2023 NCAA Tournament Survivor Pool Strategy and Advice: Final Four
NCAA Tournament Survivor Pools are fun, fast-paced contests, and we are here with picks and advice on how to navigate through the bracket.
Brandon Miller and Alabama are one of the tournament favorites (Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire)
Welcome to our 2023 NCAA Tournament survivor pool strategy and advice column, where we will provide some advice on strategies to employ in a survivor pool.
Last year, we introduced a Survivor Pool Tool into our NCAA Bracket Picks product. We’ve added some pick grades in the tool for this year, and tried to address some of the requests for is version 2.0 tool. You can find teams organized by day or by round, with some very rough estimates for future value and pick popularity.
This article will support and frequently reference the data in that tool. We’ll update this article throughout the tournament, all the way to the final, since the tool doesn’t actually make specific customized picks or give you diversified portfolio advice.
You can also review our general strategy guide on things to consider when playing NCAA Tournament Survivor pools.
2024 Final Four Survivor Pick Advice
If you have made it this far, congratulations. You are one of a select few entries that made it to through the madness of the last two weeks with a chance.
Our pick advice for the Final Four will be largely entry-dependent.
If you have only one team available
It’s pretty simple if you are down to one available team. Pick them and hope you have a chance to get part of the pot.
If you have two teams available
On the other hand, if you are fortunate enough to get to this point with two options, the scenarios can get fairly complicated, and depend on the rules of your pool.
The biggest rule is whether advancing entries with an option in the final beat advancing entries with no other options remaining, regardless of the actual outcome of the title game. Because that rule reduces the likelihood of a single-team-remaining entry being able to force a pot split.
We have our win odds estimates posted in the survivor tool. If you have multiple options, and have any strategy questions, check out our Q&A Forum. You may see a similar question and answer that matches your situation, or you can ask one yourself.
2023 Elite Eight Survivor Pick Advice
At this point, your remaining survivor strategy is dictated by availability, and if your pool has any significant amount of entries that can get to the end, having an option for the title game pick.
What does this mean?
If your pool requires one Elite Eight pick on each day, then you have to either pick an East + Midwest team in the two Elite Eight games, or a West + South team across the two days. If you pick any other combo, you leave open the possibility of being frozen out of a pick for the title game.
Those choices are likely made for you, but if you have one region where you haven’t used either team, and another where you have used one, your better strategy for maintaining flexibility is to pick against the team you have already used, that is alive in the Elite Eight. That leaves the other matchup open, and you can pick either team that advances in the Final Four (or title game).
Pools that Require Two Elite Eight Picks, but on Either Day
If your pool requires two Elite Eight picks, but you can do any combo of the four regions, then you just need to follow this rule: do not pick two games from the same side of the bracket. This means if you are using a Midwest Region pick, you just cannot make the other one from the West.
It’s still going to take the right combination of outcomes to get to the championship game with an option, and a lot of luck.
Playing Multiple Entries
If you still have multiple entries, you should be completely diversifying at this point, and not using the exact same picks (on the assumption you want to increase your overall chances of cashing).
You might be in a situation where you need to pick against your other entry head-to-head. That’s certainly in play depending on what your other options are. The ideal would be to get to the Final Four with multiple entries that can pick against each other and thus get you to the final either way, but if you have to do it in the Elite Eight, so be it.
2023 Sweet 16 Survivor Pick Advice
Our Survivor Pools are moving on to the Sweet 16, and with it comes a lot more emphasis on path analysis, particularly for those pools that require a pick every day through the weekend. (Those that require only one Elite Eight pick are a little more forgiving.)
So before we get to specific individual game analysis for the Sweet 16, let’s talk about those paths and what it means.
2023 Path Analysis
The NCAA didn’t do survivor players any favors with the 2023 setup. The East and West play on Thursday/Saturday, while the Midwest and South play on Friday/Sunday, but then in the Final Four, the East and South face off, while the Midwest winner and West winner play. So if you are not careful, you can get blocked from having a pick available quickly.
For example, let’s say you want to save Alabama as your national champion pick to win all or a share of the pool. Well, then that means:
- Since you are picking the South winner (Alabama) in the title game, you can’t pick them on Sunday in the Elite Eight. So your Sunday Elite Eight pick must be a Midwest team.
- Since you are picking that Midwest team in the Elite Eight, they won’t be available to you in the Final Four. And you don’t want to pick Alabama on the other side of the bracket, as they’re you’re title pick. So your Final Four pick must be a West team.
- Since you are picking a West team in the Final Four, you can’t pick them on Saturday in the Elite Eight. So your Saturday Elite Eight pick must be an East team.
- Saturday Elite Eight: East
- Sunday Elite Eight: Midwest
- Final Four: West
- Title Game: South (Alabama)
Now, we want to add the caveat that we don’t think you should go in with one specific team in mind to pick to later rounds, because even the top favorites are more likely than not to lose before that point. But you should plan on probabilities and scenarios.
