2024 NCAA Tournament Bracket Picks: Expert Predicts Every Game With Houston on Top

2024 NCAA Tournament Bracket Picks: Expert Predicts Every Game With Houston on Top article feature image

Pictured: Sean Koerner (front and center).

It’s time for March Madness and for our NCAA Tournament bracket picks.

If you’re planning on waiting until the last minute to fill out your bracket, that actually works. There are several matchups that I’m not locking in a pick on yet because I want to see the results of the play-in games and get some more injury information on a couple of teams (we’re looking at you, Kansas).

There are two variables I consider before picking a team to advance:

  1. My projected odds of that team advancing through each round based on 10,000 simulations run using my custom team ratings.
  2. The average percentage of users who have that team advancing on ESPN and Yahoo!

Check out Koerner's custom bracket builder to help you thrive in March Madness.

With those factors, I create a leverage score for every team to get a sense of which schools the market is overrating or underrating. The goal is the maximize our leverage score while building a bracket.

The leverage score equation: my projected odds minus the percentage of users picking a team.

Before you dive into the picks, I want to note that you should check this page again on Wednesday night. There’s a chance that based on the results of games on Tuesday and Wednesday some of my picks will change.

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2024 NCAA Tournament Bracket Picks

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East Region

Round of 64

No. 1 UConn over No. 16 Stetson

A whopping 2% of users appear content taking a zero here by taking Stetson.

No. 8 Florida Atlantic over No. 9 Northwestern

Potential Pivot: This matchup is essentially a coin flip, although I think FAU has the slight edge. As of Monday afternoon, 55% of users are on FAU, which means I'll go with FAU since I'm projecting them as having a 57% chance of advancing.

However, if the user pick percentage creeps over 60%, it would probably make sense to pivot to Northwestern.

No. 5 San Diego State over No. 12 UAB

SDSU made it to the national championship last year, but this isn't the same team. In fact, the Aztecs are the weakest No. 5 seed according to my power ratings.

However, UAB is the weakest No. 12 seed. I think Jaedon LeDee and the Aztecs can avoid the upset, but I don't see them making a deep run in the tournament.

No. 4 Auburn over No. 13 Yale

Auburn is the best No. 4 seed, while Yale is the weakest No. 13. I'm not going to overthink this one.

No. 6 BYU over No. 11 Duquense

BYU is the best No. 6 seed, while Duquense is the weakest No. 11 seed.

I know my bracket is pretty chalky so far, but that's totally fine based on these matchups. The user pick percentage also hasn't made it entirely enticing to pick an upset quite yet.

I'm going to have plenty of chaos in this region starting in the next round, so I'm OK with a boring start.

No. 3 Illinois over No. 14 Morehead State

Illinois is the best No. 3 seed, which appears to be a theme with this region. Most of the highest seeds are the strongest in the tournament, while the lower seeds are among the weakest. It's a dynamic that doesn't bode well for UConn because we could see fewer upsets, which would mean tougher matchups for the Huskies in the Sweet 16.

No. 7 Washington State over No. 10 Drake

Pivot: I have this game closer to a coin flip, and users are essentially split 50/50. I initially leaned toward Drake, but have switched to Washington State.

No. 2 Iowa State over No. 15 South Dakota State

Regardless of which team I have going through, I will have the winner losing to Iowa State in the next round. That means this isn't a pick that will have a huge impact on where my bracket will finish.

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Round of 32

No. 1 UConn over No. 8 Florida Atlantic

As I hinted in the Round of 64, UConn has a pretty tough path to the Final Four in this region considering how strong the Nos. 2-4 seeds are. While I think the Huskies should be co-favorites to win the whole tournament with Houston, they're still being picked as the national champion in 32% of brackets. That means UConn would make sense as a team to fade.

So, when do we have UConn lose? I'm thinking the Sweet 16 will be an ideal spot. In very large bracket pools with top-heavy payouts, though, you could take a flier on FAU here with its 7% usage score.

No. 4 Auburn over No. 5 San Diego State

Auburn will be a tough matchup for the Aztecs as Bruce Pearl's team looks to slow down LeDee and force his teammates to step up. I think Auburn would end up being favored by five or more points, so I don't see a reason to fade it here.

Auburn has the sixth-best odds on DraftKings to advance to the Sweet Sixteen, ahead of even No. 1-seed North Carolina and No. 2-seed Marquette in other regions.

No. 6 BYU over No. 3 Illinois

A whopping 74% of users are taking Illinois over BYU in this hypothetical matchup, but I think the Illini would only be favored by two or three points in this game.

