March 18, 2014 - by Tom Federico
Here at TeamRankings, we’ve been doing NCAA bracket analysis and prediction since 2000. We’re a team of engineers and data scientists who built the most sophisticated NCAA bracket analysis product on the market.
But most importantly, we love basketball and we love to win things. That’s why we love NCAA bracket pools, and why we’ve dedicated over a decade to figuring out how to profit from them.
Because you’re only competing against other people (and not, say, betting games at a Vegas sports book that makes a hefty commission off your action and often stacks the odds in its favor), bracket pools can offer great ROI opportunities. We absolutely consider bracket pools an investment, because we are confident we will come out on top in the long term.
We’re pretty darn good at them, too. We’ve built a successful business around bracket pool analysis and advice that’s powered by repeat customers who have tasted success.
While the nature of bracket pools (i.e. trying to beat 20 or 50 or 100+ other people at a sports prediction contest) makes it just about certain that our advice won’t win big every year, the edge we’ve been able to achieve is clear. We’ve put multiple brackets in the top 1% of ESPN’s national March Madness contest, and as a group, our customers have crushed expectations since we started offering bracket picks and advice on TeamRankings.
This series of posts on bracket strategy is meant to shed light on some principles that guide our picking strategy. These days, we’ve built technology to crunch tons of numbers related to the approaches we describe below. In fact, as you read this article, we’ve got 20+ high powered computer servers in an Amazon data center running non-stop, doing millions of simulations of the 2014 NCAA tournament and of various flavors of bracket contests.
If you’re going to pick your own bracket this year, though, here are some of the biggest things to keep in mind. As we blogged about earlier, it really frustrates us that 99% of all bracket advice you get is total crap. This post series will hopefully provide a good chunk of the remaining 1%.
You have one goal in your bracket pool: To win.
You need to do one thing to win: Beat your opponents.
Sounds simple, right?
However, what many people fail to realize is that winning an NCAA bracket pool typically has less to do with the number of games you pick correctly than you think.
In fact, smart NCAA bracket strategies focus just as much on the teams that your competitors are picking. Smart bracket pickers recognize that you gain no relative advantage by picking winners that your competition picks too. On the other hand, finding a few key opportunities to go against popular sentiment with the odds in your favor can make all the difference between finishing in the money and winning nothing.
Independent of any knowledge about your bracket competitors, our BracketBrains suite of computer optimized NCAA bracket picks, NCAA tournament predictions and bracket picking tools serves as a lethal weapon for improving your office pool performance. But if you choose to go it alone this year, this guide explains the general process behind the billions of calculations that our bracket optimization algorithms make.
Brace yourself, because this is not going to be easy. You’ll need to find a way to ignore your personal biases about teams you’ve watched and teams you like. You’ll have to face the ridicule of the sports bar patrons who only root for big-name teams. You’ll also need to block out all the misinformation shoveled at you by the popular media, sports radio jocks, and your buddy who says he knows college hoops better than 99% of the galaxy.
We have achieved outstanding bracket pool performance despite the fact that the vast majority of college hoops fans watch many more games each year than we do. Luckily for us, winning contests like bracket pools is a mathematical challenge, not a college basketball trivia contest, as long as you have good data to work with. Which we do.
With only 63 games to pick in a bracket assuming you’re not counting the play-in games, there’s no getting around the fact that luck plays a significant role in determining who wins your bracket pool. Consequently, your ultimate goal is to employ systematic tactics that position you for a shot at winning your bracket pool year after year. Fortune favors the well informed.
Is the advice in this post series guaranteed to make you win your pool this year? Or in any given year? No way. We can’t even guarantee this advice will place you in the top 20% of your pool this year. But finishing in the top 20% isn’t our goal. We want to come in first place as often as possible in the long run — like, over the next 20+ years — and we design our approach with that goal in mind.
Consider this question, which has profound implications for how you make your bracket picks:
Would you rather win one bracket pool and come in dead last in two others, or finish in the top 10% of all three pools but not win any prizes in any of them?
Winning at least one pool is clearly a better outcome, at least if your goal is to make money. As long as we’re coming in first place a lot more often than expected, we’re OK with crashing and burning in the years we don’t win. Our friends can laugh at us all they want during those two losing years, because over three years, we’ll be laughing our way to the bank.
Often times, we’re going to take some calculated risks that our opponents won’t have the stomach to pick in order to maximize our odds to come in first place, and we fully anticipate that these “bets” won’t play out every year. And if they don’t play out, well, who cares? In a 50-person pool, last place and eighth place are usually worth the same thing. Nothing.
Most bracket pickers can’t quite get comfortable with this line of thinking, and as a result, they open the door for skilled bracket strategists to get an edge on them.
The next chapter of our bracket strategy guide presents the first of six guidelines that will help you win NCAA bracket pools much more frequently than your competitors do.
(Or if you just want to see our optimized 2014 bracket picks, you can get them now.)
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