Also, recognize that if your pool requires one pick on each day of the Elite Eight, it is impossible to set up, say, a Houston-Alabama final (which is the single-most likely final matchup entering the Sweet 16) and have a pick available in the championship game, because they would both have to win their Elite Eight matchup on the same day to get there.
In fact, there’s about a 50% chance that NO ONE will have a national champ pick available, and pools will be decided after the Final Four matchups, because it is either a South vs. Midwest or East vs. West Title Game.
South/West, or East/Midwest Paths
Of course, a 50% chance means that those that plan out things will have an advantage about half the time, by having a title game pick when others are blocked from picking any more.
As a result of the above, if you are in a pool that requires exactly one pick over the next four days of competition, you should focus on a path on the first two days that either goes through both the West (Thursday/Sunday) and South (Friday/Saturday), or through the East (Thursday/Sunday) and Midwest (Friday/Saturday).
You don’t have to stick to this blindly, as it is still possible to switch an Elite Eight pick, but the key is that you cannot have both of your Elite Eight picks come from the same side of the bracket if you hope to have a title game pick available.
If you are playing multiple entries, then, you probably want to set the majority up to take advantage of the paths through the title game (and maybe be contrarian in picking a minority in case the specific combos work out to win, that do not work with path dependency to the title game.)
One path stands out as the best survival path but that comes with a giant caveat. That caveat is that you need to pay attention to your own entries, and which teams you have used already that are still alive.
The single-best survival path is the one that involves Creighton over Princeton on Friday, followed by Alabama or San Diego State on Sunday, paired with a West combo of Sweet 16 and Elite Eight picks (Connecticut, then the UCLA/Gonzaga winner, though reversing that order isn’t much different in path odds).
But again, that depends on which teams you have used, that could still burn you. Here is our pick advice for each Region, based on picks made:
- Creighton over Princeton is the clearly best survival path and current win odds choice, though likely to be extremely popular.
- Starting with Alabama is the next best option in this region, but not a good option overall, most because it puts you picking against them in the Elite Eight.
- At 20% win odds, Princeton is probably too risky for a heads-up pick against the most popular choice, so you are probably better diversifying to the Midwest if avoiding Creighton.
- Picking Tennessee is narrowly in front of other paths, but the options in this region are close enough that all are in play.
- You should let your past usage in this region dictate how you play it, and if you’ve used exactly one team in the region already, picking them could be your best option overall.
- If you have used two teams in this region, it might be best to avoid it now, and hope those teams get knocked out by the Final Four/Champ Game. (Since if you successfully pick one Sweet 16 matchups, but the other team you already used also wins, you are blocked.)
- Houston and Texas are similar options, and playing it in either order is justifiable, though the odds of those paths surviving to the end is lower than the best paths in other regions.
- If you have used Texas already, though, you definitely should not use Houston in the Sweet 16. You may want to consider Xavier as an upset play, or alternatively play through the South in the Sweet 16.
- Similarly, if you have already used Houston, it’s probably better to not take Texas yet in the Sweet 16, and save that option to leave open for the Elite Eight if necessary.
- Starting with Connecticut rates as the slightly best path option, but just like the East, past usage should dictate how you go here.
- If you have used either Gonzaga or UCLA on an entry, you should consider now directly picking against them in that Sweet 16 matchup, and playing out the path so you are contrarian to those that start with UConn.
These scenarios can be complicated, so we would recommend that if you are playing portfolios where you have multiple entries, that you attack them in different ways if possible. And if you have strategy questions after reading this, feel free to drop a question in our Q&A Forum.
What If You Don’t Have To Make A Pick Every Day
If you don’t have to make a pick every day, your chances of being limited by running out of options are greatly reduced. You still do have to pay some attention to who you have used in the past, and don’t load up on teams from the same side of the bracket, so you have a Champion Game pick option.
But if you just have to make one Sweet 16 pick, we have the following:
- [big gap]
- Connecticut, Tennessee, Houston, Michigan State, UCLA
Of the favorites in the Sweet 16, Alabama is the biggest avoid based on future value and expected win odds in the upcoming rounds.
For the teams in that third group (Connecticut through UCLA) you could use picking against a past pick as a tiebreaker.
If you are playing a portfolio, you should diversify still, so even though we have Creighton at the top, you should not throw all your picks in that basket. Moving to some of those other options is advised.
2023 Second Round Survivor Pick Advice
Our automated picks page in the Survivor tool will shift over to the Second Round shortly after the final First Round game ends tonight (most likely Indiana-Kent State). We have to do some other updates once the round ends to roll over to the next round, but for the night owls out there, you can check in 30-45 minutes after the First Round ends if you must see the data tonight.
