The 5 Signs Of Terrible Bracket Picking Advice

posted in NCAA Basketball, NCAA Tournament

It’s about time to start making your 2016 NCAA bracket picks, so two things are pretty much certain:

  • You are about to get bombarded with bracket picking advice. By the media, friends, family, and that random sketchy looking dude at the bar.
  • Most of that advice will be worthless. In fact, if you listen to these misguided souls, your odds to win your NCAA bracket pool may well 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 when someone offers you bracket picking advice in 2016.

(Or if you’d rather skip the details and just put the best bracket advice to work for you, check out our 2016 NCAA bracket picks.)

Ignore Any Bracket Picking Advice That:

1. Doesn’t take into account 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. If you want to read more about this topic, check out our blog post on the implications of some popular bracket pool scoring systems.

2. Doesn’t consider how 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 major influence on your odds to win your pool. For instance, if two teams are equally likely to win the 2016 NCAA tournament, but one team is twice as popular of a champion pick in your pool, then you are almost certainly better off picking the less popular team to win — even if you think the more popular team has a slightly better chance.

This is a simple mathematical truth, but it’s extremely difficult for most people filling out a bracket. It’s not always in your best interest to pick the team that you think is more likely to win a game, if it just so happens that everyone else in your pool is making that same pick.

3. Ignores your pool size

Like your pool’s scoring system, the number of entires in your bracket pool is a key factor impacting picking strategy. As a general rule, the larger your pool, the more risks you will need to take in order to maximize your chance to win a prize. So in large bracket pools, you typically gain a bigger advantage by avoiding at least some of the safest and/or most popular picks.

The basic concept here is all about risk vs. reward. The bigger a bracket pool gets, the greater the chance that one or a few of your opponents will get really lucky with their picks. In a 500-person pool, for instance, it’s not going to win you anything to only beat 98% of your opponents — even though that’s plenty good enough to win a 20- or 50-person pool. To win a big pool, you need to beat the outliers, the luckiest of the lucky, and so your picking strategy must take on much more of a kamikaze approach.

Why is that? Because if a popular favorite ends up winning the tournament, it’s probably going to be difficult for you to win a big pool even if you did pick that team to win. Often times, it’s a better strategy to avoid those teams and hope they get upset. In small pools? Not so much.

4. Doesn’t pay attention to your payout structure

A often overlooked factor when it comes to bracket picking advice is the payout structure of your pool. In short, a very steep payout structure (e.g. winner take all in a 100-person pool) and a very flat payout structure (e.g. the top 8 scores win a prize in a 50-person pool) can call for significantly different picking strategies.

For instance, if you don’t need to come in first place to win something, and finishing anywhere “in the money” would delight you, then you can pick your bracket a bit more conservatively than if you had to come in first place. With the right data at hand, you can actually fine-tune your bracket picks to decrease your odds of coming in first place, but increase your odds to finish somewhere in the money. (This level of analysis is the heart and soul of our NCAA Bracket Picks product.)

If your pool is winner-take-all, on the other hand, playing it a bit too conservatively could mean the difference between winning, and the utter agony of a fruitless 2nd or 3rd place finish.

People who play daily fantasy sports should recognize this concept, as it’s very similar to optimizing your lineups for heads-up play and 50-50s (where your scoring goal is “high floor”) vs. large tournaments / GPP’s where only a small fraction of players cash (where your scoring goal is a “high ceiling”).

5. Is based on “Golden Rules”

Any time you hear a talking head on TV or the radio preface their bracket picking advice with the phrase “Now let me quote you this amazing stat I heard yesterday…,” run for the hills.

Bracket Golden Rules come in many forms, from the way-too-precise sounding trend (“In the last five NCAA tournaments, at least four teams seeded 7 or worse whose starting guards both averaged more than 5 assists a game in the conference tournament have made the Sweet 16!”) to the laughably oversimplified coach-ism (“Defense wins championships!”). In reality, every NCAA tournament is different, and very few of these “golden rules” are supported by enough empirical data to conclude that they’re actually predictive, vs. just being random trends.

In isolation, the fact that a disproportionately high number of 12 seeds have beaten 5 seeds in the Round of 64 in recent years has little relevance to the 2016 bracket. What if all of this year’s 5 seeds end up being stronger than the historical average, while all the 12 seeds are weaker? If that happens, then in most popular scoring systems, picking a 12-5 upset could be a damaging decision.

Why Bad Bracket Advice Exists

We hate to be hard on people, because most bracket pools are first and foremost about fun. But we’re also very serious about winning, since there’s usually money on the line, and there’s only so much you can have if you’re always losing your money.

The concepts above are backed up by extensive quantitative research we’ve conducted, including many millions of computer simulations of fictional bracket pools, 10+ years of selling bracket analysis to paying customers who demand results from our work, and data collected on the performance of our bracket picks across thousands of customer pools. So it rubs us the wrong way that many college basketball “experts” with huge audience platforms can be so blatantly incorrect when it comes to bracket advice.

Unsurprisingly, the mainstream media is one of the worst culprits, even as sites like ours have steadily evolved the sophistication of objective, data-driven bracket picking. So why is so much misinformation still floating out there?

Because rarely ever does the mainstream media stop for long enough to truly understand the numbers. They’ve got deadlines, after all.

The process of figuring out the best possible picks for a given bracket pool is primarily a big, juicy, complex mathematical optimization problem. Sure, the “eye test” and the “intangibles” and understanding subtle matchup effects between teams means something — but very few people have “eyes” worth trusting. On the other hand, so many different independent and dependent decisions need to be made to fill out a bracket in the best way, that using math and technology to solve the bulk of the problem is the clear better way.

A ton of great, objective data on teams, odds, and public picking trends now exists in the public domain. If you can gather it and crunch all the numbers in an intelligent way, you can get a huge edge in most bracket pools. Many people, chief among them sports commentators, aren’t that quantitative, and that makes them talking kryptonite when it comes to bracket tips.

This isn’t a wholesale attack on media folks. Some people are great at math, other people are great at writing or talking about sports. Most people couldn’t call a college basketball game nearly as entertainingly as Dick Vitale.

Just remember that most people whose primary occupation is talking about the stock market on TV aren’t the ones making millions trading stocks.

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 current public picking trends, Villanova looks like a team I’m going to avoid in my 350-person pool, primarily because the 1-2-3-4-5-6 scoring system and steep payout structure make them a negative-expected-value champion pick assuming Vegas odds are efficient,” then you know you’re not getting the best possible bracket picking advice.

Just say, “Thanks for the tip, bro.” And then check out how we make NCAA bracket picks.