Both teams are in the top 11 of KenPom's offensive efficiency, but BYU's defense (ranked 48th) is better than Illinois (93rd). The Cougars should also be able to limit to number of offensive rebounds that the Illini grab.

I like the leverage we're getting here with BYU advancing to the Sweet Sixteen in just 24% of brackets. I'm projecting the Cougars as having a 37% chance to advance past Illinois.

If you look at Sweet Sixteen odds, Illinois is -120 and BYU is +170. A lot of that can be chalked up to Illinois having the easier first-round matchup, but the market is hinting at this specific matchup being closer to a coin flip.

No. 2 Iowa State over No. 7 Washington State

If you're in a bigger bracket pool, it'd make sense to be a bit more aggressive and have Washington State advance past Iowa State here. That would increase the uniqueness of your bracket in a sharp way.

Sweet 16

No. 4 Auburn over No. 1 UConn

This is a huge leverage spot since 79% of users have UConn in the Elite Eight. I'm only projecting the Huskies as having a 57% chance of making it to that round.

Auburn is a very good No. 4 seed with the sixth-best odds of winning the whole tournament, and UConn would only be favored by a few points in this hypothetical matchup. This is the kind of upset that's much more likely to happen than people realize. If it comes to fruition, it'd give you a massive edge in your pool.

No. 6 BYU over No. 2 Iowa State

I'm being pretty aggressive here by picking BYU. If the Cougars do face Iowa State, they'd only be underdogs of about three points.

Iowa State has the top-ranked defense in the country but allows a ton of 3-point attempts. BYU relies on 3-pointers, though, at the second-highest rate in the country in terms of percentage of points distribution. That means the outcome of this game will likely come down to how the Cougars shoot from beyond the arc. That makes them a sneaky pick here.

I'm projecting BYU as having a 17% chance to make it to the Elite Eight, but only 10% of brackets have it going that far, which is good for a +7% leverage score. This would also be a good way to fade Iowa State, which has a -8% leverage score.

Elite Eight

No. 4 Auburn over No. 6 BYU

If this matchup happens, my bracket will be sitting pretty. That means I'm not going to get too crazy and will take the team that I'd expect to be favored by three or four points in Auburn.

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West Region

Round of 64

No. 1 North Carolina over No. 16 Howard

It doesn't matter which No. 16 seed UNC ends up facing. Either team will get smoked.

No. 8 Mississippi State over No. 9 Michigan State

Potential Pivot: This game is practically a coin flip for me, but 62% of brackets have the Spartans advancing here so I'll roll with the Bulldogs. Michigan State would offer more leverage (+11%) in the next round as a sneaky pick to upset North Carolina, though, so there's a chance I end up swapping this pick.

No. 5 Saint Mary's over No. 12 Grand Canyon

I was expecting GCU to be a pretty popular pick here, but only 25% of brackets have it pulling off the upset for a decent 6% leverage score. However, as more brackets are getting filled out, that percentage is on the rise. I wouldn't be shocked if it ends up over 30%.

Regardless, I'm going to stick with the team that I'm giving a 69% chance to avoid the upset.

No. 4 Alabama over No. 13 Charleston

This is a similar situation to the game above where there is decent leverage in taking the underdog. You certainly want to consider picking Grand Canyon or Charleston to advance if you're in a massive pool.

I'm sticking with both favorites to advance since I project both with a very high percent chance of winning in this round.

No. 11 New Mexico over No. 6 Clemson

Despite being a No. 11 seed, New Mexico is favored by two points against Clemson, who 56% of brackets have advancing. This is a great spot to take the 11 seed, and we're getting solid leverage (12%) on a team that's favored.

No. 3 Baylor over No. 14 Colgate

Colgate is offering a 4% leverage score here, but it's unlikely (11%) to pull off the upset here. I'm taking Baylor while viewing the Bears as a potential fade in the next round.

No. 7 Dayton over No. 10 Nevada

Pivot: I'm treating with matchup as a coin flip with a slight edge to Nevada, and the market agrees. Nevada is a one-point favorite with 51% of brackets having it advance.

I don't plan on having either team upset Arizona in the next round, so this isn't a matchup we should spend much time splitting hairs over. That being said, I have switched my pick to Dayton.

No. 2 Arizona over No. 15 Long Beach State

I graduated from Long Beach State and spent many hours in the library there building my initial models for various sports while having numerous statistics and sports handicapping books spread out on my desk. I live just a few minutes away from the campus and have attended a few games this season.