Otherwise, for most of you, it will be ready to go.
Saturday Only Picks
But for now, we’ll take an early strategic look at the Second Round on Saturday, since we know the matchups.
Here are the betting market win odds for Saturday, along with the chances that team gets eliminated before the Final Four. (That latter stat can be calculated by looking at our Round Odds table, and subtracting the Final Four chances from 100%.)
|Seed||Team||Market Odds||Eliminated before FF|
|5||San Diego St||70%||87%|
If you multiply those two factors, it gives you a good estimate of “how likely is it that this team advances, but doesn’t kill me later.”
And by that, Missouri and San Diego State are the best options for Saturday.
But there’s a third factor in survivor pools: popularity. And most people know to save the better teams, and you should expect Missouri and San Diego State to be by far the most popular survivor picks on Saturday. In fact, they might make up over two-thirds of the picks in some pools.
UCLA is the third-best option by just looking at both win odds and Final Four odds, because they are still in a really tough West Region. But when you add in the likely high popularity of Missouri and San Diego State, UCLA should have an extremely high EV. And while they have future value, it’s less than Alabama.
So I would suspect the top grades will be something like:
#2 and #3 Missouri and San Diego State
However, if I were thinking about how to play this, I would be more likely to pick just one of Missouri or San Diego State if I were playing a portfolio. If you spread your picks over both, you are going to mirror the pool. Going heavier on one and light on the other gives you the possibility of making a big leap in the pool if the popular pick you avoid loses.
So I am thinking UCLA as the highest EV and contrarian play, and then one of Missouri or San Diego State because of the future value savings and relatively higher win odds than some teams with more longer term future value.
I’ll add a quick note update once the Second Round flips over in the Survivor Tool.
UPDATE: Missouri is the highest graded option, while UCLA and San Diego State are next, and then there’s a big gap. I would still recommend the above strategy with multi-pick portfolios. Missouri’s popularity and the outcome of that game will likely determine a lot of pools, as it could eliminate a big chunk of a pool with a Missouri loss, but have those entries that used them with an advantage if they win.
Saturday and Sunday Combined Picks
If you have picks across both days this weekend, but don’t have to pick one team (or more) from each day, the options are a little more diverse.
Florida Atlantic, Missouri, and San Diego State will split popularity in that case, so while each will be popular, they won’t be quite as popular as single day.
So that means you should probably focus on two of those three, if you have a portfolio, rather than spread across all three. After all, you want to have some teams to play against and root for upsets elsewhere. We have San Diego State below the other two, based on some odds shift downward.
UCLA is the primary contrarian play, using some future value in exchange for hoping for big upsets with those other popular choices. The only other choice we have graded in the same range is the riskier (but less future value) of Xavier.
Sunday Only Picks
For those with Sunday only picks, Florida Atlantic has the highest win odds, and that, along with merely moderate future value, makes them our top graded pick. Even with expected high popularity, they have win odds of around 90%. Once you get to win odds that high they would have to have such high popularity that well over two-thirds of the pool took them to make them a mediocre value.
No other team has over 66% win odds on Sunday, so there’s quite the drop-off in safety to go to anyone else. But of course, you may want to do that in some large pool portfolios. After all, a Florida Atlantic run to the Final Four isn’t out of the question in this East Region now. And any entry that saves them would be in a very advantageous position. So diversifying if you have several entries, to not be entirely Florida Atlantic, should be considered.
Our next highest graded option is Xavier, mainly because of their lower future value relative to Marquette, Connecticut, and Gonzaga, particularly after Texas and Houston advanced in the Midwest Region.
Other than, you should only consider the others if you need to really save future value and want to do so by playing against a previous pick, for example, playing Kentucky as a slight favorite over Kansas State, if you used the Wildcats in the First Round.
2023 First Round Survivor Pick Advice
In NCAA Tournament survivor pools, you have to balance the odds you advance now against saving teams for when the bracket dwindles in size. After all, you won’t win the pool if you run out of options. You also should have an eye on pick popularity, and looking for value opportunities to zig from your pool when a team is too popular.
That said, the pick popularity in the First Round this year should be fairly spread out, whether you make picks by round or each day. There are 16 different favorites each day, with many of them with over 80% win odds, and plenty of people will have differing opinions on who is most worth saving.
So at least for this first round, the advice is going to focus on the other factors: odds to advance, and odds that the team burns you by advancing all the way to the Final Four and putting you in a position where you wish you still had them (i.e., future value) .
Our tool has pick grades that are different depending on if you have to make picks each day or by round. That’s somewhat important this year as the Thursday schedule is heavily loaded with three No. 1 seeds and three No. 2 seeds, while Friday will have more of the teams in the No. 3 to No. 6 seed range in action.
Pick Grade Example
Let’s give an example of our pick grades for Thursday Only Picks.