5 Proven Strategies To Win Your NCAA Bracket Pool

by TeamRankings
Mar 14, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from TeamRankings.com, a site that has provided data-driven bracket picks and analysis since 2004. They also offer premium bracket picks and tools.

It’s officially March Madness!

Here at TeamRankings.com, we may not be fantasy experts, but we do know quite a bit about winning NCAA bracket contests, which are quite popular among fantasy players. Our resume in brief:

Based on nearly 15 years of research we’ve done, here are five tips for picking your 2018 bracket like a pro:

The 5 Keys To Better Bracket Picks

1. Use Objective Data & Predictions
2. Understand the Implications of Your Scoring System
3. Consider the Teams Your Opponents Will Pick
4. Let Pool Size Guide Your Overall Pick Risk
5. Ignore the “Not So Golden Rules”

Even if you’re not a college basketball expert, using the right data and a sound strategy can give you a big leg up in your 2018 NCAA bracket pool. Let’s dive into the details.

1. Use Objective Data & Predictions

There are over 4,000 games in a single college basketball season.

To develop an intimate knowledge of every NCAA tournament team — including the Lipscombs, Loyola-Chicagos, and LIU-Brooklyns of the world — a human brain would need to assimilate and process data from most, if not all of those games.

It’s simply not possible.

As a result, everyone from casual fans to the so-called “expert” college basketball commentators on TV form biased opinions on teams based on imperfect data.

Let’s say your uncle Frank watched West Virginia play five games this year, and West Virginia won all five games by 10 points or more. Guess what? Uncle Frank probably thinks the Mountaineers have what it takes to make a deep run in the tourney this year.

And let’s not forget why a lot of commentators get on TV in the first place. Pro tip: It might have a bit more to do with their good looks and/or prior fame than their analytical skills.

Recency bias also comes into play, since a lot of people (including some of the folks providing analysis for the big networks) don’t really start tuning into college basketball until the conference tournaments start. Then they get impressed by a team like Michigan, a surprise conference tourney winner, even though there’s not much evidence that teams who get hot at the end of the regular season outperform expectations in the NCAA tournament.

The fact is, in a season-long picking contest, only a mostly-lucky handful of humans would pick college basketball winners more often than sophisticated computer models or projections implied by the betting markets.

So you should trust the markets and the models more than the humans.

At TeamRankings, we use an “ensemble of models” approach to make our bracket picks. We not only evaluate team ratings and projections from multiple algorithmic models we’ve developed, but also cross-check against team ratings from other highly regarded systems (Pomeroy, LRMC, etc.). Even good models have blind spots, so we consider multiple perspectives.

We also spend hours aggregating betting lines and NCAA tournament futures odds from offshore sports books like Pinnacle and Bookmaker, which are known to cater to a sharper clientele of NCAA tournament bettors.

2. Understand The Implications Of Your Scoring System

The failure to recognize how much your bracket pool’s scoring system should impact your picks is the single biggest mistake we see bracket pickers make.

In short, your pool’s scoring system can make a huge difference in determining the optimal strategy to win. You shouldn’t even start to think about making any specific picks until you’ve fully analyzed this dynamic.

To this day, we remain flabbergasted by how many people — including well-known sports analytics practitioners — completely whiff on this concept when dispensing their annual bracket pick advice.

To be considered as intelligent bracket advice, a quip like “you should pick Team X to make the Final Four” almost always needs be followed by a qualifier like “in bracket pools with scoring systems like this.” Yet you never hear that. Well, except on our site. 🙂

Let’s look at an example. The structure of the most popular 1-2-4-8-16-32 points by round scoring system places a very high importance on getting your late-round picks correct. For example, getting just one of your two NCAA finalists right is worth the same as getting a whopping 16 first round games right.

In that scoring system, in most years you’re not likely to win your pool unless you make some very smart late-round picks and they come through. So you should focus the vast majority of your analysis time on your Final Four and beyond because agonizing over first-round picks is almost certainly going to be a waste of time.

However, if your pool’s scoring system is flatter (say 1-2-3-4-5-6 points by round), it’s a completely different story. In that scoring system, the first round is worth a total of 32 points, while getting your NCAA champion right is only worth 6 points. So early round games are much more likely to have a big impact in determining the pool winner.

Finally, if your pool has upset bonuses, the strategy changes yet again. We’ve run tens of millions of computer simulations of bracket pools with upset bonuses. The results show that most players in upset bonus pools aren’t nearly as aggressive as they should be when it comes to making bold picks; playing optimally tends to require making some calls that will look pretty insane to a less-skilled bracket picker.