I wish I could find a way for LBSU to pull off the upset, but this is a brutal draw. Long Beach plays at a fast pace in order to overcome its poor shooting, but that's not going to catch Arizona off guard. The 49ers are also in an unprecedented situation where they already fired head coach longtime Dan Monson last week while agreeing to let him finish the season.

Round of 32

No. 1 North Carolina over No. 8 Mississippi State

UNC is the only No. 1 seed that isn't favored to win its region with Arizona at +190. Therefore, the Tar Heels are a vulnerable top seed that we need to consider as an early upset exit.

This is the first spot where fading North Carolina could pay off in a big way since a whopping 85% of users have it in the Sweet 16. I have the odds of that closer to 66%.

I think the Sweet 16 will be the best time to fade UNC but if you're in a bigger bracket pool, it makes sense to go with Michigan State winning in the first round and then beating North Carolina. The Spartans would only be about 4.5-point underdogs against the Tar Heels so if you want UNC out early, you'd want it to face Tom Izzo here.

No. 4 Alabama over No. 5 Saint Mary's

Alabama would only be favored by a couple of points here, but it's much more likely to actually make it this far given Saint Mary's tough first-round matchup against Grand Canyon. Since I have my sights on either of these teams taking down North Carolina in the Sweet 16, I want the better team to win here — and that's Alabama.

No. 11 New Mexico over No. 3 Baylor

New Mexico would only be laying three or so points in this hypothetical matchup, but only 18% of users are taking it against Baylor. That gives us a solid 10% leverage score here.

I think this is a great spot to differentiate my bracket and also make the path for Arizona, which I'm eyeing to win the region, easier.

No. 2 Arizona over No. 7 Dayton

Sweet 16

No. 4 Alabama over No. 1 North Carolina

Assuming this hypothetical matchup happens, North Carolina would only be favored by a couple of points, yet 84% of brackets have UNC beating Alabama. Taking UNC would have a -28% leverage score, which is the lowest of the tournament. That makes this fade the most valuable in the whole field in terms of potentially helping you win your pool.

Alabama's +12% leverage score here represents the Tide as the optimal team to have beat UNC. Even if Mississippi State or Michigan State knocks off the Tar Heels earlier, we'd benefit because of Alabama's easier path to the Elite Eight.

No. 2 Arizona over No. 11 New Mexico

If New Mexico makes it this far, my bracket will be thriving. Therefore, I think it makes a lot of sense to go with the favorite here. The goal will be to have Arizona make it out of the West, which is set up by the handful of upsets that could occur to ease its path.

Elite Eight

No. 2 Arizona over No. 4 Alabama

Alabama offers a solid +7% leverage score here, but we have to remember that a lot of that has to do with the potential upset over UNC. At this point, we'd have benefitted a lot from Bama making it this far, so I think it makes sense to roll with Arizona.

Sometimes, it's less about the hypothetical matchup (that is unlikely to happen) and I strongly consider the path for each team to make it this far. I think having Arizona in the Final Four and potentially the national championship is the way to go.

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South Region

Round of 64

No. 1 Houston over No. 16 Longwood

It appears 2% of users are content taking a zero here.

No. 8 Nebraska over No. 9 Texas A&M

Potential Pivot: This is your typical No. 8 vs. No. 9 matchup that is essentially a coin flip, and users appear split on which side to take. I'm going to lean Nebraska here, but I'm leaving the door open for me to potentially pivot once I've had a longer look at the matchup.

No. 5 Wisconsin over No. 12 James Madison

These No. 5 vs. No. 12 matchups used to be much more of a coin flip, but that hasn't been the case in recent years. Last season, all four No. 5 seeds won their first-round game, marking the third time in the past eight years that had taken place. Prior to 2015, it had only happened three times.

I've never tried to fall under specific rules like making sure I pick at least one 12 seed, and I think that specific trend has fizzled out in recent years. I'm taking the Badgers here.

No. 4 Duke over No. 13 Vermont

Vermont allowed the eighth-lowest offensive rebounding rate in the country, but the Catamounts also had one of the easiest strength of schedules for rebounding. Duke is by far the best team that Vermont will face this season and will be able to get second-chance points at a higher rate than the Catamounts usually allow.

I wouldn't be shocked if Vermont somehow upsets Duke, but I don't see any reason to pass on the 86% chance to pick up points here with the Blue Devils.

No. 6 Texas Tech over No. 11 NC State

NC State's miracle run of five wins in five days to win the ACC Tournament earned it a ticket to the dance. Like a tequila-filled night, though, all good things must come to an end.

I think Texas Tech is a bit underrated as a No. 6 seed. The Red Raiders could be getting two key players back in the first round in Warren Washington and Darrion Williams, which would give them a massive lift.

