Expert tips for filling out a winning NCAA Tournament bracket

Whether you are a seasoned veteran who has been filling out NCAA brackets for years, or you've decided to to fill out your first one ever, picking the right programs for your perfect bracket can be a difficult and sometimes daunting task (unless of course you just pick your bracket based on who has the funniest looking mascot).

With a field of teams so big, there will be mountains and mountains of data for you to sort through and no matter how much research you do, let's face it, there is an element of luck involved. But luckily for you we've reached out to our veteran handicappers over at Covers Experts to help you out. They've been filling out brackets for years and we've asked them to give you their most important tip for putting together a winning NCAA Tournament bracket.

Al McCordie

"For pools that are local, rather than national, my No. 1 bracket tip is to consider the team or teams that other entrants might pick for their Final Four (and eventual champion), and then avoid picking such teams. That is because it's difficult to win a Tournament pool if your entry is vastly similar to other entries. You have to separate yourself from the herd. So, if you live in ACC Country, avoid picking teams like North Carolina and Louisville. If you're in the heartland, steer clear of Kansas and if you're on the West Coast, select teams other than Gonzaga and UCLA."

Teddy Covers

"Many office pool players work too much on picking the early round upsets and not enough on their Final Four teams. The vast majority of Final Four teams are top seeded teams; No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3 seeds. I generally pick at least two No. 1 seeds to make the Final Four. They earned those top seeds because they've been the best teams in college basketball all season, which is why I rarely call for a No. 1 seed to get upset before the Sweet 16 round at the earliest in my own brackets.

"Additionally, remember, the bigger pool that you are in, the more chances you’ll need to take and the more upsets you should pick, particularly upsets that build big points on the second weekend of the tournament, as we go from the Sweet 16 to the Elite Eight, then the Final Four. For smaller pools, a more conservative strategy is the superior choice. You don’t have as much competition to worry about, and there’s much less of a need to pick a bunch of upsets in order to surpass your opposition."

Dave Cokin

"My main advice is to put circles around the teams that play the best defense. The last 15 national champions have all been teams ranked in the top 40 nationally in defensive efficiency. "

Power Sports

"Avoid picking a ton of upsets in the First Round. It's tempting, but there simply have been fewer and fewer the last few years because the mid-majors have gotten progressively weaker. When going for an upset, try and focus on teams from better conferences."

Will Rogers

"My advice would be to focus on upsets in the 2nd Round or Sweet 16 as opposed to the 1st Round. I find that is often the difference between a winning and losing bracket!"

Ben Burns

"Ignore the seeding. I believe a lot of bettors get hung up about what seed a team is. For example, some start worrying about how No. 4 teams have done against No. 13 seeds historically. Every matchup is unique though, so the fact that some No. 13 seed upset a No. 4 seed previously has no relevance to me. If you like the favorite, lay the points. If you like the underdog, take them. Likewise, when filling out your bracket. If you feel that underdog is going to win, don't let its seeding prevent you from taking it to advance."

Jesse Schule

"I believe the secret to filling out a bracket (or even handicapping games during the tournament), is to be realistic about upsets. We all know that there will be some big surprises, but you don't want to over do it. When a smaller school upsets one of the top ranked teams, everyone talks about it. That tends to overshadow the fact that for every big favorite that loses, several others go on to win. I think you need to be careful not to fall in love with the dogs. "

Marc Lawrence

"One of the things I look to do is seek out deeply experienced teams with five returning starters back from last year’s squad. These teams play with the calmness of a ‘been there, don’t that’ mentality."

Larry Ness

"Look for experienced teams to advance. Teams heavy with senior leadership flourish in these types of tournaments. That is also true of experienced coaches."

AAA Sports

"My one tip would be to remember this before filling out your bracket: Beyond the top three seeds, teams for the most part do not have a shot at the National Title. Whatsoever. In fact, only one title has been won by a No. 4, 6 and 8 respectively. No other seed in the history of the event has won the tournament."

Zack Cimini

"My tip would be not to over analyze---don't pick too many upsets. Picking that way will eliminate you even faster than rolling with the main hitters."

