tips for filling out your tournament bracket and winning your March Madness pool

Here are a few things I do to fill out my bracket using analytics.

1. Let’s start with what not to do. Although a great record is meaningful, I usually don’t put a whole lot of weight on a team’s record because strength of schedule matters.

I do not like RPI either. RPI is a blend of a team’s winning percentage, its opponents (and their opponents) winning percentages (more here).  It just doesn’t lead to a useful tool for making bracket picks.

2. There are good math models that are helpful for picking a bracket. Use these sophisticated ranking tools. The seeding committee uses some of these ranking tools to select the seeds, so the seeds themselves reflect strength of schedule and implicitly rank teams.  Here are a few ranking tools that use math modeling.

You can use these rankings to pick the better team in your bracket. Oregon, for example, is not in the top 4 in any of these rankings.

3. Survival analysis quantifies how far each each team is likely to make it in the tournament. This doesn’t give you insight into team-to-team matchups per se, but you can think about the probability that Wisconsin or MSU or whoever making it to the Final Four reflecting an kind of average across the different teams a team might play during the tournament.

This is helpful for picking a top down bracket where you pick your Final Four first and then filling in your bracket from there.

4. Look at the seeds. Only once did all four 1-seeds make the Final Four. It’s a tough road. Seeds matter a lot in the rounds of 64 and 32, not so much after that point. There will be upsets. Some seed match ups produce more upsets than others. The 7-10 and 5-12 match ups are usually good to keep an eye on (unfortunately, the Badgers are a 7 seed this year so this means I might be predicting their demise. I hope I’m wrong!).

4. Don’t ignore preseason rankings. The preseason rankings are educated guesses on who the best teams are before any games have been played. It may seem silly to consider preseason rankings at the end of the season after all games have been played (when we have much better information!) but the preseason rankings seem to reflect some of the intangibles that predict success in the tournament (a team’s raw talent or athleticism).

6.Math models are very useful, but they have their limits. Math models implicitly assume that the past is good for predicting the future. This is not usually a good assumption when a team has had any major changes, like injuries or suspensions. You can check out crowdsourcing data (who picked who in a matchup), expert opinion, and things like injury reports to make the final decision.

On the other hand, experts sometimes focus too much on who is “hot” at the moment, thereby discounting the past too much. There is probably a “right” level of discounting, but people (experts included) have a short memory and may discount early data points from early in the season. So while I like experts to supplement my picks, I am also careful.

7. My final decision is to be strategic in picking your Final Four teams with respect to your opponents in your pool. It’s hard to win your bracket if everyone chooses, say, Wisconsin to win it all. Pick a unique team to win the tournament, be the runner up, or be in the Final Four to set your bracket apart. If that team makes it, then you will have a huge advantage in terms of winning your pool. But choose wisely.

This works in moderate sized pools, but no so much in huge pools. If you are in a big pool then your odds of winning with analytics are diluted by someone winning by pure luck (e.g., your friend who won the 2011 pool because they liked VCU’s mascot Rodney the Ram).

For more:

For more reading:

This blog post in an updated version of my post from last year.

One response to “tips for filling out your tournament bracket and winning your March Madness pool

  • samholja

    I used your rankings to pick my March Madness bracket, and came in second in my office’s pool, winning $23. Thanks science!

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