14 things you need to know
to win your college basketball pool
staff has seen many thousands of pools, hundreds of thousands of
brackets, and has decades of combined pool experience. Here's some of what
1. Establish expectations: you're going to need luck
Don't kid yourself. Predicting the outcome of a basketball game cannot
be done with certainty. If you're in a pool with 50 people, you have
to be in the top 2% to win your pool. You may consider yourself very
good or even clairvoyant because you picked a few upsets last year,
but those that don't do well just consider themselves unlucky.
Bottom line, it is going to take a some luck to win any bracket contest.
But there are some things you can do to take best advantage of your luck.
2. Know your goal: beat the no-upset bracket
We've established that you're going to need some luck, and that means
doing better than a bracket that picks no upsets. Any fool can pick a
no-upset bracket, and many do, so consider that someone in your pool will.
The no-upset bracket is going to beat roughly 85% of human picked brackets
in a given year. You're really competing against the other
3. Know your pool size: how many is 15%?
If your pool is small (10-20 or so), the lucky 15% is 2 or 3 players. Play it to beat only them, so that means a bare minimum of solid upsets.
If your pool is medium sized (50-100 or so), you're competing against a dozen people. You need to pick a key upset or two or three to win, but don't pick too many.
If you're in a massive pool (many hundreds and up), you need a miracle to win. And you have to pick for your miracle to happen. Your semifinal picks have to be exact or nearly so. Pick realistically but leave no upset unturned. Pick for something unexpected to happen, because something always does.
4. Know your scoring system
The simplest kind of scoring has a flat number of points per round,
offering no bonus for correctly picking an upset. In this scoring system,
you should not overdo it in picking upsets.
There are many different types of bonus scoring systems. Those that offer
bonuses for upsets allow you to be much more generous in your selection of
upsets. More on how to take advantage of this later.
5. Make sure your chosen winner is likely to be a contestant.
This is especially true in rounds 2 through 4. You might look
at a 4th seed and think they have a good shot at beating the
1st seed in round 3. But don't forget that the 1st seed has
a 88% chance of playing in round 3, while the 4th seed, on
average has a 43% of playing. You don't get points for predicting
who will will lose. You only get points for selecting
who will win. You can't afford to have many games where your
winning selection doesn't even play. Now if the 1st seed
falls to the 16th seed, you don't have to worry as much because
most everyone else in the pool will get that pick wrong too.
6. Lean away from local favorites.
Unless your office pool has entrants distributed throughout the
country, the contestants will generally tend to favor local
teams that you're all familiar with. These local teams might
be good, but your reward for getting them right is to be in
the crowd having to rely on how well you can pick the rest
of the games. If you steer away from the local teams, there
is a good chance you can distinguish yourself on that alone,
and have a lot fewer co-leaders to overcome based on the
non-regional team's games.
A good example of this happened in the 1999 tournament. Fans
within the ACC region picked Duke to win it all, by an overwhelming
margin. Only a small number went with the very powerful
Connecticut and it paid off for them. Many pool winners
who won because of Connecticut came from entrants who would have
been eliminated earlier had they picked Duke over Connecticut
in the final.
7. Put historic stats into perspective.
The web is full of advice with all sorts of amazing stats. Some
note the fact that only once since 1985 has a team repeated as
national champion. Others might note how common it is for at least
one 12th seed to win in the first round. But these stats need
to be put into perspective. Yes it is hard for a team to repeat
as national champion. But don't forget, that most of this
phenomenom stems from the fact that it is hard to win the
. If 1 team has done it in the last 20
attempts, that is a 5% chance of a repeat. Of the
65 teams in the tournament, on average each team has
about a 1.5% chance of winning. So the defending champion on average
does better than most teams. Detailed analysis shows that
the defending champion does do slightly worse than expected
based on seeding, but this deserves to be put carefully into
8. Be very cautious with "common" upset picks
There is a very good chance that, each year, at least one 12th seed will beat
a 5th seed. But what does that mean to you? If you pick one
12th seed to win, chances are you're going to pick the wrong
one. Some other 12th seed will be the one to win and you
will get two games wrong instead of one. Unless you have
studied the teams and can identify a 12 seed that is particularly
strong and/or a 5th seed that is particularly weak, you
should not haphazardly pick such an upset.
9. Don't forget that no one is invincible.
This is particularly true in the semi-finals and finals. Any
team that gets that far can be assumed to be competitive
in upcoming games. Historically since 1985, 44% of the
first seeds have made it to the semifinals. In the semi-final
game the first seed wins 55% of the time (keep in mind that
some cases they are playing against another first seed).
The second seed wins 50% of the time and the third seed
wins 62% of the time. All other seeds combined win 33%
of the time.
In years in which there is an overwhelming favorite, you
can distinguish yourself from the crowd by picking the
second most likely team. Generally, before the last round
only two entrants will have a chance to win the pool. You
want to be one of them. If you pick a strong team that
not many others pick, you have a better chance of being
in the battle than if you pick the same team as many
10. When in doubt, lean toward the major conferences.
The stength of each conference varies from year to year, but
it is easy for a very good team to fly below radar throughout
the season if they are competing in a very powerful
conference. Furthermore, these teams are more battle tested
than teams that might be very good, yet playing in a weaker
11. Don't hastily go below 3rd seed to make the semi-finals.
Almost every year someone below the 3rd seed makes the semifinals.
But if you pick a team below the 3rd seed, chances are very good
that you're going to pick the wrong team. There are 52 teams
seeded 4th through 16th. You get no points for guessing that
one of the 52 will advance. You only get points for guessing
12. Do your homework.
Bottom line, there is much to be learned from online analysis.
However, nothing is guaranteed. This is especially important
in picking your semi-final and final winners. Look for teams
who are hot. And look for teams with experience.
13. Look for "value" if your pool's scoring offers bonuses for
For example, if your scoring system offers a bonus of "seed
difference times points per round" for correctly picking upsets,
it is actually statistically more worthwhile to pick 10th,
11th, and 12th seeds in the first two round. This may vary
depending on how many points are offerred per round.
14. Work extra hard for the "close" picks.
The 8th versus 9th seed game is almost a toss up. Historically
the 9th seed has done a little better (54% to 46%), but even
that edge has little statisical significance. The 7th seed
has a 63% to 37% edge over the 10th seed. Very likely, those who
correctly pick these games right will be on top after the first
round. Those that pick a lot of upsets outside these games
generally fall behind. Not that there won't be upsets, its
just that not many will pick the right upsets.
One interesting fact, even though the 9th seed has a slight
edge over the 8th seed, when the 8th seed does manage to advance,
they are 3.5 times more likley thant the 9th seed to knock off the top
seed in the second round.
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