Steve Merril

"Everyone loves to find those big first round upsets, however most bracket contests double the points each round, so unless you get the Final Four or the Finals correct, all those first and second round upset picks do not matter. It is fun to pick long shots, but historically the best teams win the tournament. In fact, a No. 1 seed has reached the finals in 24 of the past 32 years."

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Use our March Madness bracket predictions tool to make your NCAA picks

It's finally here. The bracket is out, the matchups are set, and we're just days away from the first game of March Madness.

Now comes the hard part — picking your bracket.

That’s where we come in.

Yes, the odds of picking a perfect bracket are 1 in 9,223,372,036,854,775,808, but you don’t need to pick a perfect bracket to win your pool.

We built this Madness Matchup tool to help you make an informed decision for every matchup in the tournament. We compiled data from every NCAA tournament game played (not including the First Four or play-in games, for seed purposes) since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Fun fact: Through the end of the 2016 tournament, there have been 2,016 such games.

The Madness Matchup tool works by comparing two teams’ historical win percentages for five categories — the teams’ seed, conference, final AP ranking (once it is released Monday, March 13), mascot, and color.

This is not a forecast of who will win each game in the 2017 NCAA tournament. Rather, it is a way to explore what history can tell us about each current matchup, and a way for you to pick your bracket based on insightful or fun (if statistically irrelevant) data.

For example, No. 1 seeds have beaten No. 2 seeds 53.2 percent of the time, and teams with dog mascots have beaten teams with cat mascots 57.6 percent of the time.

Potential N.C.A.A. Bracket Busters. You’ve Been Warned.

The key to winning your N.C.A.A. tournament pool is identifying and picking some teams to knock off higher-seeded opponents. The tournament is often volatile, so with that in mind, here are a few surprises to consider as you fill out your brackets:

No. 14 Iona Can Beat No. 3 Oregon

Why It Will Happen: Heading into Friday night, Oregon was a trendy pick as a possible No. 1 seed. But all that changed when Chris Boucher, who led the Pac-12 in blocks, tore his anterior cruciate ligament against Cal. A tight loss to Arizona in the tournament championship a day later only added to the emotional toll. The Ducks’ shallow depth will be tested against the quick-paced Gaels, who had seven different players score 20 points or more this season. This is Iona’s fourth N.C.A.A. tournament appearance since 2012, and Coach Tim Cluess will finally notch his first win.

Why It Might Not: Iona is 18-1 this season when it hits at least 10 3-pointers in a game, but Oregon is 23rd in the nation at defending against the 3. The Ducks will shake off the sorrow of losing Boucher and ride the experience of Dylan Ennis, Tyler Dorsey and Dillon Brooks to get them over the hump.

X-Factor: Kavell Bigby-Williams averages only 9.7 minutes per game, but he is going to be thrust into a much more prominent role now that Boucher is out. A junior from London, he played soccer until age 15, then took up basketball. Now he is a key figure in Oregon’s N.C.A.A. tournament hopes.

No. 12 Princeton Can Beat No. 5 Notre Dame

Why It Will Happen: It sounds obnoxious to say in so many ways, but the Ivy League is very good. Of the last 10 league champions, four won their first N.C.A.A. tournament games – in which they were always lower-seeded – and one lost by 2. And none were as hot as Princeton, which ran the Ivy League table and then, in the first-ever Ancient Eight tournament, beat Penn at the Palestra.

Why It Will Happen: It sounds obnoxious to say in so many ways, but the Ivy League is very good. Of the last 10 league champions, four won their first N.C.A.A. tournament games – in which they were always lower-seeded – and one lost by 2. And none were as hot as Princeton, which ran the Ivy League table and then, in the first-ever Ancient Eight tournament, beat Penn at the Palestra.

Why It Might Not: Notre Dame is a major-conference favorite, sure, but it is also extremely well coached and fundamentally sound in addition to the ordinary thing where they are much more talented than the scrappy Ivy squad.

X-Factor: Princeton needs to sink its 3s. Princeton’s .381 3-point percentage is barely above milquetoast, but they lean on the shot, scoring nearly half their points through it. At the very least, Princeton must make the Irish take the 3 away, opening up some of those backdoor cuts the Tigers are so famous for.

