Sports analytics from Laura Albert's team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering

Tips for picking a winning bracket from Badger Bracketology

These tips for winning your March Madness bracket pool is reblogged from Punk Rock Operations Research.

1 Ignore RPI, use math based rankings instead to take strength of schedule into account.

Ken Massey has a rankings clearinghouse here: I’m happy to say that I’m the only women contributor to this list 🙂 My rankings are posted there and can be found here.

2 Pay attention to the seeds

The seeds matter because they determine a team’s path to the Final Four. Some seeds generate more upsets than others, such as 7-10 seeds and 5-12 seeds. Historically, 6-11 seeds go the longest before facing a 1 or 2 seed. Teams with an 8 seed face a tough Round-of-64 opponent and have to face a 1 seed next (sorry Badgers).

However, there are plenty of upsets. The Final Four has been composed of all 1 seeds only once. See BracketOdds at Illinois for more information on how the seeds have fared.

Having said that, the committee doesn’t always get it right. There are Some teams like SMU, Wichita State, and Xavier are underseeded and are poised to upset. Also, Villanova is the overall #1 seed and has a 15% chance of winning the entire tournament, which is low, meaning that there isn’t a strong favorite this year.

3 Don’t pick Kansas to win it all

Be strategic. The point is NOT to maximize your points, it’s to get more points than your opponents. I’ve been getting in the habit of picking my Final Four first and filling in the rest later.  You can pick the eventual winner (say, Villanova) and still lose your pool if everyone else picks Villanova. FiveThirtyEight estimates that Villanova has a 15% chance of winning the tournament, meaning that another team is probably going to win.

One way to be strategic is to pick an undervalued top team to win the tournament. For example, last year Kansas was selected as the overall winner in 27% of brackets on ESPN and in 62% of Final Fours) despite having an overall 19% chance of winning (538). On the other hand, UNC was selected as the overall winner in 8% of brackets (with a 15% win probability). Getting UNC right last year helped vault past those who picked Kansas.

4 It’s random

The way brackets are scored means that randomness rules. It’s easy to forget that a good process does not guarantee the best outcome in any give year. A good process yields better outcomes on average but your mileage may vary any given year (at least that what I tell myself when I don’t win my pool!)

Small pools are better if you have a good process. The more people in a pool, the higher chance that someone will accidentally make a good bracket with a bad process. It’s like stormtroopers shooting at a target. They’re terrible, but if they take enough shots they’ll hit the target once. 

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