Category: NCAA

Why You Won’t Win Your March Madness Pool (Part 3)

By Max Kaplan

This is part 3 of my March Madness bracket series. In part 1, I showed that Florida was the best team to pick to win it all. In part 2, I explained how to choose the rest of your Final Four depending on your pool size and skill.

First, I’d just like to express my frustration at a fellow Princeton publication: The Princeton Tiger. While we may all be able to relate to this list of March Madness excuses, number 5 (“I’m no sheep”) is precisely the best strategy to win your pool. Actually, it is the very misconceptions of people like this that makes the strategy of choosing undervalued picks possible.

Now on to the rest of the bracket.

March Madness is set up so that each round is worth the same number of points. This is not quite true. If you correctly choose the national championship, by definition you correctly chose them in every other round too, thus doubling the importance of every subsequent round. This is precisely why the first two posts focused on picking the Final Four, where most brackets are won and lost.

However, there are two instances where this may not be the case. First, maybe no one picked any of the Final Four teams correctly (see 2011). Second, you could play with rules that give extra points for upsets. Sure, everyone wants to be ahead after two rounds and to have chosen this year’s VCU, but a much simpler strategy leads to an optimal first two rounds. The following is the best strategy ALWAYS but it probably won’t change the final outcome unless…

Everyone’s Bracket Gets Destroyed

When everyone’s bracket gets destroyed (while somewhat rare), you just need a few more wins than everyone else to walk away with the prize. So here’s my advice: pick all the favorites. Yes, all of them.

You: But Max, didn’t you just tell us to choose undervalued upsets?

Max: Yes, choose an undervalued winner, runner-up, and semifinalists depending on how big your pool is. But unless points are given for upsets, choose the favorite in every other game.

In my bowl confidence column from January, I discovered that people tried to pick upsets to differentiate themselves from the pack. In the end, I found that if you just chose the favorites and ranked them by how much of a favorite they were, you would end up in the 90th percentile without doing anything.

The same concept applies to March Madness. People think that they are smarter than the seeding. They choose upsets to get ahead of the curve. If you get two out of five major upsets (like Florida Gulf Coast and La Salle), it feels like a win. But you could have gotten 3 out of 5 if you had chosen all the favorites, and favorites have a higher chance of winning subsequent rounds too.

Case in point:

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Are you serious? Without upset points, there is no reason to believe Florida and Florida Gulf Coast are almost even money.

This year, if you had chosen only the higher seeded teams in the first two rounds, you would have 44 points (multiply by 10 for ESPN’s point system).  That would be good enough for about the 87th percentile. If you include games where the betting favorite was the higher seed (ex. Minnesota), you could do even better. This is how you differentiate yourself in the case of Upset City. Choose the favorite.

Now, you may ask. Why doesn’t this strategy work for the entire bracket? In short, it does. By choosing the favorite in every game, you guarantee yourself a very high percentile. However, unless you are in a very small pool, you will not win. One person will luckily get more upsets than misses and win. But choosing the favorite in every game for a very small pool is probably the best strategy. Of course, seed may not indicate the favorite in the Elite Eight and later: Ohio St would have been favored over Gonzaga.

Strategy: Choose the betting favorite all the way up to the Elite Eight.

The Upset Points Pool

This is my favorite league and it is the easiest one to gain an advantage, and as you saw above, you could make it into the high 80th percentile for regular pools. Yahoo’s upset points rule is as follows. You get the regular amount of points for every round PLUS the difference of the seeds if you correctly choose an upset.

For example, if you correctly choose an 8 seed over a 9 seed. You get 1 point. If you correctly choose the 9 seed you get 2 points (1+1). Therefore, to break even in the long run, the 9 seed only needs a 33% chance to win to make it a worthwhile gamble. Without loss of generality, you can apply this to every other first round upset.