No. 12 Middle Tennessee State Can Beat No. 5 Minnesota

Why It Will Happen: Giddy Potts is back. So are six other players from last year’s Cinderella team, which knocked off No. 2 seed Michigan State in one of the most stunning tournament upsets in history. There is a reason Middle Tennessee State has been consistently receiving votes in the Top 25 poll for weeks. Coach Kermit Davis again has his team playing as one of the toughest defensively in the nation, and Minnesota was 3-4 this season when they scored fewer than 70 points. The Gophers were never expected to be this good after going 8-23 a year ago. Their remarkable season ends early.

Why It Might Not: Minnesota can defend, too. Coach Richard Pitino, like his father, Rick, loves a tough-nosed brand of basketball, and the Gophers are led inside by the Big Ten defensive player of the year Reggie Lynch (3.47 blocks per game). Middle Tennessee State is also missing one key element from last season: the surprise factor.

X-Factor: The Blue Raiders’ senior Reggie Upshaw is one of only three active players with 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, 200 assists, 100 steals and 100 blocks in his career. The do-it-all forward scored 21 points vs. Michigan State and will be a handful again.

No. 12 N.C.-Wilmington Can Beat No. 5 Virginia

Why It Will Happen: What happens when fast meets slow? We are about to find out. Nobody suffocates a game better than Tony Bennett’s Virginia team, which this season, per, has the most efficient defense and averages the slowest games in Division I. Less than a month ago, they beat North Carolina, which boasts one of the best offenses, 53-43. But U.N.C.-Wilmington likes to play fast and score a lot. The Seahawks amassed 100 or more points seven times this season, including against William & Mary in the Colonial Athletic Association semifinals. Even if the Seahawks are not able to maintain their typical pace against the Cavaliers, limiting possessions tends to neutralize talent disparities – which may be part of why even Bennett’s excellent squads have disappointed in March.

Why It Might Not: There is a substantial talent disparity to be neutralized. Virginia finished sixth in the super-deep Atlantic Coast Conference this season. U.N.C.-Wilmington played one other N.C.A.A. tournament team – Middle Tennessee State – and lost.

X-Factor: Get on the glass. Virginia is among the best in the country at limiting offensive rebounds. The Seahawks’ Devontae Cacok averages nearly 10 rebounds per game in just over 25 minutes. Play him, and camp him out.

No. 10 Marquette Can Beat No. 7 South Carolina

Why It Will Happen: South Carolina was seeded higher than even Coach Frank Martin expected, considering that the Gamecocks have lost six of their last nine games. Balanced Marquette (five players average double-digits scoring) spreads the floor and is one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country. In fact, their 3-point percentage, 43.1, is the nation’s best — led by freshman Markus Howard’s 54.9 percent shooting from beyond the arc. The last time another Marquette team averaged more than 80 points a game for an entire season was 1971. That team went to the round of 16, and this one could, too.

Why It Might Not: This will essentially be a home game for South Carolina, with the game being played in Greenville, S.C. The crowd will energize one of the nation’s staunchest defensive teams, which forces more than 17 turnovers per game, fifth most nationally. South Carolina will take the air out of the ball and hope Marquette goes cold.

X-Factor: Marquette’s Andrew Rowsey, the Big East’s sixth man of the year, will have the ball in his hands at the end of the game. His 93.3 percent shooting from the free-throw line is third in the country.

No. 14 Florida Gulf Coast Can Beat No. 3 Florida State

Why It Will Happen: Bad seeding. Florida State has some great A.C.C. wins, but the Seminoles were 7-8 playing away from home. Meanwhile, the Atlantic Sun champion played No. 3 Baylor close and No. 9 Michigan State really close – both on the road – and lost just two conference games. Add in that magnetic March mojo that pulls close teams even closer together, and the Eagles are an excellent candidate for an upset in Orlando, which is a solid 100 miles closer to Fort Myers than Tallahassee.

Why It Might Not: Florida State recruits nearly as well in basketball as it does in football. From a pure talent perspective, the Seminoles should be able to run the Eagles right off the court.

X Factor: The Eagles need to slow it down. A slow pace is more to their liking, but especially against Florida State’s all-world athletes a track meet will leave them in the dust.

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