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Moneybrackets: How to win your bracket pool without knowing anything
What if I told you there was a March Madness cheat code? What if I told you that the slight tremor of anxiety you feel at the prospect of filling out a bracket, and the creeping suspicion that you're going to humiliate yourself because you don't watch college basketball and America is currently crawling with hundreds of thousands of self-anointed experts, is just an opportunity for you to pull some real-life judo and use their certainty against them? What if I told you I had a series of incontrovertible statistical principles that will not only guarantee you a spot in the top 25% of any bracket pool, but give you a serious chance to win it, as I've done a bunch of times in the last decade?
Folks, welcome to Moneybrackets. Like Moneyball, we're all about maximizing small edges based on trends borne out by history. Long before I wrote about golf, I was a college basketball writer and dug deep into the numbers to outline the principles you'll see below. The sport has stepped on its own neck so routinely, and the product is so awful outside a few blue-chip teams, that aside from a handful of Duke games each year, I barely watch. The funny thing is my bracket is going to be better this year than at any point when I was watching games religiously. Let's dive in together, and at the end I'll reveal this year's Moneybrackets ... bracket.
Principle no. 1: Put aside your lust for glory—no 8/9s over a 1-seed in round 2
The Washington Post has a sweet database that seems to have stopped updating after 2019, but is still super helpful, and it can show, for instance, the entire history of 8/9 seeds vs. 1 seeds in the second round since the start of the 64-team bracket in 1985. In those 35 years, there were 140 such games, and the 1-seed won 121 of them, for an 86.4% winning margin. Can it happen? Yes. Will it happen this year? Only about a 50% chance. If it does happen this year, will it be the one you pick? Only about a 25% chance.
Which means you've got about a 12.5% chance of getting this right, at most, and the thing is, even if you do get it right? You gain points for one round. But if you get it wrong, that 1-seed can accumulate points all the way to the Final Four or beyond, costing you dearly. Under no circumstances should you pick a 1-seed to lose before the Sweet 16, and honestly, even in the Sweet 16 you should have a very, very good reason if you send one of the top dogs packing.
Principle no. 2: In general, conservatism is your friend in the early rounds
Nothing feels better than picking the right 12- or 13-seed to pull off the upset in the opening round, and if you pull it off with a 14-seed, it's better than nirvana. (The band. I've never experienced the Buddhist kind of nirvana.) I certainly cannot blame anyone for chasing that high; I've done it plenty. But as you might guess, just as with the point above, these upsets are rare, and if you pick them and get it wrong, you could be costing yourself points for multiple rounds while going for a single point with a cinderella who realistically will never make the second weekend. (For instance, while 12 seeds beat 5 seeds a respectable 36% of the time, only 21 have ever made the second weekend, and only one in the last decade; the committee keeps getting better at seeding.) It's mathematically not worth the risk.
So, bottom line here is that if you are going to pick a lopsided early upset, make sure it's against a higher seed that absolutely can't make the Sweet 16 or beyond. If you don't know for sure, go conservative.
Principle no. 3: Identify the lopsided duds
Back when I did this kind of thing for a living, I found that teams with a top 10 offense or defense on kenpom.com who are below no. 70 on the other side of the ball fare very, very poorly. At the time, of 84 teams who had ever met that criteria, one made the Final Four, three made the Elite Eight, and 82 percent of them were gone by round two. These are supposedly good teams, so consider this an absolute red light. This year, the teams to avoid are:
Gonzaga, Baylor, Xavier (note how they got roasted by Marquette in the Big East title game), Iowa, Missouri, Mississippi St., and Iowa St. The latter two are the dreaded "good D, awful O" combo that fares even worse than the already rickety inverse.
Other teams who aren't quite top ten in any metric, but are super, super imbalanced and should be avoided, are: San Diego St., Boise St., Virginia, Miami, Northwestern, Providence, N.C. State, Arizona St., Penn St., VCU, Drake, and Pittsburgh.
There is a lot more imbalance as you get into the really low seeds, but obviously you should be avoiding those in the first place.
Principle no. 4: Your Final Four should be all top seeds
From 1985 to last year, only 15 of 148 Final Four teams were 5 seeds or lower. If you restrict to just 1 or 2 seeds, the number is above 80%. That means that in any given year, there is less than a 50% chance that any single Final Four team will be outside the top three or four seeds, and again, if it does happen, it's almost definitely not going to be the one you pick. The normal bracket pool is designed to increase in points per round, so you really, really don't want to give anything away by throwing it all on the line with Princeton, or something.
Principle no. 5: Nothing matters more than your champion; pick wisely
The flaw in the standard March Madness pool is that it's basically impossible to win without picking the right champ, no matter what you do earlier, so this is where you want to be at your absolute most conservative. If you've got a great feeling about a 1-seed, feel free to roll with it, but also look at the odds and do yourself a favor—pick one of the three or four favorites. This year is pretty wild, making it all a bit tougher, so there's a little more freedom, but also uncertainty. Personally, I don't see anything particularly compelling about any of the 1-seeds compared to the 2-seeds, so the money play might actually be to take a small risk on a strong 2.
Principle no. 6: Trust the conference champion, ignore the trendy conference tourney winner
Going back to previous research, from 2000 through 2014, 20 Final Four teams had won only their regular season conference title (not the tourney), 17 won both titles, 15 won neither, but only seven had won just the tournament title, but not the regular season title, and only three of those seven made the title game (only Kemba Walker's UConn team actually won a championship). Point is, consistency over the long haul predicts NCAA tournament success a lot better than making a late run.
Here are the teams that look red-hot right now due to a conference tourney win, but should provoke unease in the wise bracketeer: Duke, Memphis, Texas, Arizona.
A word of caution here: Except for Duke, all of these teams were second place in their respective conferences, and Duke was a game off winning ... a game that ACC refs had to apologize for. In other words, this rule is normally meant to protect you from the out-of-nowhere conference tourney winner bound to combust, but we didn't really have that this season.
Principle no. 7: Slow teams lose, a lot
Give yourself fewer chances to exert dominance, and you increase variability ... along with your own chance to lose. Virginia, St. Mary's, Houston, Mississippi St., Iowa St., Purdue, Penn State, Maryland, Northwestern, and Michigan St. are this year's egregiously slow teams.
RELATED: Caller says that Mighty Ducks character could play well in NCAA Tournament, Mike Francesa has no clue
Principle no. 8: Pick the right Cinderella, but be merciless
There are so many points to be gained from getting a 5-8 seed correctly into the Sweet 16 or Elite 8, but once there, you have to be disciplined enough to put them out of their misery. The things to look for are offensive/defensive balance, a strong finish in conference standings, and late success. This year, I think Creighton is a great Sweet 16 pick (beating imbalanced N.C. State and Baylor teams) with a chance to top Arizona, I would be extremely tempted to pick Memphis over Purdue in the second round if it weren't for rule no. 1, Duke—pardon my bias–is a team seeded too low on a 9-game win streak with the balance to make the Final Four, and UConn can 100% beat Kansas. But the team I really, really like here is Indiana, sitting pretty at the 4-seed with an imbalanced Miami team waiting in round two and upset potential against a slow Houston team in the Sweet 16.
Okay, enough talk! Now is the time to reveal this year's Moneybrackets final product. Behold, and good luck: