There is a lot of luck involved in winning an NCAA Tournament office pool, but playing it safe will usually keep you alive through at least the first weekend. Predicting the Final Four teams correctly is the key to finishing first, and it will be tough to do that by picking too many upsets in the first few rounds.
Predicting upsets can be fun, but it’s not always the best winning formula. Only three times since 1979 has no No.1 seed reached the Final Four, and all four No.1 seeds won their portion of the bracket in 2008. A few lower seeds have a chance to compete for the national championship, but it’s important to know which teams it’s smart to take a chance on.
It might be more fun to pick against Kentucky during March Madness, but the Wildcats are the safest bet the NCAA Tournament has seen in years. They are the overwhelming favorite to win the national championship for a reason, winning all 34 of their games with minimal close calls. Not only is Kentucky the best team in the tournament, but they might have the easiest road of any No.1 seed. The Midwest might be the perfect region in which to take a chance on some early round upsets, because the Wildcats are likely to prevent any other team from reaching the Final Four.
Round of 32: Kentucky, Purdue, Buffalo, Maryland, Texas, Notre Dame, Wichita State, Kansas
Sweet 16: Kentucky, Maryland, Notre Dame, Wichita State
Elite 8: Kentucky, Notre Dame
Final Four: Kentucky
The West is the one region in which picking the No.1 seed to reach the Final Four isn’t the safest bet. No.2 Arizona is actually the favorite to win their portion of the bracket, not No.1 Wisconsin. The Wildcats could have easily been a No.1 seed, having suffered just three losses this year and entering the tournament on an 11-game winning streak. It won’t be easy to prevent the Badgers and Wildcats from meeting in the Elite Eight, but a few of the top seeds could have trouble making it out of the second weekend. No.4 North Carolina has gone 7-7 in their last 14 games, while No.10 Ohio State and No.5 Arkansas have a chance to go on runs, being led by potential lottery picks in the 2015 NBA Draft.
Round of 32: Wisconsin, Oregon, Arkansas, North Carolina, Xavier, Baylor, Ohio State, Arizona
Sweet 16: Wisconsin, Arkansas, Baylor, Arizona
Elite 8: Wisconsin, Arizona
Final Four: Arizona
A few teams have a legitimate chance to win the East and reach the Final Four. Villanova and Virginia are the two favorites, though the Cavaliers have lost two of their last three games. Louisville and Michigan State aren’t as good as they’ve been in recent years, but head coaches Rick Pitino and Tom Izzo usually make them safe picks to win a few tournament games. Northern Iowa is a sleeper pick of some experts, but it might not be very safe to predict them to make a Final Four run. There is almost always at least one No.12 seed that upsets a No.5 seed in the first round, and the Panthers could have a tough matchup with Wyoming.
Round of 32: Villanova, North Carolina State, Northern Iowa, Louisville, Providence, Oklahoma, Michigan State, Virginia
Sweet 16: Villanova, Louisville, Providence, Michigan State
Elite 8: Villanova, Michigan State
Final Four: Villanova
The South has a couple of perennial powerhouses at the top of the bracket, but that doesn’t necessarily make them safe picks to reach the Final Four. Duke might have the best chance of any team to defeat Kentucky, but they’ve struggled in the NCAA Tournament of late, failing to advance beyond the Sweet Sixteen in eight of the last 10 years. Gonzaga has been a part of March Madness since 1999, but they’ve never reached the Final Four. The Blue Devils might have the best player in college basketball, and the Bulldogs have a legitimate chance to reach the national championship game, but this might be the bracket in which to take a few risks. It may make sense to roll the dice on Iowa State considering their relatively weak early round schedule.
Round of 32: Duke, San Diego State, Stephen F. Austin, Eastern Washington, SMU, Iowa State, Davidson, Gonzaga
Sweet 16: Duke, Stephen F. Austin, Iowa State, Gonzaga
Elite 8: Duke, Iowa State
Final Four: Iowa State