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NCAA Tournament 2021 bracket tips: How to play odds when picking Final Four, Sweet 16



The 2021 NCAA Tournament is here, and this year’s March Madness bracket is wide open after parity swept college basketball.  

That said, the smartest bet is still to take a No. 1 seed to win it all. Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams is 1984-85, there are two stats that matter when it comes to picking the correct championship game:  

• A No. 1 seed has won 22 of those 35 tournaments, including the last three with North Carolina (2017), Villanova (2018) and Virginia (2019).  

• A total of 35 of the 70 championship game participants since 1984-85 were No. 1 seeds. In other words, a No. 1 seed makes it to the final game 50 percent of the time.

We aren’t saying the tournament won’t have upsets. That’s an annual rite, and this year could introduce more madness than ever. But it’s best to stick with the numbers when crafting your Sweet 16, Final Four and championship game picks.

Here is a look at past statistical trends from the NCAA Tournament since 1984-85 to get you there.

MORE: Get your printable March Madness bracket here

March Madness bracket tips for 2021 NCAA Tournament

Odds to make the championship game by seed  

No. 1: 50.0 (35 of 70)
No. 2: 17.1 (12 of 70)
No. 3: 15.6 (11 of 70)
No. 4: 4.3 (3 of 70)
No. 5: 4.3 (3 of 70)
No. 6: 2.9 (2 of 70)
No. 7: 1.3 (1 of 70)
No. 8: 4.3 (3 of 70)

Bracket tip: A total of 58 of the 70 championship game participants were seeded No. 3 or higher in the NCAA tournament. That 82.9 percent success rate stands out. Only six teams seeded lower than No. 5 have made the championship game in the modern era. It’s risky to be that bold with your bracket.  

Odds to make the Final Four by seed  

No. 1: 40.7 (57 of 140)
No. 2: 20.0 (28 of 140)
No. 3: 12.9 (18 of 140)
No. 4: 9.3 (13 of 140)
No. 5: 5.0 (7 of 140)
No. 6: 2.1 (3 of 140)
No. 7: 2.1 (3 of 140)
No. 8: 3.6 (5 of 140)
No. 9: 0.7 (1 of 140)
No. 10: 0.7 (1 of 140)
No. 11: 2.9 (4 of 140)

Bracket tip: That high number is back again. A total of 82.8 percent of the Final Four participants (116 of 140) were seeded No. 4 or higher. 

There still is room for one good Cinderella story, however. A team seeded No. 5 or lower has made the Final Four in each of the last five tournaments. That list includes Michigan State (No. 7, 2015), Syracuse (No. 10, 2016), South Carolina (No. 7, 2017), Loyola-Chicago (No. 11, 2018) and Auburn (No. 5, 2019). If there is a major conference team you think is equipped to make that run, don’t be afraid to go for it.

Odds to make the Sweet 16 by seed 

No. 1: 85.7 (120 out of 140)
No. 8: 9.3 (13 out of 140)
No. 9: 5.0 (7 out of 140)
No. 16: 0 (0 out of 140)
No. 2: 63.6 (89 out of 140)
No. 7: 19.3 (27 out of 140)
No. 10: 16.4 (23 out of 140)
No. 15 0.7 (1 out of 140)
No. 3: 52.9 (74 out of 140)
No. 6: 30.0 (42 out of 140)
No. 11: 15.7 (22 out of 140)
No. 14: 1.4 (2 out of 140)
No. 4: 47.1 (66 out of 140)
No. 5: 33.6 (47 out of 140)
No. 12: 15.0 (21 out of 140)

Bracket tip: It can go either way. In 2018, half of the teams that reached the Sweet 16 were seeded No. 5 or lower. In 2019, every No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 seeds reached the Sweet 16 in one of the chalkiest first weekends ever. It’s still best to rely on that chalk to give your Final Four a chance, even in a year where it could be as unpredictable as ever.

Lowest seed to win the NCAA Tournament

Villanova is the lowest seed to win the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats upset Georgetown 66-64 in the championship game in 1985; the first year of the expanded bracket. Only six other teams seeded lower than No. 4 have made the NCAA championship game. 

That list includes Butler twice. The Bulldogs were a No. 5 seed in 2010 and a No. 8 seed in 2011. Michigan (No. 6, 1992), Florida (No. 5, 2000), Indiana (No. 5, 2002) and Kentucky (No. 8, 2014) also have made the championship game. 

Bracket tip: Knowing this, the smart bet is to confine your championship picks to teams seed No. 1 through No. 4. 

March Madness winners by seed

Seed National championships
1 22
2 5
3 4
4 1
5 0
6 1
7 1
8 1
9 0
10 0
11 0
12 0
13 0
14 0
15 0
16 0

March Madness upset odds by seed

No. 16 UMBC beat No. 1 Virginia in the 2018 NCAA tournament; the only time a No. 16 seed has knocked off a No. 1 seed. When picking the first-round games, it’s important to know that might not happen again for a long time. Here are the winning percentage for each of the first-round matchups since 1985: 

Seed Upset odds
16 vs. 1 0.01 percent (1 of 140)
15 vs. 2 0.06 percent (8 of 140)
14 vs. 3 15.0 percent (21 of 140)
13 vs. 4 20.7 percent (29 of 140)
12 vs. 5 35.7 percent (50 of 140)
11 vs. 6 37.1 percent (52 of 140)
10 vs. 7 39.3 percent (55 of 140)
9 vs. 8 51.4 percent (72 of 140)

Bracket tip: Spend a considerable time researching the 8-9 and 7-10 games. Those are the hidden points in a bracket that you might need later if the score is tight. They are toss up games. Don’t be shy about pulling that 5-12 upset either. It will be there for you. 

Vegas odds to win the 2021 NCAA Tournament

This section will be updated after Selection Sunday with the latest odds for entire field of 68.





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