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Top-10 tips to win the billion-dollar bracket

17 Mar 2014

By Aaron Todd
Whether you're a diehard college basketball fan or you will see your first game of the season this Thursday, chances are pretty good that you're going to fill out an NCAA basketball bracket at some point this week.

Maybe you participate in an office pool, or maybe you plan on picking some games at Las Vegas sportsbooks (or online, if you live in a jurisdiction where it's legal). This year, there's an even bigger incentive, as Warren Buffett will pay someone $1 billion if they fill out a perfect bracketv. Yes, the odds are long and chances are no one will come even close to being perfect. But it's a free chance to win some life-changing cash and have some fun along the way, so why not give it a shot?

Since I've watched a grand total of two college basketball games this year, I'm the wrong person to look to if you want any advice on the actual teams playing. But if you want to look at history as a guide, here are 10 historical trends that may give you a better shot at winning the $1 billion prize.

NOTE: While the NCAA calls the Thursday/Friday games "Second Round" games due to the games that determine the 16-seeds, I'll be referring to them as first-round games, and the Saturday/Sunday games as second-round games.

10. Don't pick any 16-seeds
Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 (and beyond that in 2001), a grand total of zero 16-seeds have won their first-round games against the No. 1 seeds. These should be the four easiest picks on your bracket.

9. Don't pick any 15-seeds, either
Florida Gulf State's success last year not withstanding, 15-seeds have historically been outmatched in the tournament. The 15-seeds are just 7-109 in the first round, winning just 6 percent of the time. While they are 3-5 in the first round in the last two years, I expect the long-term trend of the domination of the No. 2 seeds to show itself again this year.

8. Pick one 13- or 14-seed in the first round
While these matchups typically favor the 3/4 seeds, 13-seeds win at a rate of 21.6 percent in their first games, while 14-seeds advance to the second round 14.7 percent of the time. Chances are good at least one of these seeds will advance this year.

7. Pick one 12-seed to advance to the Sweet 16
It's well documented that 12-seeds are often the tournament's best Cinderella stories. The 12-seeds have won 32.6 percent of their first-round games, so pick one or two to get to the second round this year. More notable than the 12-seeds’ first-round success, however, is their success in the second round, where they're 20-24. Sure, it's not a winning record, but considering their winning percentage against No. 4 seeds (36.4 percent) is higher than it is in the first round, and that they're 8-3 when facing a 13-seed, it's usually a good bet that a 12-seed makes the Sweet 16.

6. The 8/9 games are pure toss-ups, but lose in the second round
The No. 8 seeds hold a razor-thin 72-68 advantage in the first round, so pick two of each to advance. But when it comes to the second round, when they will almost certainly face the No. 1 seeds in their regions, they are just 20-120.

5. Pick at least one No. 2 seed to lose in the second round
While all four No. 2 seeds will likely advance to the second round, there's a good chance one of them will fall in the second round. No. 2 seeds are 92-42 in the second round, including a surprisingly pedestrian 31-21 against the No. 10 seeds.

4. Pick two No. 1 seeds to make the Final Four
In 15 of the last 29 NCAA tournaments, two No. 1 seeds have made the Final Four. There have only been four tournaments where three No. 1s made the Final Four, and all four made the national semifinals just once in 2008. There have only been two Final Fours that did not include at least one top seed (2006 and 2011).

3. Pick one No. 2 seed to make the Final Four
There has been at least one No. 2 seed in the Final Four 21 times in the last 29 years, but two No. 2s have made the Final Four just six times. Pick one No. 2 seed and you'll have three of your semifinal selections completed.

2. Pick a No. 3 or No. 4 seed as your last Final Four team
The No. 3 and No. 4 seeds have been equally successful in making the Final Four, with 13 of each making the national semifinals. Only six No. 5 seeds and three No. 6 seeds have advanced that far, and seeds No. 7 and higher have combined for just seven Final Four appearances.

1. Pick a No. 1 seed to win it all
Eighteen of the last 29 national champions were the top seeds in their regions, including six of the last seven. Sure, picking chalk isn't as fun or creative as picking upsets, but history tends to prove the selection committee did a pretty good job setting the seeds. If you want to win $1 billion this year, your best odds are to pick a No. 1 seed to win it all.
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