Over the next week, you are going to get bombarded with bracket picking advice by the media, friends, and that random dude next to you at the bar.
Here are five reasons why all that advice is almost certainly worthless:
- It assumes that your strategy should be the same for every type of bracket pool. This is simply absurd, because incorporating factors like your pool size and scoring system into your bracket picking strategy is critical for increasing your odds to win. Not one major media bracket picking article we’ve ever read has showed even a glimmer of understanding that the best picks for a 10-person pool with 1-2-4-8-16-32 scoring and no upset bonus are going to be WAY different than the best picks for a 500-person pool with Round + Seed based scoring and an upset bonus. There is no such thing as a universal “good pick” across all types of bracket pools.
It assumes that the dynamics of every NCAA tournament are the same. You see this a lot with analysis that draws inferences based only on the seed numbers. Any time you read things like “In the last X tournaments, at least Y teams seeded Z or worse have made the Sweet 16,” alarm bells should start going off in your head. Every tournament is different and the NCAA Selection Committee’s seeding decisions are not perfectly consistent over time. In isolation, the fact that 12 seeds have beaten 5 seeds in the past has no bearing on this year’s tournament. What if in the 2014 bracket, all the 5 seeds end up being super strong and all the 12 seeds historically weak? Then it’s probably not the best move to pick a bunch of 12-5 upsets.
It’s not supported by any hard data. Most people, journalists and bloggers included, don’t have great quantitative skills, and couldn’t consistently differentiate signal from noise if their lives depended on it. This isn’t a knock on media folks; it’s just a statement of the fact that writing well and watching lots of college hoops do not make one an expert on bracket picking strategy. Sports media is chock full of conventional wisdom about bracket picks that sounds logical, yet lacks supporting data (e.g. “Team X is hot coming into the tournament, they could do some damage!”), or draws misleading conclusions from the limited personal experiences of writers and bloggers. In the words of the illustrious Rod Tidwell, “Show me the data, Jerry.”
It’s not supported by enough hard data. Everybody loves a juicy sounding trend, right? Like how in the last seven odd-numbered years 10-seeds playing in the West Region are 6-1? Or teams from Florida haven’t won a tournament game under a full moon for 20 years? (We made those up, btw.) Pro tip: Most of these sexy sounding trends are just the result of random chance and small sample sizes. Just because you’ve collected a bunch of interesting historical sound bites about the NCAA tournament doesn’t mean you have any skill at predicting what’s going to happen this year.
It completely ignores how your pool opponents are likely to pick. In bracket pools, there is no prize for getting a certain number of games right. The only way to win is to get a higher score than everyone else in the pool. Consequently, the picks your opponents make have a significant influence on your own odds to win the pool. For example, if two teams are equally likely to win the NCAA tournament, but one team is twice as popular a pick, then you are almost certainly better off picking the less popular of those two teams to win. This is a simple truth, but it’s going to be entirely ignored by all of the crappy bracket advice you’re going to read this year.
When it comes to bracket picking advice, it’s a scary world out there. As they used to say in ancient Rome, caveat tournamenti selector (loosely translated, “bracket picker beware”). But if you can manage to tune out all of the harmful misinformation that’s going to get shoved in your face and ears over the next week or so, you can find a way to rise above.
Thanks for reading! If you liked this post, we’d appreciate a tweet: Tweet this post