NCAA Tournament Bracket Tips: Sorting the Good From the Bad

As you prepare to fill out your annual N.C.A.A. tournament bracket, grimly determined not to throw away your entry fee yet again, you might be tempted to seek help. There are plenty of articles, websites and message board posts out there that presume to offer the secret to making winning selections.

Unfortunately, some of the most widely circulated tips are unhelpful at best and actively terrible at worst. Here are some things you might have heard from a friend or read on some dodgy sports betting site that may not be as useful as you think.

While researching all 68 teams in each of the men’s or women’s basketball tournaments isn’t going to hurt, it’s mostly going to be a waste of time. Knowing the name of the point guard at Drake, or Cleveland State’s rebounding rate, just isn’t going to help very much, and any wonderful statistical nugget you do unearth is unlikely to give you a meaningful edge given that you have to predict 63 games (assuming your pool skips the play-in games).

As for injuries, the only ones that really matter are major injuries to very significant players.

This isn’t great advice for a typical pool. While many favorites won’t win, it isn’t easy to forecast which ones. You should pick mostly favorites, with a few exceptions. If you pick 10 first-round long shots and four of them win, that’s impressive. But a bracket with all favorites will still have six of 10 correct picks.

If your pool is one of those that awards a bonus point for an upset, that’s another matter. Now you probably want to pick all the No. 9 seeds in the first round. If the bonuses are larger — 2, 3, 5 or even 10 points — you want to start picking all the 10, 11 and 12 seeds as well, because the rewards for picking lower seeds can quickly overtake the value of more conservative selections.

In a women’s pool, however, forget about a long-shot strategy entirely. In the past five tournaments, 14 of 20 Final Four berths went to No. 1 seeds, five to No. 2s and just one to a No. 3. If you get cute, you will likely sink in the standings like a rock.

This is another tip that requires too much time and effort for too little payoff. While some gamblers closely follow matchups, that isn’t an easy way to make money. Moreover, few of the games in the N.C.A.A. men’s tournament, particularly in the early rounds, are rematches, so it’s very hard to assess how two teams will match up against each other. And you don’t even know for sure who is playing in the later rounds.

Actually, the winner of the tournament is one place where you don’t necessarily want to pick the favorite. Pool players tend to cluster heavily on one or two teams to win the tournament. Go for the third-, fourth- or fifth-best team instead, and if you are right, your bracket might be one of only a few to have chosen correctly, giving you a better chance at the overall win.

If you know nothing about basketball, this might be a tempting strategy. But it has pitfalls. First, many published “experts” know a lot about basketball or a lot about betting pools, but not both. Others, frankly, don’t know much about either.

And there’s a good chance that even if you do find and follow a well-known, capable expert, others in your pool might be doing that too, meaning you are in danger of splitting the pot.

The personnel on college teams turns over so quickly that one season’s team has little in common with the same team even a year later. The uniforms don’t play the game; the players do. Picking a historically elite team when it is having a down year is foolish.

Actually, the number of players in the pool makes a big difference. If the pool is just you and a handful of friends, go ahead and pick all the favorites. But in a typical office pool of 50 or so, start making a few contrarian picks, particularly for the end of the tournament. As for a big online pool with millions of players, well, you won’t win. But to have any chance, you have to make some pretty goofy picks.

If you happen to enter both a standard pool and a pool with bonus points, you should submit drastically different brackets. The standard pool should be favorite-heavy, and the bonus-point pool should be awash with long shots. Picking different teams to win the same game in different pools is not irrational. It’s the correct play.

Every year, an unlikely team or two wins a major conference tournament and is deemed to be “on a roll.” Be wary. These teams are much more likely to revert to their average regular-season form. In general, you want to consider a team’s entire season, not just its last few games.

A vast majority of the time, this is true. But once in a while, the tournament committee will pick one team as the higher seed, even if oddsmakers make the lower seed the betting favorite. Go with the oddsmakers; they are simply right more often.

Few tipsters or players pay close attention to the tiebreaker, which in most pools is the total score in the final game.

But pools end in ties all the time. So put in 142 for the men and 130 for the women; that’s the average over the past 10 tournaments.

That one little step might be the difference between first and second place.

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