Sunday, March 11, 2007

Tips for filling out NCAA Brackets

This post presents recommendations for filling out brackets for the NCAA college basketball tournament. It is intended for people who do not closely follow college basketball. If you know a lot about college hoops, you should go with your knowledge and these tips will not be as important for you. My qualifications are that I am a mathematics major with expertise in probability theory, and also an avid sports fan.

1. Become familiar with the rules and characteristics of your tournament. These are the things you need to know:
(a) Approximately how many entries will there be
(b) Are there a lot of small prizes, or one big prize?
(c) How is the scoring evaluated? Is it one point for every correct pick? Is there a higher weighting for correct picks in later rounds? Do you get more points for picking a higher number seed to win in an upset?

2. Decide your goals. If you just want to enjoy watching the games, take lower numbered seeds because they are less likely to get eliminated early, so you will have more of a rooting interest later in the tournament. If your goal is to win it all, you will have to pick a lot of upsets. But this means that the odds are that you will be completely eliminated early, possibly by the first Sunday when the Sweet 16 have been determined.

3. The more people who are entering the tournament, the more upsets you will have to pick. Think about it this way - if there were only 2 people in your tourmanent, you should probably take all of the lower seeds (favorites), except for a very small number of upsets where you feel you have a hunch or some insider information. If your tournament had 1 billion people in it, then you should be picking upsets all over the place to uniquely separate your entry from everyone else. As a rule of thumb, make sure you pick a total of about 8 upsets to start. Then you should have 1 additional upset for every 50 people in your tournament, to a maximum of 20 upsets. (There are 63 picks total in an entry). Picking more than 25 upsets will doom you in almost any tournament.

4. If your tournament has a lot of small prizes, pick more of the favorites. If it has one grand prize, pick more upsets - 20 or more. This strategy means your entry is likely to do worse in general, but gives you the best chance to win.

5. If the scoring method is one point for every correct pick, select a medium number of upsets. If there a higher weighting for correct picks in later rounds, such as in the ESPN tournament, pick more of the favorites. If you get more points for picking a lower seed to win in an upset, you should pick more upsets - 20 or more.

6. In the first round, you should strongly favor teams that are seeded 1, 2, 3, 4, 9, 10, 11, and 12. This is especially true in large tournaments that give one point for every correct pick, with minimal weighting. The 1-2-3-4 teams almost never lose, so picking against them in the first round is too risky. The 5-6-7-8 teams are not that much better than the 9-10-11-12 teams, but a lot of people favor them. So picking the 9-10-11-12 teams gives you separation from the field without significant additional risk. You should also know that 12 seeds have done surprisingly well against 5 seeds in the last 10 years. But I don't think this trend has any real basis, or will continue in the future.

7. Don't go crazy with the upsets in later rounds. Hoping for multiple upsets in later rounds makes your bracket too risky. The only exception is very large tournaments, or tournaments that give heavy weighting to selecting upsets. At least 2 of your final 4 teams should be quality teams that are a 4 seed or lower (better).

8. If it's a free tournament, enter as many times as you are permitted. If you are submitting multiple entries, make your picks in different entries radically different from one another. I would recommend not even having any of the same teams in the final four. This will diversify your risk, so you do not get multiple entries eliminated by one surprise upset. It might feel painful to pick against a team that you think is "a lock", but these upsets happen all the time. When George Mason beat UConn in 2006, many people who had UConn in the final four of all of their entries were completely eliminated.

9. If you have some familiarity with the teams, you should favor teams who have performed better late in the season. Even though this is factored to some extent into the seedings, teams with better recent records tend to do better in the tournament than even their seeding would predict.

10. If you are doing the women's tournament, pick fewer upsets than you would for the men's tournament.

11. Remember that there is a very high amount of randomness and luck. So the best thing to do is make your bracket relatively unique from the others who are entering and then hope for things to bounce your way. All of the brilliant "experts" who pontificate prior to the tournament are always heard joking about "tossing their brackets in the trash" on the first Monday morning.


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