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How to win your March Madness Bracket using common sense

It is that time of year again, the 2021 NCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball Tournament. For anyone who has even just an ounce of normalcy, it’s March Madness! Covid-19, unfortunately, resulted in last year’s tournament but we are back and this is happening. With that being said, the vast majority of people who will be watching the tournament will have completed their brackets where they predict the outcome of each game. If we are doing this correctly, there are A LOT of factors we need to consider, which I will touch upon. However, the main purpose of this article is to correct the things you are doing in your bracket that are just outright stupid; the goal being that you guys correct these mistakes giving you the upper hand. I am aware that publishing this masterpiece will only hurt my own chances of defeating my friends but I am doing this for the greater good, so please keep that in mind. 

  1. Picking an upset to obtain a quota 

The average number of upsets (when a team defeats an opponent that is at least 2 seeds higher) is 12.2, typically falling in the range between 10-16. What does this mean for you? If you are genuinely choosing every team that you think is going to win to advance and you have anywhere between 10-16 upsets, then that is a good sign. Now let me tell you what it doesn’t mean! It doesn’t mean that you should pick upsets for the sole purpose of picking upsets. “I don’t think these teams will actually win but I only have 7 upsets so fuck it.” If you do this, you’re actually a moron. This is the same type of thinking that convinces fantasy managers that they should start Matt Ryan over Patrick Mahomes because their opponent has Julio Jones. I know you think you’re doing something, but all you’re doing is lowering your projected total. Let’s walk through a simple example. The chances of a 12 seed upsetting a 5 seed tends to be about 35%. So let teams A, B, C, and D all be 12 seeds this year each with a 35% chance to win. If I don’t choose any of the 4, there is a 17.85% chance I go 4-0, a 38.45% chance at 3-1, and a 43.70% chance of falling below that. But now let’s say I feel like choosing an upset so I choose team C as my 12 seed to upset. Well, now I have a 9.61% chance to go 4-0, a 20.70% chance to go 3-1, and a 69.69% chance to fall below that. Not to mention, it is pretty uncommon for a 12 seed to make it past the Round of 32 whereas we often see 5 seeds make some serious runs. Now, in reality, not all 12 seeds are created equally; some, of course, will be more likely to upset their opponents. I get that, but the point still stands! You choose a team to advance if and only if you believe they have a 50+% chance to win. And if you are doing this correctly, if you are looking in the right places (which I will expand upon) then this will come naturally and chances are we will get 10-16 dogs that we feel good about!

  1. Failing to consider risk and reward

Suppose you have reason to believe Cleveland State will upset Houston. First, I would come to the conclusion that you are smoking crystal meth. But all jokes aside, let’s just say as it turns out Cleveland State has a 50% chance to win. Well, think of it this way. Even if Cleveland State wins, chances are they are not making it past the second round whereas Houston is a serious contender to win the National Championship. Thus, in this case, unless you are extremely confident that Houston will lose, we would take Houston to advance. If you genuinely think a 15 or 16 seed has a legitimate chance to upset, then you should be placing real money on their money line or spread at a casino or online sportsbook that will give you a much more suitable reward. To put it into perspective, let’s go back to the Houston versus Cleveland State example, and now suppose I have reason to believe Cleveland State has a 25% chance to win. In this case, I would run to the casino and place all of my money on Cleveland State money line at +1400 odds and hammer their +20 point spread because the value is astronomical. However, there is still absolutely no reason to side with them in a bracket (besides potential bragging rights). With that being said, including predictions, this extreme poses great risk and a considerably small reward even on the off-chance that your predictions were correct. Then the question becomes what if it’s not a 15 seed vs a 2 seed? What if, for instance, I am stuck between UConn (7) and Maryland (10). Well, then I would suggest that you base your decision on how both teams match up against Alabama. Let’s just say I predict Alabama has a 70% chance to beat Maryland but only a 55% chance to beat UConn, I would take Maryland over UConn because this gives me a better chance at guessing both games correctly (35% as opposed to 27.5%). Moreover, in each round of selecting our picks we always want to set ourselves up for favorable matchups in the rounds to come if it’s reasonable to do so. 

  1. Failure to understand everything I said before

So what have we learned so far? We learned to consider risk and reward; the way these tournament brackets are set up, there is no reason that you should be taking a 15 or 16 seed unless your bracket pool has an alternative scoring system that awards extra credits for picking upsets. And no, this is not me saying that these teams will all be first round exits! This is me saying that if you select one of these teams, then that should mean that you are giving them a 50% chance to win, minimum and if you believe that then you are probably on some heavy drugs. Chances are, at least one top 3 seed will be eliminated in the first round. But as I already explained, statistically there is no reason that you should be taking a shot on one. Going off of that point, yes we choose the team that we think will win! Once again, I can’t believe I even have to say this, but the fact that there will probably be a 12 seed upset does not mean that you need to choose a 12 seed to advance. If you choose a 12 seed just to fulfill a quota then chances are, you chose the wrong one. However, there is a very important exception to this rule that I sort of touched upon earlier. That is, we may choose upsets in order to set ourselves up for the rounds to come. Remember, we care about total points awarded by the end of the tournament, and the points awarded per correct guess doubles every round in standard pools. So the fact that most people will go through each round separately as if they’re leveling up in a video game absolutely blows my mind. These are not independent factors! Your championship pick, worth 32 points, is reliant on your final four picks, which depend on your elite eight picks, and so on. So let’s go back to the UConn (7) vs Maryland (10) example. We established that if the result of this game was a coin flip, then we would choose the team that would be an easier matchup for Alabama. But what if it wasn’t a coin, flip? What if UConn had a 55% chance to beat Maryland and a 50% chance to beat Alabama, and Maryland a 45% chance to beat UConn and a 30% chance to beat Alabama. Well, then selecting UConn and then UConn/Bama gives a (0.55)*(0.50) = 0.275 probability of getting both correct and selecting Maryland and then Alabama gives a (0.45)*(0.70) = 0.315 probability respectively. So we can break our rule of selecting the team that is most likely to win if it’s for the “greater good” long term. It can sometimes be beneficial to work backward; perhaps you have a pre-set final four, then it is not a bad idea to start from there and work backward giving favorable yet reasonable matchups along the way. When people say you have to take risks by choosing upsets in order to win and they would be absolutely correct. But please keep in mind that they should be calculated risks. 

Now there is one final thing that needs to be discussed and it is easily the most important thing. How do I calculate the probability of a team winning? There is no simple answer, but there is a lot of places where we can start looking. First, everyone should be looking at the opening lines (both money line and spread) for each game, along with public betting percentages. This will tell you who the casinos expect to win and by how much (yes, I realize the spread is not a mere reflection of what the casinos think will happen). For instance, so many people expect Georgetown to upset Colorado to the point where taking Colorado has sort of become the unpopular opinion. Georgetown spread stands at +4.5 even with the majority of bets and money being placed on them. This tells me that the public is overreacting to a red-hot Georgetown team despite Colorado being the more consistent and well-rounded team, which leads me to side with Vegas and back the Buffs. Some stats that you can find fairly easily include the strength of schedule (SOS RK), 3 point percentage, free throw percentage, Offensive Ratings, Defensive Ratings, the pace of the game, Basketball Power Index (BPI), Pomeroy Ratings, and (in Ken Pomeroy we trust). Take note of which teams have the most experience heading into the tournament and who has the coaching and the leadership and the GRIT needed to push through. How do the 2 teams match up? Who has the height advantage? Which team will dominate the glass? These are some factors to look at when calculating probability. With that being said, I wish everyone the best of luck in their journey for creating the perfect bracket!

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