Since it’s bracket week, you might be thinking about joining your dorm’s, workplace’s, or friend’s bracket pool. Here are some tips on how to approach this.
I can’t really tell you who’s going to win, because I don’t think anyone knows college basketball well enough to definitively tell you who to expect to win. That said, here’s what you should think about while making your picks.
Quick conventional wisdom
A No. 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1 seed.
Teams that rely on 3-point shooting are volatile, which makes them good for upsets and bad for going deep into the bracket.
Teams that are bad at free-throw shooting are quite upset-prone.
Teams in good conferences are more reliable, since they are used to constant challenges.
Great defensive teams are a better bet than great offensive teams, which holds true when you consider that all four No. 1 seeds this year are ranked in the Ken Pomeroy defensive top 10.
Vegas oddsmakers are really good at their jobs. If you aren’t sure about a first-round matchup or Final Four odds, check online who the favorite is.
Don’t pick based on matchups
There are two non-exclusive strategies I see when people make their brackets and it drives me crazy. One is kind of subtle, the other feels obvious.
The subtle problem is people select picks based on matchups instead of how likely it is that a team will reach the Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, etc. This feels right, but it actually is nowhere close to optimal.
Think of it like this: You like Kentucky’s chances to upset Wichita State and reach the Sweet Sixteen. So you pick the Wildcats over the Shockers, an upset pick that has become quite popular.
However, you also have to consider the likelihood that either team reaches this stage of the tournament. Wichita State plays a No. 16 seed in the second round while UK drew No. 9 seed Kansas State. Kentucky also has a track record this season of falling apart against lower competition.
So while Kentucky might have a 55 percent chance of beating WSU in your judgment, and is therefore a favorite in a hypothetical matchup, it might only have a 50 percent chance of reaching that point while WSU has a 99 percent chance. Kentucky could be the favorite in a WSU matchup, but the theoretical likelihood of UK reaching the Sweet Sixteen in this scenario is only 27.5 percent to Wichita State’s 44 percent.
Hopefully, that makes sense.
Don’t pick upsets for upsets’ sake
This is the other strategy that drives me crazy.
I’ve never really understood why people do this, or at least in smaller pools between friends or coworkers. Yeah, a No. 12 seed beats a No. 5 seed frequently enough to reasonably expect it to happen once somewhere in the second round.
There is no way to know which No. 5 seed will (might) lose. Meanwhile, arbitrarily choosing a No. 5 seed to lose causes you to lose that team's point potential for advancing.
Picking an early round upset is extremely improbable and causes you to lose out on the often much more rewarding later-round possibilities.
A subset of this strategy is the classic “two ones, a two and a three or four in the Final Four” strategy.
Yeah, that is a likely distribution of the Final Four. You know who are probably more likely to make it, though? The four best teams in each region, as chosen by you. Don’t get cute and take No. 4 seed just to be different.
There’s a caveat to that, as this year, two No. 4 seeds in Louisville and Michigan State happen to be arguably better than their respective No. 1 seeds, Wichita State and Virginia. Picking those two isn’t picking No. 4 seeds for the heck of it, it’s just picking the better teams.
Don’t listen to ESPN and pick a No. 11 seed for the Sweet Sixteen just because of their slashing point guard—that’s just noise. Any “upset pick” usually just means team X has something like a 10 percent chance to win instead of 5 percent.
It’s simple: Pick the better teams to win. I don’t understand why so many people don’t do this.
Know your injuries
When picking a team, its context is important. I’ve never really believed that recent hot or cold streaks are that important, since conference tournaments can screw with momentum.
What are definitely important, however, are injuries.
If you’re going to put a team in the Sweet Sixteen, know its health situations. The most notable is Kansas, who is without freshman center and possible NBA Draft first pick Joel Embiid. Others include Michigan State, who is finally healthy, and Syracuse, whose power forward has dealt with injury while the rest of the starters have come down with a nasty case of being worse at basketball.
If you put a team in the Sweet Sixteen, or at least the Elite Eight, you should make sure you’re comfortable with its current health situation.
Give a hug to any Wichita State fan you see
The idea that the Shockers could have to beat Kentucky, Louisville and Michigan or Duke just to reach the Final Four is a dick move by the committee. Also, don’t use a loss to any of these teams as evidence that Wichita State was overrated all season. News flash, great teams can lose to good teams. A single loss doesn’t expose the Shockers' amazing season as a fraud. To say so is petty and negligent.
Don’t watch the mid-major tournament finals thinking you can find a sleeper
This is a popular method used by super-fans to try to find a good team that no one else knows about. The problem is that it’s inherently flawed. When you watch a conference final, you’re guaranteed to see a tournament team have a good game since obviously the winner of the game will make the tournament. When the only game you see of a team is a win, you can easily overrate that team.
Also, you can’t really find a team that will do well based on just one performance. No one is that good at scouting.
Beware of Wisconsin
There are two main reasons for this. Number one is that Wisconsin has a history of underperforming in the tournament. While this year’s team seems a lot different, the lack of defense is still pretty scary.
Number two is that if you’re reading this, you are probably in a pool with a lot of Wisconsin fans. A pool heavy in Wisconsin fans means that a lot of people will pick the Badgers, meaning the reward for taking them will be diminished.
Don’t think basketball knowledge is important for this
I ran a bracket pool last year. Two of the three money winners didn’t watch a college basketball game that season. Can’t name a player on Florida? Who cares. The tournament has quintillions (1,000,000,000,000,000,000s) of possible outcomes. Knowing basketball doesn’t really make you better at figuring out which of those are going to happen.
If you need help, there are places to check out. Try out the Wall Street Journal’s Blindfold Bracket. Check out the advanced rankings, like the Jeff Sagarin rankings, Ken Pomeroy rankings and ESPN’s Basketball Power Index. Heck, email me, I don’t care. Non-judgmental help is out there if you want it.
You shouldn’t expect to be terrible just because you don’t regularly watch basketball. The opposite of this is also healthy to believe: Don’t expect to win, even if you consider yourself an expert.
I could set up a bracket pool with Jay Bilas and 20 people who don’t know what the double bonus is, and I’d give Bilas maybe 10 percent odds to win the thing. If you go into a pool believing you have a good advantage just because you watched Arizona play 10 times, be ready for a rude awakening.
This is March Madness, the greatest postseason in sports. While winning a pool can be fun, don’t let it take away your ability to enjoy the unexpected just because it ruins your bracket.
I had Georgetown in the Final Four last year and watched as they got Dunk City-ed.
Was I angry? For about 10 minutes after halftime. Then, Florida Gulf Coast's Chase Fieler threw down one of the greatest alley-oops I’ve seen and in that moment, I just stopped caring that my bracket was screwed and yelled in amazement. We’re in this to enjoy it, don’t forget that.
For what it’s worth, my Final Four is Florida, Arizona, Louisville and Michigan State. Yeah, it’s a little boring, but if you’ve been reading it shouldn’t be that surprising.
Jack is a junior majoring in statistics and an avid college basketball fan. Have any questions for your bracket? Email him at email@example.com and ask away.