The Best Awful Way to Pick a NCAA Bracket

It’s March Madness time. Which will bring great giddiness to the college sports nuts in your office, family, or group of friends. They watch all the games, they consume 100 hours of ESPN each week during the season, and they study all the latest news that could effect their bracket. You, on the other hand, don’t know anything about college basketball or the NCAA tournament. But you still want to get in on the fun and pick a bracket. Everyone is almost literally doing it. There are an estimated 70 million brackets filled out each year. Fortunately for you there are some fun ways to pick a bracket based on things that have nothing to do with basketball. You’ve probably heard of some: Which mascot would win in a fight? What city would you rather visit? Who has cooler uniforms? Any of these would be an awful way to pick a NCAA bracket if you hope to win… right? Maybe not! We explore several popular ways that you could pick a bracket with no basketball knowledge, some of which may not be terrible.

Examining an Awful Way to Pick a NCAA Bracket

To simplify things we looked at the historic winning percentage of most of the schools projected to be in the 2016 NCAA tournament (plus a few that might be on the bubble) as of the morning of Selection Sunday. We then compared those win percentages to different criteria, detailed below. That approach doesn’t tell us exactly who we’d predict to win in any given year, but gives us an idea of which programs have a history of winning. It should be enough to go off of for those people who are already using an awful way to pick a NCAA bracket.

Team Color

Picking teams based on one’s personal color preference seems to be the popular choice for people who want to do the least amount of research on the teams or programs. A quick Google image search will get you everything you need. It’s hard to say whether this would work or not because it is dependent on what your favorite color is. Teams with orange as their primary jersey color (after white, which was not included) have the highest win percentage in the NCAA basketball tournament. Red and yellow are not too far behind. Interestingly, there seems to be a split between the brighter/lighter colors and the darker colors:

Awful Way to Pick a NCAA Bracket

In general this is a tough way to pick a bracket because inevitably the colors you like most will have to meet up and you’ll have to make a call between two yellow teams, for example. If you must choose this strategy, please do not go around your office asking “What color is ________’s jerseys?”. That is the worst. With this method your Final Four might include teams like Wichita State, Arizona, Indiana, or Virginia.


This strategy takes a little work, and you have to decide what you want to use for your measure of a university’s brain-power. ACT scores of students that get admitted? SAT? GPA? Well, guess what, we looked at all of them. Oh, and we also went and looked at unweighted GPA, weighted GPA, SAT Writing, SAT Critical Reading, and SAT Math. We really went overboard on this one. Interestingly enough, each one of those is a somewhat reliable predictor of winning percentage for schools in the NCAA tournament. Weighted GPA (shown below) was the strongest predictor:

Awful Way to Pick a NCAA Bracket

Schools with higher admission standards had more successful basketball programs in the tournament. With this method your Final Four might include teams like Duke, Virginia, North Carolina, and Vanderbilt. Why would GPA matter? A good academic reputation might help schools attract better talent, both in players and coaches.

And what started out as a goofy analysis actually turns into something. But we’re just getting started.

How Old is the University?

Here’s another one that takes a little homework. You could pick based on what school is older or newer depending on your preference. Seems like a pretty random criteria to pick a bracket off of, but it turns out the year a school was founded is a pretty good predictor of success in the tournament. Older schools have a tendency to have higher winning percentages than “newer” schools (though in this case a new school is one founded between 1900 and 1950):

Awful Way to Pick a NCAA Bracket

With this strategy your Final Four might include North Carolina, Virginia, Indiana, or Cincinnati. It’s not impossible to imagine how this could be a real factor determining success of a sports program. Older, more established schools may have more of a reputation to use to attract recruits. Although considering basketball wasn’t invented until 1891 and the NCAA tournament didn’t start until 1939 it’s seems strange that the extra 100 years of history would matter too much. Yet here it is, the strongest predictive factor in or analysis. If you don’t now what a “spurious correlation” is, now might be a good time to stop for a second and familiarize yourself.

How Expensive is the University?