Breakeven Probability of Upset to make it worthwhile
9 seed – 33%
10 seed – 25%
11 seed – 17%
12 seed – 13%
13 seed – 10%
14 seed – 8%
15 seed – 7%

Under almost all circumstances, these are worthwhile bets regardless of the teams playing. However, this is a simplified version because it isolates the first round. As you reach later rounds, the seeds become closer together (usually high seeds) and the rounds become more valuable regardless of seed. Because of this, it isn’t prudent to choose upsets for the entire bracket.

So where is the cutoff? A full survival analysis would lead to the exact answer. But you are already so ahead of the curve, you have already reached a point of diminishing returns. The point should probably be before the Elite Eight because choosing a correct team would net you 7 points and the upsets are probably not likely enough to make up for that.

A good rule of thumb is to pick your Sweet 16, then have every other high seed be upset in the first round. If you have a two low seeds playing each other in the second round, choose the one who was more likely to win the first game. You will make a killing in the first round. Guaranteed.

Strategy:  same Final Four, only betting favorites for Elite Eight and Sweet 16, only upsets for first 2 rounds


In my final article in the series, I will talk about the probability of the perfect bracket and actually comb through this year’s numbers to see how well my strategies performed (will perform).

Please comment below your thoughts. Especially if you have any ideas about what we should cover in the future. And please like us on Facebook too.

Why You Won’t Win Your March Madness Pool (Part 2)

By Max Kaplan

In part one, I showed that Florida, a 3 seed, was the best pick for your bracket even though they are not the best team in the tournament. The next step is to choose your other Final Four teams. Before moving on to the rest of the bracket, I added a few bullet points to the bottom of the previous post to help explain why Florida was the best choice.

A Quick Aside

March Madness is set up so that most people feel like they have a chance (and therefore are talented) until the very end. And then when their team loses…they say they saw it coming….87% had Gonzaga moving on.

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Go Big or Go Home except when it’s Small

After choosing your undervalued winner, there are only 2 additional factors (beyond being over or undervalued) that you should consider before filling out the rest of your Final Four: pool size and expertise.

Depending on these two factors, you should adjust your amount of risk. By risk, I mean upsets that are more likely to happen than the nation thinks (like Florida). For any round, you just compare betting lines, expert projections, etc. to the national averages (ESPN, Yahoo).

Pool Size

I will break down pool sizes into 3 arbitrary categories for simplicity: small, medium, and large.

Small (5-15 people)

This is your conventional pool with friends just for fun. Chances are that you would be the only one to pick Florida and your fate would be tied to them. But maybe you don’t need to take that risk. Since they’re all friends, the best strategy is simply to ask all of the people in the pool who they’re picking to win. People love talking about themselves and they won’t figure out that they are actually helping you win. In this way, you don’t even need to extrapolate from the national averages. If all 9 people choose a 1 seed and you are the 10th, choose the best alternative. It’s that simple. This strategy would probably lead you to Florida (or a 2 seed) this year.

As for the rest of the bracket, 2 sub-outcomes could happen. Florida (or whatever your team is) wins, so you win. Or Florida loses. If a favorite (like Louisville) wins instead, you lose. If there is a surprise winner (which is not improbable as there is almost a 50% chance a 3 seed or greater wins), then it comes down to the rest of your bracket. You would probably win anyway if Florida lost in the finals or Final Four since most people had Florida lose by the third round. If Florida implodes right away, now you are at equal footing and still have the other 3 Final Four spots to win.

In a small pool, it is not worth taking huge risks. Remember, a risky strategy (as long as they are good risks) leads to a higher upside but also more incorrect picks on average. So you’ll probably want to be pretty chalky (consisting of mostly favorites) beyond your champion pick. Hence, my final four was Florida, Louisville, Indiana, and Ohio State.

Strategy: 2 or 3 seed to win and chalky rest of bracket

Medium (15-50 people)

A medium sized pool is usually an organization or a company. You still usually know most of the participants but can’t walk around finding who everyone else chose. It is also probable that 1-2 other people picked Florida too. Now, you not only need Florida to win, but you also need to beat those couple other people.

How do you beat those few people? This is a tough decision. You should just do the same chalky picks as in a small group, since you treat it as a new “Florida wins” group with 2-3 people. You no longer have to take risks to stand out from this small crowd. Everyone else who chose Florida probably took some more risks as well, while you should just choose the favorites as often as possible to maximize odds.

