There is a small window between Selection Sunday and the opening tip of the NCAA Tournament and so much information to process in order to figure out the right 63 picks by Thursday morning. Well if you are looking for some last minute bits of wisdom to help you polish off the “perfect” bracket, you’ve come to the right place. Here are a few data-driven tips to help you succeed in any March Madness pool this year:
Momentum is a myth
Last year at Bracket Voodoo, we looked at the recent performance of every tournament team over the previous five years and found that momentum heading into the tournament has virtually no correlation with tournament success. Consider that the past four champions, including No. 7 seed UConn in 2014, all lost in their conference tournaments, as did the VCU and Wichita State teams that made unlikely Final Four runs earlier this decade. Just last year South Carolina made an improbable run to the Final Four despite going 3-6 in their final nine games before the tournament, while in the process taking down a Duke team that was among the hottest in the country. The lesson? Don’t overvalue teams just because they’re on roll down the stretch, or sleep on them because they’ve struggled recently. You’re better off looking at a team’s overall rating and body of work throughout the year. That’s good news for Trae Young and Oklahoma fans who saw their team go just 4-11 in their past 15 games.
Know your pool
Every March Madness pool is different, and the size and scoring rules of your contest greatly affects how you should approach your bracket. You can make your bracket chalkier in smaller pools because there’s less competition, while bigger pools require you to take more risks to differentiate yourself. For example, in smaller pools, but recommend a sleeper like Gonzaga for larger contests. However, if your pool’s scoring system differs from the standard 1-2-4-8-16-32 format, you may need to put more focus on early round picks. If you need any consultation on how your bracket will fare under your pool’s specific parameters, our state-of-the-art Bracket Optimizer has you covered.
Don’t fall for false narratives
College basketball chatter is at its full peak right now, and there are a lot of fan and media driven narratives floating around that don’t have a ton of substance behind them. Be careful of the advice you follow because there’s a lot of noise this time of year. One talking point this year is how Big Ten teams could be affected by the unusually long layoff between their conference tournament their first NCAA Tournament. We looked at the last decade of NCAA Tournaments and found that historically, time off before the NCAA Tournament is not a factor in a team’s performance.
Another tendency to avoid is picking against teams that have historically disappointed us in March and favoring teams that have outperformed expectations recently. After analyzing all tournament teams since 2000 we found that in general, a team’s historical tournament success has no correlation with their performance in the current year. Remember, folks were reluctant to pick Gonzaga last year and Villanova in 2016 for this very reason. Each season is different – just because Virginia or Purdue may have burned you in the past doesn’t mean they will again (our simulations give them a 17.7 percent and 6.7 percent chance of winning the championship, respectively). Conversely, don’t overvalue Michigan because they made a nice Elite Eight run last year.
The better team doesn’t always make the best pick
Remember that the goal of your pool isn’t to construct the perfect bracket, it’s to beat your opponents. Of course, you have to hit on your picks. But if you pick the winner, and so does everyone else, then you have to separate yourself in other ways. The value picks are the ones that others aren’t making – where the odds of the underdog advancing exceed the percent of people selecting them to advance. Pay attention to the common picks, especially the ones in your own pool, and use that to your advantage by going against the grain (If you’re in a local pool, Cincinnati over a popular Virginia in the South region, despite the Cavaliers being the higher rated team.– you might be better off steering clear of the home team). One strong value play to consider this year would be taking
Focus more on one or two big picks
You may have heard this before, but there are over nine quintillion combinations of picks you can make to fill out an NCAA March Madness bracket. Don’t bother shooting for a perfect bracket, because it’s not gonna happen. We know there will be some surprising upsets, maybe even a lot of them – that’s why it’s called March Madness. But if you go reaching for too many early round upsets, there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself dug in a hole at the end of the first weekend. We recommend focusing on making one or two bigger picks instead, like advancing a lower seed to the Final Four or picking a less popular team to win it all. That way you have more room for error in the early rounds if one of those picks hits, and you only have to root for a few bigger things to break your way instead of a lot of little ones.
Embrace the madness
As we find every year, even the most knowledgeable college basketball experts and advanced statistical models fall victim to the sheer randomness of the NCAA Tournament. In a one-and-done style tournament such as this one, dumb luck plays a huge role in who succeeds and who goes home. The crazy, unpredictable upsets are inevitable and part of what makes March Madness so special (and, well, maddening), so our best advice is to just embrace it. So if you finish below your 10-year-old niece in your family pool this year, don’t feel bad; just chalk it up to bad luck.
Good luck, and happy Madness!