2023 NCAA Tournament Survivor Pool Strategy and Advice

NCAA Tournament Survivor Pools are fun, fast-paced contests, and we are here with picks and advice on how to navigate through the bracket.

Kyle Filipowski and Duke will try to survive the opening day of the NCAA Tournament. (David Jensen/Icon Sportswire)

Welcome to our 2023 NCAA Tournament survivor pool strategy and advice column, where we will provide some advice on strategies to employ in a survivor pool.

Last year, we introduced a Survivor Pool Tool into our NCAA Bracket Picks product. We’ve added some pick grades in the tool for this year, and tried to address some of the requests for is version 2.0 tool. You can find teams organized by day or by round, with some very rough estimates for future value and pick popularity.

This article will support and frequently reference the data in that tool. We’ll update this article throughout the tournament, all the way to the final, since the tool doesn’t actually make specific customized picks or give you diversified portfolio advice.

You can also review our general strategy guide on things to consider when playing NCAA Tournament Survivor pools.

2023 Second Round Survivor Pick Advice

Our automated picks page in the Survivor tool will shift over to the Second Round shortly after the final First Round game ends tonight (most likely Indiana-Kent State). We have to do some other updates once the round ends to roll over to the next round, but for the night owls out there, you can check in 30-45 minutes after the First Round ends if you must see the data tonight.

Otherwise, for most of you, it will be ready to go.

Saturday Only Picks

But for now, we’ll take an early strategic look at the Second Round on Saturday, since we know the matchups.

Here are the betting market win odds for Saturday, along with the chances that team gets eliminated before the Final Four. (That latter stat can be calculated by looking at our Round Odds table, and subtracting the Final Four chances from 100%.)

SeedTeamMarket OddsEliminated before FF
5San Diego St70%87%

If you multiply those two factors, it gives you a good estimate of “how likely is it that this team advances, but doesn’t kill me later.”

And by that, Missouri and San Diego State are the best options for Saturday.

But there’s a third factor in survivor pools: popularity. And most people know to save the better teams, and you should expect Missouri and San Diego State to be by far the most popular survivor picks on Saturday. In fact, they might make up over two-thirds of the picks in some pools.

UCLA is the third-best option by just looking at both win odds and Final Four odds, because they are still in a really tough West Region. But when you add in the likely high popularity of Missouri and San Diego State, UCLA should have an extremely high EV. And while they have future value, it’s less than Alabama.

So I would suspect the top grades will be something like:


#2 and #3 Missouri and San Diego State

However, if I were thinking about how to play this, I would be more likely to pick just one of Missouri or San Diego State if I were playing a portfolio. If you spread your picks over both, you are going to mirror the pool. Going heavier on one and light on the other gives you the possibility of making a big leap in the pool if the popular pick you avoid loses.

So I am thinking UCLA as the highest EV and contrarian play, and then one of Missouri or San Diego State because of the future value savings and relatively higher win odds than some teams with more longer term future value.

I’ll add a quick note update once the Second Round flips over in the Survivor Tool.

UPDATE: Missouri is the highest graded option, while UCLA and San Diego State are next, and then there’s a big gap. I would still recommend the above strategy with multi-pick portfolios. Missouri’s popularity and the outcome of that game will likely determine a lot of pools, as it could eliminate a big chunk of a pool with a Missouri loss, but have those entries that used them with an advantage if they win.

Saturday and Sunday Combined Picks

If you have picks across both days this weekend, but don’t have to pick one team (or more) from each day, the options are a little more diverse.

Florida Atlantic, Missouri, and San Diego State will split popularity in that case, so while each will be popular, they won’t be quite as popular as single day.

So that means you should probably focus on two of those three, if you have a portfolio, rather than spread across all three. After all, you want to have some teams to play against and root for upsets elsewhere. We have San Diego State below the other two, based on some odds shift downward.

UCLA is the primary contrarian play, using some future value in exchange for hoping for big upsets with those other popular choices. The only other choice we have graded in the same range is the riskier (but less future value) of Xavier.

Sunday Only Picks

For those with Sunday only picks, Florida Atlantic has the highest win odds, and that, along with merely moderate future value, makes them our top graded pick. Even with expected high popularity, they have win odds of around 90%. Once you get to win odds that high they would have to have such high popularity that well over two-thirds of the pool took them to make them a mediocre value.

No other team has over 66% win odds on Sunday, so there’s quite the drop-off in safety to go to anyone else. But of course, you may want to do that in some large pool portfolios. After all, a Florida Atlantic run to the Final Four isn’t out of the question in this East Region now. And any entry that saves them would be in a very advantageous position. So diversifying if you have several entries, to not be entirely Florida Atlantic, should be considered.

Our next highest graded option is Xavier, mainly because of their lower future value relative to Marquette, Connecticut, and Gonzaga, particularly after Texas and Houston advanced in the Midwest Region.

Other than, you should only consider the others if you need to really save future value and want to do so by playing against a previous pick, for example, playing Kentucky as a slight favorite over Kansas State, if you used the Wildcats in the First Round.

2023 First Round Survivor Pick Advice

In NCAA Tournament survivor pools, you have to balance the odds you advance now against saving teams for when the bracket dwindles in size. After all, you won’t win the pool if you run out of options. You also should have an eye on pick popularity, and looking for value opportunities to zig from your pool when a team is too popular.

That said, the pick popularity in the First Round this year should be fairly spread out, whether you make picks by round or each day. There are 16 different favorites each day, with many of them with over 80% win odds, and plenty of people will have differing opinions on who is most worth saving.

So at least for this first round, the advice is going to focus on the other factors: odds to advance, and odds that the team burns you by advancing all the way to the Final Four and putting you in a position where you wish you still had them (i.e., future value) .

Our tool has pick grades that are different depending on if you have to make picks each day or by round. That’s somewhat important this year as the Thursday schedule is heavily loaded with three No. 1 seeds and three No. 2 seeds, while Friday will have more of the teams in the No. 3 to No. 6 seed range in action.

Pick Grade Example

Let’s give an example of our pick grades for Thursday Only Picks.

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