Strategy: 2 or 3 seed to win and chalky rest of bracket

Large (50-500 people)

Now, you can expect dozens of people to pick Florida as well. How do you differentiate yourself from them? Well, you choose another highly undervalued pick as your other finalist and put all your eggs in a Michigan State (for example, another 3 seed)-Florida final basket. It is the only way to differentiate yourself while improving your odds. As the pool size increases, keep taking risks from the top down. You should choose undervalued picks for the other Final Four spots too. Maybe Wisconsin and Butler? You get the picture.

Strategy: Perfectly predict the final with neither team being a 1 or 2 seed. Pick other lower seeded Final Four teams as the pool size increases.


Choosing a Louisville-Indiana final is not very smart. There is a high likelihood that you can perfectly predict the final and still lose the league. As the rest of your league gets more knowledgeable (for instance, the Princeton Sports Analytics group), you have to take more risks just as you would for a larger group.

Notice how all of this requires no knowledge of basketball. You might think this ruins the excitement of choosing your own picks. This is completely not the case. You can still choose which upsets (as long as they are good risks) and can brag when you predicted the 3 or 4 seed of your choice to make it to the Final Four.

The next post will deal with how to choose the first couple rounds (the next step) and the probability of a perfect bracket.

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Why You Won’t Win Your March Madness Pool (Part 1)

By Max Kaplan


A couple months ago, I wrote an article that showed how to perform better in bowl confidence pools than 90% of all participants by just following the simple strategy of following the consensus of the nation (by either Yahoo averages or betting lines).

To be successful, you didn’t need to know who was playing or who was better. You didn’t need to pick upsets and you didn’t even need to predict the outcome.

Here, I will try to find a similar strategy for college basketball

The basic underlying theory should apply to March Madness as well. You should not try to predict the outcomes of the games to maximize your chances. Logically speaking, why would you be able to better predict the outcomes of basketball games better than the other millions of brackets? ESPN alone has 8,145,000 entries. And guess what? Most of them think they are above average too. Now that the first (second?) round is done, about 95% still have their national champion pick still alive and probably feel even more confident. Unless you have insider information (and those coaches, athletes, and others that do are not allowed to gamble by NCAA regulations), there is no reason to think you can win your pool with a game-by-game approach.

In each pool, there is only one winner. Presumably, the whole point of making a bracket is to win the pool for bragging rights, since I would never in a million years dream of even thinking of doing anything in the proximity of gambling underage. Therefore, you should play your opponents as opposed to your own bracket, much like in poker.

In essence, you can neither control nor accurately guess 67 probabilistic results, but you can adjust your predictions relative to your competition. You just need to find where others are making probabilistic blunders.

For example, I am very knowledgeable about the Big Ten and the Ivy League because I have a rooting interest in the two. However, the biggest gaff (and the most common mistake) that people can make is overrating their own teams. This is the case for an alma mater, the league that they play in, and, more generally, popular teams that you see on television (Duke, North Carolina, etc). It is because of this that I consciously chose fewer Big Ten teams to succeed than I would have preferred. In a pool of Duke grads, it wouldn’t be very smart to chose Duke to go all the way.

Now you may ask, so what? How can this help me win?

Below is a chart of all teams with a greater than 1% chance of winning according to betting lines (historically, betting lines are very good at predicting outcomes).  It finds the difference between the % of people that chose each team to win the national championship and the adjusted (so that the percentages add up to 100) betting lines should show which teams are under and overvalued.

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7 out of the 8 favorites to win the title are overvalued. People like choosing favorites. The lone exception is Florida, who has 7 to 1 odds but was chosen by only 2.7% . The betting lines have Florida as 3rd, while the bracket entries have Florida as 9th. This is why I chose Florida to win it all.

