As March Madness approaches, it’s time to consider the most effective strategies for beating your friends and/or co-workers in an NCAA Tournament pool to win cash and bragging rights.
Even before the brackets are released, there are certain factors that can give you an edge. Independent of how the seedings shake out on Selection Sunday, we bring you five tips that can help you separate from the pack and edge out a victory in your pool.
The advice below is also relevant for sports betting on sites such as DraftKings Sportsbook and FanDuel Sportsbook.
Keep an eye on injury news right up until tip-off since things can change quickly in the NCAA Tournament. The odds listed may change, and strategies may differ as news continues to break leading up to Selection Sunday.
Strategies for March Madness Brackets
How Many Participants?
This is the foundational question when it comes to a strategy in March Madness pools. There is a huge difference between how you should build a bracket in a pool of 30 friends versus 30,000 participants in a public contest. Even the difference between a pool of 50 and 100 is important to consider.
Since the point system in most pools is heavily weighted toward later rounds, picking the tournament champion is often what matters most. In a pool of 30-50 participants, taking a No. 1 seed to win the tournament is more often effective. If everyone follows suit and takes the obvious favorites, it places more emphasis on earlier games and gaining the inside track through the early rounds.
The best way to gain an edge in a smaller field might be by going with more “Chalk” than everyone else. If you were to simply pick the favorite (according to sportsbooks) in each round, you’ll technically have a higher chance to win than participants who feel compelled to go against the grain with wild upset picks.
On the other hand, taking a tournament favorite in a larger or massive pool can put you at a severe disadvantage. In a pool of 500 participants, taking a heavy favorite (let’s say Kansas is +500 following Selection Sunday) gives you a lower overall probability for victory. If 25 percent of the field takes Kansas, it places too much emphasis on the early rounds, as your bracket could get lost in a line of brackets with Kansas as champion if you don’t correctly predict the most difficult games to predict.
Choosing a Final Four
Some years are so unpredictable that picking even two of the correct members of the Final Four is enough to win smaller pools. If upsets abound and the consensus favorites (Kansas, Gonzaga, etc.) are all knocked out before the Final Four, those participants leading the pool can be locked into victory regardless of the outcome of the championship game.
In 2008, all four No. 1 seeds made the Final Four for the first time in modern history. We had three out of four No. 1 seeds in 2015 and at least two No. 1 seeds in each of the last two seasons.
Since 1985, No. 1 seeds have accounted for 40.63% of Final Four appearances. No team below a No. 11 seed has qualified, with Loyola-Chicago becoming the fourth No. 11 seed to crack the final weekend in 2018.
The point being, No. 1 seeds clearly have the best chance of making it to the final weekend. Thus, your brackets should include two or perhaps three of those top seeds in order to be on the right side of probability.
Especially in smaller pools, going Chalk with a few your Final Four selections is vital to staying alive late in the tournament and earning a shot at the pool prize if your champion advances.
Grow Conservative in Later Rounds
We all know the first weekend of the tournament is the reason it’s been dubbed March Madness. We know that only twice has at least one No. 12 seed failed to upset a No. 5 seed in the first round and that a No. 16 seed finally took down a No. 1 in 2018 (UMBC over Virginia).
Taking a few early-round upsets makes sense, but the odds of correctly predicting a “Cinderella” run from a double-digit seed are very slim. You can plan for chaos without trying to throw darts in the hopes of correctly guessing which underdog will shock the world.
Even in larger pools, it makes sense to eliminate the double-digit seeds you might have picked to navigate the first two rounds by the second weekend. The Elite Eight should feature at least one team that isn’t ranked 1-4, but sprinkling in multiple longshots to advance is not an effective strategy over a larger sample size.
While parity is growing throughout the NCAA, Mid-Major programs that make deep runs are highly unlikely to win it all or even a Final Four game.
Since 1990, only two teams from smaller conferences have won it all. Those are still big-name programs: UNLV (Big West) and UConn (American), which just happened to be aligned in a smaller conference after the Big East began to disintegrate in 2014.
Now that we’ve laid out general strategies, it’s time to consider the specifics of selecting a championship-caliber team.
In the “One-and-Done” era there is a prevalent belief that stud prospects (such as the three potential Top 10 NBA draft picks at Duke) often flop in the Big Dance. While that was true for some, such as the notable John Wall/DeMarcus Cousins-led Kentucky team of 2010, it has not always been the case.
Kentucky went on to win the NCAA title two years later with Anthony Davis leading the charge, and Duke followed suit in 2015 with Jahlil Okafor at the vanguard.
So how do you differentiate between freshman that will rise to the occasion and freshman-led teams that will falter?
The key is often the coach. Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski has done a great job managing those talented youngsters. And Kentucky’s John Calipari has been up and down in that regard.
Of course, the results still come down the players, so it’s important to look at their track record in close games. Teams that are battle-tested by playing a tough conference schedule are almost always more capable in the Big Dance.
Since 1977, the ACC (widely regarded as the best conference this season) has accounted for 12 national champions. The defunct Big East is second with nine championships, but the shared criteria is a veritable gauntlet of a conference tournament that forces these young teams to grow up in a hurry and learn how to play on a bigger stage.
Picking a Champion
At last, we come down to the most important decision you will make — picking an actual champion.
The “Blue Bloods” of college basketball have dominated in this regard. The last time a new program secured its first national title was Syracuse in 2003.
While powers such as Duke, Kansas, and Michigan State have suffered high-profile losses in the early rounds, programs with established coaches in powerful conferences have accounted for almost every championship in the modern era.
The best place to start when picking a champion is the NCAA Futures odds on sportsbooks. Look around at multiple sites and see which teams are being undervalued. Consider a couple of different bracket outcomes with those favorites panning out as the national champions and adjust based on the number of participants in your pool.
Essentially, if there are over 50 participants, pick a few upsets. If there are over 150, go out on a limb with a No. 7 seed in the Final Four or a No. 12 seed in the Sweet Sixteen.
But don’t take a true Cinderella to win it all. There is just too much of a gap in terms of physical ability for a Mid-Major to take down a loaded Duke or Gonzaga team in the Final Four. Experienced guards and good rosters will take a team far, but not to the promised land. In order to win it all, you need star power. Therefore, as simple as it may sound, pick your champion by lining up their starting five against the best options out there in an attempt to predict which team is too talented to be denied.
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