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How to Win Your March Madness Bracket Using Sleep Science

Every March, the top 68 college basketball teams in the country put it all on the line when they compete in the NCAA tournament. And every March, more than 20 million Americans do their best to predict the champion—and win some money—when they fill out their March Madness basketball brackets. (The American Gaming Association reports that in 2018, Americans bet more than $10 billion during the two-week NCAA tournament, $3 billion of which came from bracket pools.)

So what’s the best way to go about choosing teams during March Madness? Based on sleep science of course! At Saatva, we’re taking a look at sleep research to see if it can help us make smart choices when we fill out our brackets. Studies show it’s possible for certain athletes to have a “circadian advantage” over their competition, so we asked sleep experts how to use this information wisely when choosing teams.

How to use sleep science to make your March Madness predictions

The first questions you want to ask are where are the games being held, and how far does each team have to travel, says Michael Breus, PhD, a Los Angeles-based clinical psychologist and member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

Depending on their draw, college basketball teams may have to play in a different time zone. That can give some teams a “circadian advantage.” Sleep scientist W. Christopher Winter coined the term while studying the effects of traveling between time zones on Major League Baseball players. For every time zone crossed, it took players one day to acclimate. The home teams, who did not have to do any jet-setting, had a circadian advantage over the visiting teams and were more likely to win games.

Other research finds West Coast NFL teams have a circadian advantage over East Coast teams during Monday Night Football, which is always played at 8:30 p.m. EST. “Without knowing it, athletes on teams from the East Coast are playing at a disadvantage,” writes David K. Randall on Deadspin. “Because of the circadian rhythm, which they can’t control, their bodies are past their natural performance peaks before the first quarter ends. By the fourth quarter, the team from the East Coast will be competing close to its equivalent of midnight.”

Here’s a hypothetical March Madness matchup to show you how this all works. Say Duke is scheduled to play UCLA in Atlanta. That’s Duke’s time zone, while the UCLA players have to travel three time zones. It will take UCLA several days to adjust, which puts them at a circadian disadvantage. That said, if UCLA travels to Atlanta early enough to adapt to the new time zone before the game, they’d be at less of a disadvantage.

Still, it’s not as simple as picking the college basketball team that has the apparent circadian advantage—there are so many variables you have to consider in team sports. “If one kid sprained his ankle the day before a game, he’s not going to play as well—and it may not have anything to do with his sleep,” Breus points out.

One aspect of basketball that’s easier to measure with sleep science is free throws since that involves individual players. So you should also look at which team fouls more. “Duke is not a heavy-fouling team—they historically never have been,” says Breus. “If UCLA is more aggressive, and they start fouling the heck out of Duke, Duke’s going to have no problem making free throws in Atlanta—but if the game is in Los Angeles, they might.”

Beyond that, take when the game is being played into account too, says Breus. Studies show athletes hit their peak performance in the late afternoon and early evening—specifically between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., explains Terry Cralle, RN, certified clinical sleep educator and Saatva sleep consultant. (Check out her column on why sleep is so important for student athletes.)

Let’s go back to the Duke vs. UCLA example to illustrate why this is important. “If you’re a night owl and you’re playing a night game, great,” Breus says. But if the star player from UCLA is a night owl, and the team has to fly across the country, then wake up at 7 a.m. EST (which is 4 a.m. Los Angeles time) to get ready for a morning game, that’s when you could see some of those circadian advantages and disadvantages start to show up, notes Breus.

Of course, sometimes a team, like Duke this year, is just that good that a circadian advantage or disadvantage won’t factor into whether they win or lose. But if you use sleep science to make your NCAA picks, and you end up being the last person standing in your office bracket pool, we expect a cut of your winnings.

Already looking forward to college football season? Here are five college football programs that prioritize sleep.

Christina Heiser is the content manager at Saatva. She has held previous positions at Everyday Health, Women's Health, and L'Oréal. When she's not working, you can find Christina checking out the latest boutique fitness classes in New York City, cheering on her college basketball team (go Red Storm!), and trying new beauty and wellness trends.