Below are the same percentages sorted by Yahoo % instead of betting line. The top 7 most popular picks on Yahoo are all overvalued. This may be because we round up high percentages. Notice that Louisville is both the consensus best team and most overvalued. There is a very high chance that a 1 or 2 seed wins the tournament. Because of this, we assume that there is almost no chance that anyone else can win it. However, the chances are more than the 13% that is given by Yahoo users.

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Winning your pool almost always comes down to choosing the winner. While Florida is still not the favorite to win the tournament, you are trying to outdo your peers. For instance, if you chose Louisville, you would still most likely need to correctly guess the other finals team as well as 3 or 4 Final Four teams in order to win the pool. Winning your pool suddenly shifts from choosing 6 games correctly (round of 64 to finals) to 11 or more. Choosing an undervalued team increases your odds of winning a pool even if it means you are less likely to choose the champion.

If the betting data existed publicly for every round (and please comment below if you can find something like this), this would be the best strategy to fill out the entire bracket and we would likely end up with a very high national percentile.

I will continue this search for the winning bracket later this week, where I will look beyond just choosing the national champion.

[Late Edit:]

3 Implications of Choosing an Undervalued Team like Florida

1. The betting line gave Florida an 8.7% chance to win it all. I needed the betting line to be fairly accurate in order to compare it with the picks on Yahoo. In reality, I could have used Nate Silver’s or any other “expert” model as the baseline. But historically, betting lines have been the best. The reasoning is as follows. If someone could consistently create a model that could forecast games better than the betting line, they would just bet on that team and make boatloads of money. The line would shift until it is no longer profitable. Oh, and they wouldn’t publicly release the profitable model either. Free Market 1, Experts 0.

2. Notice that it is much easier to lose money choosing the wrong team than it is to make money choosing the right team. Louisville was -15.7% and Indiana was -6.3%. Just like in poker, it is much much easier to squander your money than it is to profit.

3. So choosing Florida (+6%) gives you an 8.7% chance of being in the top 2.7% of brackets. With all else being equal, this choice alone gives you an average national percentile close to 56%. However, choosing an underdog is a risky strategy and it leads to more disparate outcomes. You will win your pool more than average but also be far less likely to finish in other high percentiles (below 97th). It is somewhat an all or nothing strategy. However, winning should be the only outcome that matters.

NCAA Tournament 2013: Round of 64 Picks for Friday’s Games

By Chad Horner

Yesterday, I posted my picks for the tournament games that will be played tomorrow; I’m back with my picks for Friday’s games.

Once again, I encourage you to join our Tournament Challenge group and compete against our writers and readers!

On to the picks.  As with yesterday, games appear in the order that they will be played.

(2) Duke Blue Devils over (15) Albany Great Danes

(5) Wisconsin Badgers over (12) Ole Miss Rebels

The Rebels are peaking at the right time, and their fast-paced style of play is something that the Badgers aren’t used to seeing in the Big 10.  However, in four games against tournament teams this year with more than 66 possessions (the midpoint between the Rebels’ (71) and Badgers’ (62) averages), Wisconsin is 3-1, beating Michigan, Illinois, and Cal, and falling to Creighton.  If Ole Miss manages to control the pace, which I don’t expect to happen, Wisconsin still has a good chance.  I’m going with the Badgers here, but it’ll be closer than people expect.

(8) North Carolina State Wolfpack over (9) Temple Owls

Full disclosure: I am an avid NC State fan.  However, this is a great matchup for the Wolfpack.  The Owls have a mediocre defense, and I don’t see them stopping NC State from going for at least 75 or 80 points.  The Pack’s two biggest weaknesses are forcing turnovers and preventing opponents from getting offensive rebounds; Temple doesn’t turn the ball over very much anyway, and they don’t do a good job of offensive rebounding.  I don’t see them being able to take advantage of any of the holes in NC State’s game.  The Wolfpack should win comfortably.

(2) Miami Hurricanes over (15) Pacific Tigers

(7) Creighton Blue Jays over (10) Cincinnati Bearcats

Since knocking off Marquette in overtime back in January, Cincinnati has played 7 games against the tournament teams from the Big East – they’re 1-6 in those games, with the one win coming at home against Villanova.  There was a point in time this season when they were playing like an elite team, but that was a long time ago.  Creighton – the best shooting team in the country – should be able to overcome the Bearcats tough defense.