Unfortunately, making all these adjustments and coming up with the absolute best bracket for a particular scoring system is pretty much impossible on your own — the math is just too complex. But the general guidelines above should help.

At TeamRankings, we’ve developed bracket pick optimization algorithms that take into account your pool’s scoring system and upset bonus structure. All of it is customizable, so our system can adjust for pretty much any of those out-of-this-world rules that your crazy pool administrator comes up with.

3. Consider The Teams Your Opponents Are Likely To Pick

In bracket pools, there is no prize for getting a certain number of picks right. You win your pool if and only if you score more points than everyone else.

Put another way, to win a bracket contest, you don’t need to correctly pick games 70% of the time, or 75% of the time, or at any other arbitrary rate of success. But you do need to pick at least one (and most likely several) games right that your opponents get wrong.

This is such a foundational element of bracket pool strategy that it’s amazing how many bracket pickers just don’t get it. We constantly field questions like “How many Final Four teams did you get right over the last five years?” In a vacuum, success rate picking Final Four teams is a relatively meaningless statistic.

Just think about it. Let’s say you’re in a standard-rules pool with 500 total entries. The Elite Eight round just finished, and the Final Four consists of three of the most popular picks to get there, plus one sleeper team.

Good luck winning that pool if you don’t get at least three Final Four picks correct. A bunch of your 499 opponents will have picked mostly favorites in the Final Four, and several of those folks probably will catch some luck and get three Final Four teams right.

However, unexpected outcomes happen fairly often in the NCAA tournament — a fact that many bracket pickers seem to forget on an annual basis. As recently as 2011, for example, the Final Four consisted of teams seeded 3, 4, 8, and 11.

In a year like that, just getting one or two Final Four picks right might be more than enough to take first place in your pool, especially if it’s a smaller one.

So what really matters is how often you win pools, not how many picks you get correct. If you got zero Final Four picks right in four out of every five years but won a 500-person pool every fifth year, your long-term profits from playing in bracket pools would be amazing.

This dynamic has huge implications for bracket picking strategy because the picks your opponents make will impact the odds that any specific bracket you play has to win your pool.

So just like in fantasy, you need to consider expected opponent picking trends (the analog of “percentage ownership” in the DFS world) when you pick your 2018 bracket.

Let’s say you’re considering two teams as possible NCAA champion picks, Team A and Team B. Team A has a slightly better chance to win it all, but you also expect them to be a much more popular pick in your pool. Usually, you’re better off picking Team B.

Why? Because in the long run, your expected bracket pool prize winnings will be higher. You’ll get your champion pick right slightly less often than your opponents do, but in years when your less popular champion pick does come through, you’ll leapfrog a lot more people in the standings, and be in a much better position to cash.

Game theory based thinking like this can be very difficult for many bracket pickers to understand, but it’s how the most skilled bracket pool players get their biggest edge. The simple fact is, it’s not always in your best interest to pick the team that you think is most likely to win.

At TeamRankings, we collect updated public picking trends data from the most popular nationwide bracket contests (ESPN, Yahoo!, etc.) multiple times a day, and that data plays a critical role in our bracket pick optimization.

It also factors into our Data Grid value analysis tool, which includes filters to identify the most undervalued picks and upsets.

4. Let Pool Size Guide Your Overall Pick Risk

Like your pool’s scoring system, the number of entries in your bracket pool is another key factor that should impact the picks you make.

As a general rule, the larger your pool, the more risk you will need to take to improve your chances to win a prize. Let’s examine why.

When you’re competing against hundreds or thousands of opponents in a bracket pool, the odds are high that a few of your enemies are going to get really lucky and finish with great scores. The bigger your pool, the higher the number of people expected to have a really lucky year.

This is just the phenomenon of randomness doing its thing, and some degree of it will occur every year. Sometimes, as we all know, one of the lucky ones is a “clueless about college basketball and had their 5-year old make their picks” type. It happens, and it’s going to keep happening.

The bad news: You still need to beat all those lucky people in order to win your pool.

Our research shows that in large bracket pools with standard scoring, it almost always helps your cause to avoid picking the safest and/or most popular teams. Instead, it’s typically better to make some highly contrarian bets, and hope that it’s somewhat of a crazy year in terms of how the tournament plays out.

The rationale here is that if your key picks in big pools are all “safer” ones, even if many of them do end up playing out — which is a lot less likely than most people think — you’re still going to be competing against a bunch of opponents who also picked those teams. Even when you have a great luck year, this strategy is a recipe for finishing near the top of a bigger pool, but still not winning anything.

Put another way, a strategy that optimizes for a relatively great score, but not a truly exceptional score, does you no good in a big pool. Even beating 98% of your opponents in 500-person pool only nets you 11th place, and probably no prize. 

In comparison, taking calculated yet significant risks on undervalued and highly unpopular teams will result in a lower expected score in most years. It’s a hugely boom-or-bust strategy, and you’ll finish in the middle of the pack (or even nearer to the bottom of the pack) much more often than picking more conservatively. However, in years when you do catch some luck, you’ll stand a much greater chance of actually winning the pool outright and taking home a huge payout.

As you may have guessed, smaller bracket pools do call for a more conservative strategy. Beating 98% of your opponents in a 50-person pool and taking second place, as a result, is usually good enough to win a prize.

In fact, you can usually get a pretty solid edge in small pools by simply assuming that most of your opponents are likely to get much too risky with their picks and letting them shoot themselves in the foot.

At TeamRankings, pool size plays a pivotal role in the computer simulations of bracket contests that we run all day and night starting on Selection Sunday. For 1,000 person bracket pools, for instance, we use public picking trends data to create 999 randomized opponent brackets that represent your competition’s likely picks.

Then, we test millions of possible bracket pick combinations until we identify the bracket that has the best chance to beat all of them — including the lucky ones.

5. Ignore the “Not So Golden Rules”

This last piece of advice is a corollary of Strategy #1 (Use Objective Data). Still, it’s worth calling out on its own, because objective data can still be misinterpreted by people who, bless their hearts, just don’t have a sound grasp of statistics.

Anytime you hear a talking head on TV or radio preface their bracket picking advice with the phrase, “Now let me quote you this amazing stat I heard yesterday,” get your earplugs in as fast as you can.

We like to refer to these sound bites as the “Not So Golden Rules” of bracket picking, and they come in many forms. The following are made up examples but you get the point:

  • The cherry-picked data trend. “In the last four NCAA tournaments, all sixteen teams that made the Final Four averaged more than 85 points a game against conference opponents. Team X doesn’t fit that model!”
  • The seed-based historical trend. “Every other year, a No. 15 seed has beaten a No. 2, and it didn’t happen last year so it’s due!”
  • The narrative-driven subjective opinion. (“You need to pick teams with momentum, teams that know how to fight when they’re down and have the will to win!”)
  • The oversimplified coach-ism. (“Defense wins championships!”)

Not So Golden Rules are almost never substantiated by enough hard data to conclude with high confidence that they are actually predictive. Look hard enough for a juicy sounding stat trend, and you’ll usually find one. But it’s often just the result of random chance; it’s just noise, as stat geeks like to say.

So don’t let yourself get charmed by sexy sound bites about bracket picking. If it sounds too rule-driven and automatic, it’s almost certainly bad advice.

The fact is, every NCAA tournament is different. The NCAA Selection Committee is made up of subjective human beings who, let’s just say, aren’t exactly renowned for applying 100% consistency in their annual decisions. Not to mention that from year to year, the Committee frequently alters the criteria they use for seeding teams.

In addition, the distribution of the performance levels of all the teams in any single NCAA tournament looks different every year. In some years, taken as a group, the No. 1 seeds may not actually be that much better than the No. 2 seeds. In other years, two or three of the No. 1 seeds may stand head and shoulders above the rest of the field.

Likewise, every so often, it may happen that the No. 13 seeds are much stronger than their historical counterparts — while simultaneously, the No. 4 seeds they will play in the first round are relatively weak.

Consequently, “trusting” historical data on how often No. 1 seeds make it to the Final Four, or how often No. 13 seeds teams upset No. 4 seeds, is folly without considering additional context. Every tournament, every team, and every matchup is unique.

At TeamRankings, we ignore the Bracket Picking Golden Rules and let good data and smart algorithms lead us where they may.

Enjoy March Madness 2018, and we hope you found this post useful and informative. As we like to say, it takes both skill and luck to win a bracket pool in any given year. But the more skill you have, the less luck you need.

If you want a ready-to-play bracket for your pool that’s powered by all of the data and logic outlined in this post, make sure to check out our site:

NCAA Bracket Picks from TeamRankings.com »

TeamRankings.com has helped tens of thousands of customers maximize their edge in NCAA bracket pools. In 2017, their customers won bracket pool prizes 7 times as often as expected.

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