March Madness brackets: Lessons from Bracket Challenge Game winners

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There is always so much discussion about the early rounds heading into the NCAA tournament. Which upsets should you pick? Who is this year’s Cinderella, who makes a run to the Sweet 16 as an unexpected double-digit seed? Which higher-seeded team could be in danger of an early letdown?

Well, maybe we spend too much time worrying about early-round upsets and not enough time dissecting potential Elite Eight and Final Four matchups. All of the talk about early rounds is deserved – the upsets are part of what makes March Madness so great – but if we’re talking about putting together the best bracket, let’s pay as much, if not more, attention at the later rounds.

BRACKET CHALLENGE GAME
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We took a look at the data from the past six years of the Capital One Bracket Challenge Game, the official bracket game of the NCAA tournament. There have been more three million entries, but each year, there has been one outright winner.

Let’s take a look at how the six winners did, round by round.

Reminder: All rounds have equal value. So, correct picks in the traditional first round get one point, and that value doubles each round up to getting 32 points for the correct national champion.

 
FIRST ROUND
SECOND ROUND
SWEET
16
ELITE
EIGHT
FINAL
FOUR
CHAMP.
TOTAL
2016
25
22
28
32
32
32
171
2015
25
30
28
32
32
32
179
2014
25
22
24
32
32
32
167
2013
22
24
28
24
32
32
162
2012
23
24
28
24
32
32
175
2011
25
20
20
16
32
32
145
Note: For years in which the Bracket Challenge Game included the First Four, that data was excluded for this exercise. It did not impact which bracket won the challenge.

Some important takeaways from the data:

Every one of the past six winners had the participants and winner of the national championship game right.

It doesn’t matter how many correct upsets you pick in the first round if you lose a championship game team. It’s hard to fill out …

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