We do have an interesting situation here where a team is a five-point favorite with a 65% chance of advancing while also offering us a +14% leverage score. That's only because 54% of brackets have Tech advancing here.

I think it's a no-brainer to go with the favorite here.

No. 3 Kentucky over No. 14 Oakland

I'm joining the 93% of brackets that have Kentucky advancing here.

No. 10 Colorado/Boise State over No. 7 Florida

We don't know which team Florida will face yet, but 77% of brackets already have the Gators advancing. Most people would rather just pick the lower seed and roll with either 10 seed for now. The graphic of not having a team logo in the Round of 32 is a bit of an eyesore, though.

Once the matchup is set and people see that this game, regardless of which 10 seed wins, will be close to a pick'em — or even Colorado being a slight favorite — we could see people pivot away from Florida and have this be closer to a 50-50 split.

For now, either Boise or Colorado offers a massive +30% leverage score. Florida's Micah Handlogten suffered a season-ending injury in the Gators' last game, which is a big blow since he's worth a point or two to the spread.

I'll be taking whichever 10 seed wins on Wednesday night.

No. 2 Marquette over No. 15 Western Kentucky

Tyler Kolek (oblique) is expected to return for Marquette, which is a huge boost. The Golden Eagles are a 14-point favorite here, which is the lowest spread of all No. 2 seeds. I think Marquette escapes this matchup but is a fairly vulnerable No. 2 seed.

Round of 32

No. 1 Houston over No. 8 Nebraska

I mention this every year but it's worth repeating: One of the most important parts of building your bracket is correctly predicting which team will win the national championship. I know that sounds obvious, but I don't think people realize just how true it is.

Therefore, I often like to work backwards and decide which team I will pick to win the championship before filling out my bracket. I have already determined that Houston appears to be the optimal pick, considering I have it as the most likely team to win it all with a 20% chance. Only 12% of users are picking the Cougars to be the national champions, though. That's a solid +8% leverage score by taking them.

So, obviously, I'm taking Houston to beat Nebraska.

No. 4 Duke over No. 5 Wisconsin

I'm in line with 56% of brackets that have Duke advancing here since I give the Blue Devils a 58% chance of making the Sweet 16. This is a situation where even if Wisconsin advances, my bracket could benefit since it'd make Houston's path slightly easier.

No. 6 Texas Tech over No. 3 Kentucky

Kentucky would only be favored by a couple of points here, yet 83% of brackets have the Wildcats advancing. That gives Texas Tech a +18% leverage score and makes the Red Raiders an excellent choice here.

No. 10 Colorado over No. 2 Marquette

Potential Pivot: This is a tricky situation where how I handle this part of the bracket could depend on whether Colorado beats Boise State on Wednesday night.

If Colorado wins and less than 10% of brackets (as of Wednesday night) has it advancing here, I'd want to take the Buffs and their +17% leverage score. If Boise State wins, though, I may pivot and have Marquette advance to the next round and beat Texas Tech.

Check back to this page before you go to bed on Wednesday night for my final calls.

Sweet 16

No. 1 Houston over No. 4 Duke

Houston has a -2% leverage score but when looking at the bigger picture, it's well worth having the Cougars advance. They offer a +14% leverage score over the next three rounds.

No. 6 Texas Tech over No. 10 Colorado

Potential Pivot: If I stick with Colorado making the Sweet 16, I'll have Texas Tech advance to the Elite Eight. If Boise State ends up as this No. 10 seed, I may pivot to Marquette not only facing Texas Tech here but also beating the Red Raiders.

Elite Eight

No. 1 Houston over No. 6 Texas Tech

Potential Pivot: Regardless of which team makes it through my convoluted Colorado/Texas Tech/Marquette scenario, this is the end of the road for it. I'll have Houston putting an end to that team's season and advancing to the Final Four.

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Midwest Region

Round of 64

No. 1 Purdue over No. 16 Montana State/Grambling State

It doesn't matter which 16 seed Purdue plays.

No. 9 TCU over No. 8 Utah State

As of Tuesday, 54% of brackets have the lower seed advancing here, although TCU is a three-point favorite and offers a decent +5% leverage score.

No. 5 Gonzaga over No. 12 McNeese State

McNeese State is a dangerous 12 seed and offers a nice +8% leverage score. I think the Cowboys match up well against Gonzaga since the Zags tend to score most of their points from the inside while McNeese was one of the best teams in the country defending shots inside the arc.

Gonzaga does a good job of preventing opponents from getting to the free-throw line, though that could help McNeese since it was a very poor free-throw-shooting team that was sent to the charity stripe often. This matchup won't be easy, but after initially picking McNeese State, I've pivoted to Gonzaga.

