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How to fill out a tournament bracket: All the basics so you can join the madness

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Thinking about playing ESPN's Tournament Challenge game but don't know where to start?

We completely understand. Getting up to speed on college basketball for the NCAA Tournament can be a difficult endeavor. After all, there are 351 schools that make up the 32 Division I conferences.

But don't worry. Even for the #TournamentChallenged, filling out your bracket doesn't have to be a daunting task. All you need are a few quick tips to get initiated into the time-honored tradition of "joining the madness" and have a chance to win the grand prize of $100,000!

Playing is simple

1. Go to Tournament Challenge; click "Create New Bracket"
2. Click "Edit your entry settings here." Select a name for your bracket; click "Save Settings.
3. (Optional) Create a group to play against your friends, family, coworkers or others; click "Create Group."
4. (Optional) Join a group to play against fans of your favorite school, ESPN TV show, etc.; click "Join Group."
5. Fill out your bracket -- Pick a winner for every game of each round, with those winners facing off in each subsequent round, until only one team remains. That's your champion. Don't forget the tiebreaker: predicting the final score of the championship game; click "Submit"

Autofill bracket options

  • Chalk (all favorites): Take the higher seed (1, 2, etc.) in every matchup, automatically, and hope for no upsets!

  • Random: It's like flipping a coin for each and every game! We'll randomly select a winner for you in each game.

  • Smart Bracket (powered by BPI Simulation): Using ESPN's Basketball Power Index to break down the games, we'll generate a bracket for you.

Other bracket options

  • Finish For Me: Started your brackets but don't have the time to finish? Keep your current picks and let the computer fill in the rest. You can choose for the computer to make either Random selections or to use the Smart Bracket system to make selections.

Help with making your picks

  • Seeds are there for a reason: The brackets are not created by randomly picking teams out of a hat -- the best teams are 1-seeds and the worst are 16-seeds. The selection committee tries its best to balance the field by making sure the best teams don't have to face each other until the later stages of the tournament. The chances of all four 1-seeds making it to the Final Four are considerably better than the chances of four 11-seeds making it there. So, when in doubt, go with the chalk pick (the better-seeded team).

  • Upsets do happen: In 2018, for the first time ever, a 16-seed defeated a 1-seed (UMBC over Virginia) -- and did so in blowout fashion, winning by 20 points. Additionally, an 11-seed (Loyola-Chicago) made it all the way to the Final Four. For whatever reason, traditionally, 12-seeds have far exceeded expectations against 5-seeds, which is why it is commonplace to see Tournament Challenge participants select at least one 12-seed to advance at least a couple of rounds.

  • Unpredictability is par for the course: In 2019, 12-seeded Oregon and 13-seeded UC-Irvine both pulled off upsets and ended up squaring off for a chance to make the Sweet 16. However, apart from that game, only one other team outside of chalk (5-seeded Auburn) made it to the second week of play. The moral of the story: Don't be afraid to pick upsets, but don't pick too many. Although a Cinderella always seems to crash the ball, there aren't that many glass slippers to pass around.

  • Traditional powers do tend to rise to the top: Villanova has won twice in the past five tournaments. Gonzaga advanced to the National Championship for the second time in the past four tourneys. Nobody should be surprised when perennial top-10 darlings make deep runs. They're called traditional powers for a reason.

  • Don't get too caught up with a team's record: You're likely to see a few teams with 17-plus wins squaring off with teams that are barely over .500. You're also likely to discover that the team with the worse record has a better seed. The reason for this is that not all teams play against the same level of competition. Good teams from smaller conferences (which are likely to get only a single team into the tournament) might load up on wins over lesser competition compared to middle-of-the-pack teams from power conferences (which will "get credit" for playing a tougher schedule). You can either trust the seeding process, which does get it right far more often than not, or take a look at BPI, which ranks all the teams while factoring in the vast imbalance in scheduling.

  • The winner of these contests is often surprising: You can crunch all the numbers, analyze all the stats, memorize all the rosters and watch every single minute of ESPN's Champ Week to scout schools from less-publicized conferences; at the end of the day, once the ball is tipped, anything is possible. The person who gets his or her arm twisted into filling out a bracket and decides to pick only teams with animals as their mascots can just as easily end up with the trophy. That's what makes this such a fun ride. Get on board!