It’s 2015 NCAA tournament time, so two things are pretty much certain:
- You are going to get bombarded with bracket picking advice. By the media, friends, family, and that random sketchy looking dude at the bar.
- All that advice will suck. In fact, if you listen to these misguided souls, your odds to win your NCAA bracket pool will probably get worse.
We’ve spent over a decade doing objective, data-driven research into bracket pool strategy. So we can distinguish fact from opinion when it comes to bracket picking tips.
Here are the top five things you need to watch out for. (Or if you’d rather just put the best bracket advice to work for you, check out our 2015 bracket picks.)
Forget Any Bracket Picking Advice That:
1. Ignores your scoring system
Bracket pools come in an astounding array of flavors in terms of scoring systems. Some award a fixed number of points per round for each correct pick; some offer a huge reward for picking the NCAA champion correctly; some give big bonuses for picking seed-based upsets.
The exact details of your pool’s scoring system exert a huge influence on optimal picking strategy, and most people don’t pay nearly enough attention to this dynamic. The bottom line is that there is no such thing as a universal “great pick” for all types of bracket pool scoring systems.
Even though it might be way too risky in most pools, picking a 12 seed to make the Elite 8 could be a great decision in others.
2. Ignores the teams your opponents are picking
In bracket pools, there is no prize for getting a certain number of games right. You simply need to get a higher score than everyone else in your pool.
Consequently, the picks your opponents are making have a significant influence on your own odds to win. For instance, if two teams are equally likely to win the 2015 NCAA tournament, but one team is twice as popular a pick among your pool competitors, then you are almost certainly better off picking the less popular of those two teams.
This is a simple mathematical truth, but it’s going to be ignored by almost all of the bracket advice you hear this year. Even if a team is strong, it’s chances may still be highly overrated by the public.
3. Ignores your pool size
Like scoring system, the number of entires in your bracket pool is a key factor impacting bracket pool strategy. As a general rule, the larger your pool, the bigger advantage you will get from avoiding the safest and most popular picks.
The basic concept here is all about risk vs. reward. In big bracket pools, the chances are much greater that a few of your opponents get really lucky with their picks. As a result, if a relatively safe and very popular team (e.g. Kentucky this year) ends up winning the tournament, it will be extremely difficult to win a big pool, even if you did pick Kentucky.
As a result, not picking Kentucky, and hoping they get upset, is probably a much wiser strategy for larger pools.
4. Ignores your payout structure
A often overlooked factor when it comes to bracket picking advice is the payout structure of your pool. In short, having a very steep payout structure (e.g. winner take all) versus a very flat payout structure (e.g. the top 10 scores win a prize) can lead you to significantly different picking approaches.
For instance, if you don’t need to come in first place to win something, and winning any prize would delight you, then you can pick your bracket a bit more conservatively than if you had to come in first place. By doing so, you can actually “tune” your bracket picks to decrease your odds of coming in first place, but increase your odds to finish somewhere in the money.
People who play daily fantasy sports should recognize this concept, as it’s very similar to optimizing your lineups for 50-50s vs. GPP’s.
5. Is based on “Golden Rules”
Any time you hear someone quote a stat like “In the last six NCAA tournaments, at least four teams seeded 10 or worse have made the Sweet 16,” immediately run for the hills. Every NCAA tournament is different, and these types of trends rely on very dangerous assumptions about historical bracket seeding and matchups. (They’re also rarely supported by enough hard data to confidently conclude that they’re predictive.)
In isolation, the fact that a lot of 12 seeds have beaten 5 seeds in the Round of 64 in recent years has little relevance to the 2015 bracket. What if all of this year’s 5 seeds end up being stronger than usual, while all the 12 seeds are weaker than usual? If that happens, then it’s almost certainly not a smart move to pick lots of 12-5 upsets in 2015.
Why Bad Bracket Advice Exists
We hate to be hard on people, because bracket pools (most of them, at least) are first and foremost about fun. But we’re also very serious about winning, since there’s usually money on the line.
The concepts above are verified by actual quantitative research and bracket pool simulations that we’ve conducted, yet an amazing amount of misinformation about bracket picking strategy still endures.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the mainstream media is one of the worst culprits, even as sites like ours have steadily evolved the sophistication of our objective research into bracket picking. So why is that?
At its core, the process of figuring out the best possible picks for a given bracket pool is really just one big, juicy, complex math problem. A lot of great data on teams and pools now exists in the public domain. You just need to gather it and crunch all the numbers in an intelligent way.
As it turns out, most people, journalists and bloggers included, aren’t that quantitative. This isn’t a knock on media folks; some people are great at math, other people are great at writing or talking about sports on TV. But one thing is clear: Watching lots of college hoops or knowing a lot about individual teams do not make one an expert on optimal bracket picking strategy.
To make an analogy: Most people talking about the stock market on TV aren’t the ones making millions trading stocks.
In addition, great bracket strategy is complicated, and really doesn’t translate well to a medium like TV, where short and pithy sound bites rule.
Wrapping It Up
As they used to say in ancient Rome, caveat tournamenti selector (loosely translated, “bracket picker beware”).
This March Madness season, until you hear someone say, “I think that given the current public picking trends, Villanova looks like a team I’d avoid in larger pools with 1-2-3-4-5-6 scoring and steep payout structures,” then it’s a decent bet their advice is worthless, or even harmful.
So when you hear it, simply smile and say, “Awesome, thanks for the tip, bro.” And then check out how we make NCAA bracket picks.