Top 5 Picks: March Madness Bracket

in Strategy & Trends | by David Capece

in collaboration with Eriq Gardner of FantasyBallJunkie

Welcome to March Madness. For the next few days, in businesses around the nation, people will be filling out brackets in hopes of winning the office pool on the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

We’re not going to pretend this is rocket science. (Like it or not, many of these pools will be won by those who have not watched a single college basketball game this season.)

Nevertheless, as in the many things in life that require investment on upside potential, there are a few tricks of the trade that may offer some bracketology advantages. We like winners. We like Cindarellas. Most of all, we like taking home the money — so read on.

1. Start off with the end-game: The most basic principle is that winners tend to win. The odds that a Cindarella  takes home the championship are quite long.  Since 2000, only three of the 36 teams to make it to the Final Four were ranked higher than a five seed. In fact, here’s a bar chart that shows what seeds have made it to the Final Four this decade:


Obviously, the top seeds stand a pretty good chance of getting to the Final Four. Most people who will win their pools will be conservative on the end-game, having a healthy share of top seeds advancing all the way through to the end.

2. Structure in some risk threshold: Obviously, those who are filling out their brackets with a lot of top seeds advancing all the way to the end will be going with the large majority. If you pick no upsets, you will largely need to get everything correct to win the big prize.  Getting everything right is itself against the odds. That’s not a good plan for success.

Instead, we encourage risk-taking, particularly at the beginning of a tournament and especially in cases where an office poll incentivizes upset picks.

Consider the following scenario: Ten matchups, each where the underdog has a 40% chance of winning.  If you pick the underdog in each of these matchups, odds say you should win 2 of 5 games.  If your competitor picks the favorite in each of these matchups, odds say he or she should win 3 of the 5 games.  But what if you get 1 point for a win and an extra point for an upset?  The result would be that your 2 upset wins merit 4 points while your competitor’s 3 wins merit just 3 points.

Now, how can you achieve the end-game goal as described in Step 1 with adding some short-term upside risk described here in Step 2? Consider the following theoretical bracket:


From above, you will see that we picked a lot of upsets, including an 13 seed beating a 4 seed, a 12 seed beating a 5 seed, a 9 seed beating an 8 seed, an 13 seed beating a 12 seed. Yet, in the end, the top seed triumphs. We’re not suggesting you do it exactly this way. But depending on point incentives of your bracket pool, it may pay to be both risky and have insurance.

3. It’s Cindarella Time: OK, so how do you recognize a good upset in the making? Based on a regression analysis, some factors correlate to big, big upsets on the balancing scale:

• High adjusted offensive and defensive efficiencies.

• Low turnover percentages.

• High offensive rebound percentages.

Five teams that factor high in these things are #11 VCU (facing UCLA in Round1),  #13 Akron (facing Gonzaga), #11 Temple (facing Arizona State), #12 Western Kentucky (facing Illinois) and shockingly, #15 Morgan State (facing Oklahoma)

4. The Strongest Survive: We’re back to the beginning. After picking the upsets, and keeping the top seeds, we’re down to the giants in the Final Four. Most bracket winners will have at least two of these teams and will pick the ultimate winner.

One strong factor correlating to ultimate success is the ability to score, and score often. Twenty of the past twenty-three titles have been won by teams who score 77+ PPG and have a scoring margin of 10+ PPG in the regular season.

Want to know the buzz? We’ve analyzed Google News, the blogosphere, and Twitter since the tournament brackets were announced and here’s a word cloud that visualizes 2009 champion hype: teamcloud.png

5.  Making the Challenge: If you are looking for a place to challenge your friends and co-workers, CBS Sportsline is the home of March Madness.  Good luck on the games!