(13) Boise State Broncos or La Salle Crusaders over (4) Kansas State Wildcats

Kansas State’s opponent, and my confidence in this pick, hinges on the outcome of tonight’s First Four matchup between Boise State and La Salle.  I really like the Broncos’ chances of upsetting Kansas State.  They’ve proven that they can beat, and compete, with top teams away from home – they defeated Creighton on the road, and lost on the road to Michigan State, UNLV, and San Diego State by a combined 9 points.  I can’t trust La Salle as much, although they have beaten VCU on the road, and defeated Butler and Villanova at home as well.  Either way, this is mainly a pick against a Kansas State team that I find incredibly overrated.  Unlike whoever their opponent will be, they do not have a single impressive road win this season – yes, technically they defeated Florida on a neutral court, but the game was played in Kansas City.  I feel very good about the Broncos’ chances of pulling off the upset, and pretty good about the Crusaders’ as well.

(1) Indiana Hoosiers over (16) James Madison Dukes or Long Island University Brooklyn Blackbirds

(10) Colorado Buffaloes over (7) Illinois Fighting Illini

Colorado has two strengths that match up particularly well with weaknesses in the Illini.  First, they have a strong shooting defense.  When is the last time Illinois shot over 45.3% from the field?  January 5th!  Over two months ago!  They’re also in the bottom 100 in the country in terms of defensive rebound rate, while Colorado is in the top 100 in offensive rebound rate.  It’s a good matchup for the Buffaloes, and I expect them to advance.

(2) Georgetown Hoyas over (15) Florida Gulf Coast Eagles

(2) Ohio State Buckeyes over (15) Iona Gaels

(8) North Carolina Tar Heels over (9) Villanova Wildcats

Each of these teams has seen drastic improvement over the second half of the season, and both are coming into the tournament playing their best basketball of the year.  Villanova relies on free throws for points more than any other team in the country, by a lot.  Unfortunately for the Wildcats, the Tar Heels don’t foul people!  Without the points from free throws that they normally rely on, I expect Villanova to fall to  North Carolina to win this one.

(3) Florida Gators over (14) Northwestern State Demons

(10) Oklahoma Sooners over (7) San Diego State Aztecs

This has to be one of the least enticing matchups of the first round.  It should be quite a defensive struggle.  Although the Aztecs have a great defense, Oklahoma has proven they can beat a great defense, two of them actually: Kansas and OK State.  I think it’ll be very close, but I’ll go with the Sooners here, more on a hunch than anything else.

(10) Iowa State Cyclones over (7) Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Both teams have elite offenses according to Kenpom – Notre Dame 12th, Iowa St. 8th – but they do it in very different ways.  Iowa State is 34th in the nation in adjusted tempo, Notre Dame is 320th.  There aren’t any teams in the Big East who play at a pace faster than the Cyclones, except for DePaul, the worst team in the league.  How did Notre Dame do against the Blue Demons of DePaul?  They beat them twice.  But both games went to overtime.  I don’t think that bodes well for them here.  The Cyclones will be able to control the pace, and that will allow them to be victorious.

(1) Kansas Jayhawks over (16) Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

(11) Minnesota Golden Gophers over (6) UCLA Bruins (From earlier post)

At first glance, this seems like an obvious pick based off of the way the teams will match up inside – the Gophers are first in the country in offensive rebound rate, while the Bruins are 267th in the country in defensive rebound rate.  Tons of second chances for Minnesota right!?  Well, yes.  Unfortunately that doesn’t always seem to matter.  The Golden Gophers have played 3 teams this season – Florida State, Illinois, and Northwestern – who do a worse job than UCLA of preventing their opponents from getting offensive rebounds, and yet they are only 3-3 against these teams.  So why pick them anyway?  Well, all of that aside, they’ve just played better than UCLA has this season, and the Bruins just lost Jordan Adams, who has been their best offensive player (sorry Shabazz), for the rest of the year.