No. 13 Samford over No. 4 Kansas

Hunter Dickinson appears likely to return for Kansas, which will be a huge boost. Samford offers a solid +9% leverage score and I'm backing the Bulldogs as the Jayhawks will be without Kevin McCullar Jr.

No. 6 South Carolina over No. 11 Oregon

South Carolina is a 1.5-point favorite with 53% of brackets having the Gamecocks advance here. I'm giving them a slightly betting chance of moving on at 55%, so I'll roll with the lower seed to advance.

No. 3 Creighton over No. 14 Akron

Akron is the best No. 14 seed, but Creighton is a strong No. 3 seed that I give an 87% chance to advance here.

No. 10 Colorado State/Virginia over No. 7 Texas

We have a similar situation to the South Region where the fact that the play-in game is facing the No. 7 seed is causing people to blindly pick the lower seed. Texas will be favored by a few points regardless of who it plays, but a whopping 83% of brackets have the Longhorns advancing.

I'm going to roll with either 10 seed here unless we see that pick percentage get up to over 35% by Wednesday night, which seems unlikely.

No. 2 Tennessee over No. 15 St. Peter's

St. Peter's had one of the least-probable March Madness runs two years ago, and I think Tennessee will take it seriously here because of it.

Round of 32

No. 1 Purdue over No. 9 TCU

All of these hypothetical matchups in this region have a team with a better than 70% chance of advancing without enough leverage to pick an underdog. That means this round in the Midwest will be pretty straightforward.

No. 5 Gonzaga over No. 13 Samford

I think it makes sense to have one of the 12 or 13 seeds advance, then have either Gonzaga or Kansas advance from here.

No. 3 Creighton over No. 6 South Carolina

Both teams offer a +1% leverage score here, so it's a close call in terms of strategy. I lean Creighton since I think the South Carolina vs. Oregon game in the first round is essentially a coin flip. I don't need that decision spilling over into the Sweet 16.

No. 2 Tennessee over No. 10 Colorado State/Virginia

Unlike the South Region, though, I'm not going to have a convoluted scenario that depends on the result of the play-in game for the No. 10 seed. Tennessee is a strong No. 2 seed that should be picked to advance to the Sweet 16.

Sweet 16

No. 1 Purdue over No. 5 Gonzaga
No. 2 Tennessee over No. 3 Creighton

This is a bit of a toss-up as to which team would make sense to have advance from a strategical perspective. I'm rolling with Tennessee and its +3% leverage score.

Elite Eight

No. 2 Tennessee over No. 1 Purdue

Tennessee has a whopping +8% leverage score here, which is the second highest from the Elite Eight on. This matchup would likely have Purdue favored by one or two points, but 65% of brackets have the Boilermakers beating Tennessee. I'm projecting the Vols with a 29% chance to advance to the Final Four, but only 21% of brackets have them going that far.

The betting market is also forecasting this scenario, in a sense, since Purdue has the lowest odds of any team in the tournament to reach the Elite Eight (-170 at DraftKings), but it only has the third-best odds to make the national championship. A lot of that has to do with a potential two-game stretch where it would play Tennessee and then Houston in the Final Four.

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Final Four

No. 2 Arizona over No. 4 Auburn

If this hypothetical matchup comes to fruition, my bracket will be sitting pretty. In bigger pools, you could flirt with the idea of having Auburn beat Arizona here, but I'm rolling with the Wildcats here.

Arizona doesn't have any glaring weaknesses and doesn't rely on the 3-point shot as much as other teams, making it a safer play. The 'Cats also have a fairly easy path to the Final Four, which is why they're favored to win the West Region.

No. 1 Houston over No. 2 Tennessee

Houston would be favored by a couple of points over either Purdue or Tennessee here. If you've read my blurbs on Houston's previous matchups in the tournament above, you know which team I have winning here.

National Championship

No. 1 Houston over No. 2 Arizona

Using my "work backwards" approach, I was set on the Cougars winning the national championship with their +8% leverage score in the championship game. I give them a 20% chance of winning it all, but only 12% of brackets have Houston doing so.

If you're in a much larger pool, it could make sense to take more of a long shot like Auburn, Tennessee, Arizona, Duke or Creighton to win the championship. All five teams offer a +1% or better leverage score to be the last team standing.

When it comes to the tiebreaker, where you guess the exact score for the finals, keep in mind that I have a projected score in my bracket builder that you can use if you want to get a projected score for the title game.

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Nick Sterling
May 17, 2024 UTC