About 50 million Americans every year fill out a bracket for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, aka March Madness. A few of them have definite opinions about how the Pac-12 is overrated or how Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan’s boys are not afraid of anybody. Most don’t. For those who are just guessing, here are a few simple rules to maximize your chances of winning the office pool.
1. Remember the Final Four’s all about 1, 2, 3.
Most pools award the biggest points for the later rounds of the tournament. Picking early-round upsets is fun, but the key is having teams still alive come the Final Four. To do this, you want to choose teams seeded in the top four, but not all No. 1 seeds. (Teams are seeded 1 through 16 according to the selection committee’s estimation of their strength. A 1 seed is a favorite. A 16 seed is an underdog.) Sheldon H. Jacobson, a professor of computer science at the University of Illinois, studies the patterns in which seeds advance every year. He doesn’t care which teams are attached to those seeds. And neither should you. “Risky brackets have too many upsets or not enough upsets,” says Jacobson, “You want to have one or two No. 1 seeds in your Final Four.” At his BracketOdds site, you can see the chances for every possible set of seeds. If that’s too much bother, just pick two No. 1s, a 2, and a 3 in your Final Four. That’s the most likely combo.
2. Pinpoint the mild upset special.
The best-case scenario is to pick a champion that not many others chose. This means finding a team that has a decent shot, but is not especially popular. This year’s field lacks an overwhelming favorite, which makes it harder to swim against the crowd. But a day or two before the tournament begins, check some of the large public pools (at ESPN or Yahoo!) to see which picks are most popular. Go for a team with slightly fewer backers. As Tom Adams of Poologic told CBS two years ago, “If everyone in your pool thought the same way you did, then you would tie them all.”
3. Know your competitors.
By the same logic, you want to avoid the provincial favorites. If you are in an office full of Duke graduates, don’t go with the Blue Devils to win it all. If they do, you will have lots of company. And that means, for your bracket to come out on top, you will have to nail the early-round games.
4. Embrace the random.
Much as we might like to believe that the tournament is a perfect system for sorting the best team in college basketball, once you get beyond the first couple of rounds, it’s basically random. Jacobson suggests “injecting some randomness into your decision-making.” Historically, for instance, a couple of 12 seeds and a couple of 11 seeds win their first game. Rather than looking at each 12 vs. 5 matchup and each 11 vs. 6 matchup, decide you are going to pick three upsets from these eight games and then let blind chance choose which. “Use coin flips to pick your upsets,” says Jacobson, “because upsets are by definition unpredictable.” Just don’t go crazy. To date, no 16 seed has ever won a game. Stick with 14 seeds or lower for the big upsets and then only in the first couple of rounds.