NCAA Tournament 2013: Round of 64 Picks for Thursday’s Games

By Chad Horner

Over the next two nights, I’ll be posting my picks for each game in the first round of the tournament.  For most of the matchups involving 4 seeds or higher, I felt that an explanation wasn’t necessarily needed.

Also, if you have a bracket already filled out, then join the Princeton Sports Analytics group on ESPN’s Tournament Challenge!  See how you do against some of our other writers and readers.

Now, on to the picks.  Games appear in the order in which they will be played.

(3) Michigan State Spartans over (14) Valparaiso Crusaders

(11) Bucknell Bison over (6) Butler Bulldogs (From earlier post)

Butler is incredibly overrated.  Yes, they are one of only two teams in the field who has defeated 2 of the #1 seeds – Illinois being the other (they each beat both Indiana and Gonzaga) – but the metrics don’t back up their lofty seeding.  They are an above average team, offensively and defensively, but they don’t do anything incredibly well – there isn’t one statistic, or player, that makes you say “Wow”.  Bucknell, on the other hand, is fourth in the nation in effective field goal defense, and second in defensive rebound rate.  They also have Mike Muscala.  If you haven’t heard of Muscala, he’s almost definitely the best player you’ve never heard of.  He is first in the country in defensive rebound rate, and also ranks in the top 100 in Kenpom’s Offensive Rating, turnover rate, block rate, and fouls drawn per 40 minutes.  He does everything well, and it will be up to him to lead Bucknell to victory.  They’re bigger than Butler, and come Thursday, I expect the Bison to be better than them too.

(8) Pittsburgh Panthers over (9) Wichita State Shockers

The Panthers play at a deliberate pace – 339th in the country in adjusted tempo.  If they are able to control the tempo, the Shockers will be in trouble – they are 4-4 in games with 60 or less possessions (Pittsburgh’s season average).  Wichita State is a strong team, but Pitt, regardless of their seed, is one of the best in the country – 7th in Kenpom, 10th in Sagarin, 15th in BPI.  The Panthers should advance.

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NCAA Tournament 2013: Round of 64 Upset Picks

By Chad Horner

It’s official, the bracket has been revealed, and now it’s time to start looking for those 1st round upsets!  Here we’ve laid out some of the first round matchups that look particularly enticing as an upset pick.

Before we get to the picks, Princeton Sports Analytics invites you to challenge us in ESPN’s Tournament Challenge!  See how you do against those of us who will be writing about these games for the next few weeks.  Here is the link to the group; pick your best entry and join!

Now, on with the picks:


(11) Belmont Bruins over (6) Arizona Wildcats
For the past two years, the Belmont Bruins have come into the tournament as a popular upset pick, and for the past two years, they’ve been soundly defeated.  But this is Belmont’s best chance yet.  Arizona boasts the country’s 274th-ranked 3-pt defense, and the Bruins are 33rd in the country in 3-pt shooting.  The Wildcats have only faced on team all year who is better than Belmont at shooting the 3: Florida.  Yes, they defeated Florida, but the Gators controlled the entire game – well, the first 39 minutes – and they were 10/18 from behind the 3-point line.  I like Belmont to knock off the Wildcats.

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North Carolina State knocks off #1 Duke: How it Happened

By Chad Horner

The Duke Blue Devils, the number one team in the land for the past month, were finally knocked off their perch Saturday afternoon by the North Carolina State Wolfpack team that was favored to win the ACC in the preseason.

In fact, if you had examined Duke’s schedule in the preseason and tried to find which game would be their toughest, it likely would have been this one.  However, after plowing through five potentially elite teams – Louisville, Ohio State, Minnesota, Kentucky, and VCU – in a two week span earlier this season, while NC State was run off of the floor by Oklahoma State in a twenty point loss, their positions in the rankings flipped.  Duke came into this game as a modest favorite, despite the absence of Ryan Kelly, who they lost to injury earlier this week, and the fact that this was their first true road game of the season.  But there was one sign that the Pack was not an ideal matchup for the Blue Devils.

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