Another option to pick your bracket is the cost of going to each school. Information on cost to attend different schools can be pretty readily found if you poke around a bit, and you could set up a bracket where either the priciest or cheapest schools win. But alas, the analysis shows this probably wouldn’t work too well. Annual cost to attend (from really doesn’t correlate with winning in the tournament. What is interesting is the massive gulf between the cost to attend private schools and state-sponsored public schools. I’ll let you figure out which group is which:

Awful Way to Pick a NCAA Bracket

With this strategy your Final Four might be a mix of quality teams and duds and could include Duke, Yale,  Vanderbilt, and Notre Dame if you go with more expensive school winning. Or you might get Wichita State, New Mexico State, Iowa, and West Virginia with the cheap route.


Lastly, we have the old mascot strategy, a standby for the uninformed fan. This can be done several ways, but the most popular route seems to be “which would win in a fight”. And why not, it allows you a framework to dream about the most fantastical animal fighting tournament outside of Michael Vick’s house (sorry, too soon). But unlike many of the previous methods, this is somewhat subjective. How do you make a call about whether a bear or a panther would win in a fight? What about a “Sooner” compared to a “Gael”? To properly conduct this portion of the analysis we needed to assign a “Mascot Ferocity Score” or MFS to each school’s mascot. Is that still a little subjective? Yes. But we needed some way to assign numbers to all these critters so we could run stats on them (Does it help you to know that I have a couple degrees in biology? No? Ok then). Here is our criteria for the 10 point scale of MFS:

 Score  Criteria Examples
 10 Mythological creatures, forces of nature  Sun Devils, Hurricanes
 9  Groups of combat oriented humans  Spartans, Musketeers
 8  Groups of specialized humans  Mountaineers, Lumberjacks
 7  Groups of peaceful humans Hoosiers, Aggies
 6  Top predators Panthers, Lions, Bears
 5  Mid-level predators Bobcats, Badgers
 4  Dogs, large rodents, non-carnivore mammals Huskies, Broncos, Kangaroos
 3  Birds of prey  Eagles, Hawks, Owls
 2  Regular birds Cardinals, Gamecocks
 1  Turtles  Terapins (sorry Maryland)

Now before you start whining about how a bear could easily beat any of the humans that appear above them on the list, we ask you to look at the big picture. Are you aware of the presence of zoos? We didn’t arrive at that relationship because the bear wins all the time. We did reserve the right to assign an extra half point to a mascot that fell somewhere in between two groups. For example, Notre Dame’s “Fighting Irish” while not necessarily a combat oriented mascot like a Spartan or a Cavalier, certainly implies some violence, even if it is loosely organized violence. So we scored it an 8.5. The Wichita State “Shockers” are kind an ambiguous insect-thing, but there seems to be electricity involved, so that bumped it up a bit. North Carolina State “Wolfpack”, that’s a whole pack of wolves which is better than 1 wolf. Teamwork gets you an extra half point.

With our MFS ratings in place we can proceed to examine if schools that win more have more ferocious mascots. And the results are…. Pretty underwhelming:

Awful Way to Pick a NCAA Bracket

Turns out a team with a turtle mascot and one with a hurricane mascot have had pretty much the same amount of success in the tournament (actually the turtle has been doing better). When it comes to mascots, it’s pretty much a crapshoot. So while this might be a fun strategy, it’s unlikely to get you into the top tier of your bracket pool. Your Final Four here (assuming you score these similarly to us) could include Duke, Miami, Iowa State, and Michigan State. But the mascot route is a lot of fun, as are several of these other methods, and isn’t that what it should be all about?

Awful Way to Pick a NCAA Bracket
Don’t be fooled by the docile anteater of UC Irvine.

So if you’re not into basketball and want a goofy way to pick your bracket we hope this guide to some of the methods is useful to you. According to our analysis you should look for an old school, with good academic standards, and preferably an orange or yellow jersey. But if you have your own oddball criteria we’d love to hear about it, and maybe we’ll take a look at it next year. In the meantime, enjoy the games!

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