brackets that subscribers may see in the last release.

We’re glad to have you with us, and please direct any questions you have to the Q&A forum!

Here’s the start of the Monday writeup…

Welcome to the 2021 Bracket Picks Writeup!

If you’re a returning subscriber, it’s great to see your beautiful face again this year, especially after the heartbreak of the NCAA Tournament cancellation in 2020. We’ve all missed March Madness, and we’re glad you have returned after what has been a long and winding road over the last year.

If you’re new to these parts, welcome to the neighborhood! We’re going to do our best to make sure that you think TeamRankings is well worth the price.

More than anything, we appreciate your business. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to deliver the smartest bracket analysis on an extremely tight timeframe. We’ve published data-driven bracket advice on TeamRankings in some form or another since the early 2000’s (a bygone era in which Stanford had a dominant basketball team, lest you so easily forget), and we’ll be darned if someone else is going to do a better job of it.

Starting a week before Selection Sunday, we pretty much go AWOL from our families and friends, rent hotel rooms and AirBnBs, and pretty much just eat, sleep, bracket. But no complaints. It’s pretty much a dream come true to do this kind of thing for a living, and we have your support to thank for it. (sniff)

OK, now that we’ve all wiped the tears out of our eyes, let’s get on with it…

About This Writeup

The purpose of this writeup is two-fold:

  • Communicate the most important pick strategy related insights about the 2021 bracket. We’ve spent many hours researching teams, evaluating the Selection Committee’s seeding decisions, analyzing paths to the championship in each region, and looking at public picking trends data. We want to share what you need to know in order to be a sharp bracket picker in 2021.
  • Explain the rationale behind key picks that subscribers will see in brackets for their pools. Starting with our initial bracket release on Monday evening, subscribers can generate customized bracket picks for pools they have set up in the My Brackets section. After looking at our recommended brackets for the first time, subscribers often have questions about why we’re recommending certain picks, and this writeup should address most of them.

(FYI, especially for pools using the standard 1-2-4-8-16-32 scoring system, the most common initial reaction to our brackets from new subscribers is “What the heck, this bracket needs way more upset picks!” Please don’t panic or complain before you read about how picking more upsets is usually one of the worst things you can do.)

Given the huge variety of pool sizes and scoring systems this product supports, it’s not possible to explain the rationale behind all of the different brackets that our system generates for subscribers. However, this writeup’s general focus on the most popular 1-2-4-8-16-32 scoring system will covers the majority of brackets.

In addition, because we highlight the most attractive contrarian picks in the 2021 bracket, it also provides context for why we may be recommending certain picks in other scoring systems, such as upset bonuses.

Changes This Year

Returning subscribers will notice a few minor changes this year:

1) Consolidating To One Writeup Article

In recent years, we’ve released two versions of our bracket writeup. We would first publish an initial writeup along with our Monday bracket release for subscribers in pools with early pick submission deadlines. Then, we’d publish a second writeup with our final, Wednesday bracket release.

This year we’re doing three bracket releases (Monday, Wednesday, Thursday) because the First Round of the tournament doesn’t start until Friday. There’s also a decent chance that nothing changes in our brackets between the Wednesday and Thursday releases.

So instead of doing a separate writeup with every bracket release, we are consolidating down to a single writeup, this article you are reading now. As we do bracket releases throughout the week, we’ll simply add the newest updates we write to the top.

2) “Writeup” Link In Top Navigation Bar

We’ve added a link to the navigation bar above so the writeup is more visible, and so you can access it in one click. Making sure our subscribers understand the rationale behind the picks they’re seeing in our customized brackets is absolutely critical.

What To Expect

What you are going to read in this writeup will likely be much different than bracket pick analysis you find elsewhere. This is how we do it in these parts:

  • Lots of dispassionate numbers. We’re not going to blab on about why we love a particular team or why we think a team is a lock to make the Final Four. Every fundamental element of a college basketball team — great guard play, lock-down defense, lights-out three point shooting, whatever — eventually just boils down to a single quantitative metric: the odds that team has to win and advance to the next round. That and a few other key numbers (see next bullet) are all you need to crush bracket pools in the long term.
  • Speaking in terms of risk vs. reward. You don’t win more bracket pools by claiming that you know the secret to picking NCAA champions. You win more bracket pools by doing a better job than anyone else at (a) evaluating each team’s odds to win and advance, (b) anticipating how your opponents are likely to pick their brackets, and (c) using all that data to identify the best calculated gambles to make with your picks. Part (c) is impossible to get right without crunching a ton of numbers, which is why you just paid us to have 20 high-powered Amazon servers go figure out the best answers. Now that the results are in, we use this writeup to explain why our bracket pick optimization algorithms are advising you to take certain risks, and to point out the key outcomes that could make or break our brackets this year as a result.
  • Realism. We see no point in trying to give our subscribers an unrealistic sense of confidence simply because they bought our NCAA Bracket Picks product, thus enabling us both to feed our kids and buy a few more shares of GameStop stock (though we do very much appreciate it, thank you kind sir/madam). We refuse to sugarcoat the fact that playing in bracket pools is extremely risky business, and that in any given year the odds are stacked strongly against you winning anything — even with our help. However, if you stay disciplined and employ a smart strategy over the long term, the rewards will eventually come, and we have the data to prove it.

Recommended Reading

In the past, our bracket writeups contained detailed explanations of some of the core elements of winning bracket pool strategy. To streamline this post and make it less repetitive for our returning subscribers, this year we have moved a bunch of that educational content into standalone articles.

These strategy articles are the result of 15+ years of learning from objective data. We run millions of bracket pool simulations every year, observing how different pick strategies perform across various pool sizes and scoring systems. We’ve also collected pick performance data from subscribers who have used our brackets across tens of thousands of real-world bracket pools.

If you’re curious about the logic behind our picks, and especially if you have any doubts or negative reactions about the picks we’re recommending to you, we strongly encourage you to read these three articles below:

  • Every NCAA tournament is different. It’s imperative to adapt your bracket picking strategy to the characteristics of the current year’s NCAA bracket. Do not blindly follow “Golden Rules” for making picks that ignore the specific dynamics of the current year’s field, seeding, and bracket structure.
  • Value picking has its limits. Making contrarian picks of unpopular teams can absolutely increase your odds to win a bracket pool. However, an obsession with making value picks can also have the reverse effect. For example, it’s absolutely not the case that you have to pick an undervalued NCAA champion, a tip that we hear floating around more and more these days.
  • Be careful about upset picks. Especially in the most popular 1-2-4-8-16-32 scoring system, making too many upset picks in the early rounds is the most common kiss of death for a bracket. You do not need to pick a perfect bracket that nails all the random upsets that will inevitably happen in order to win your pool.

Without further ado, let’s get to the 2021 bracket analysis.

We just mentioned that a critical component of winning bracket pick strategy is understanding the particular dynamics of the current year’s tournament field, so let’s start there.

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