By: Edward Egros

NCAA Tournament Dos and Don'ts

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With every NCAA Tournament comes firmer beliefs that THIS is the year the secrets will be revealed, the formulas will be solved and the proprietor of how to win your pool will be unmasked like a Scooby-Doo villain.

Alas, not everything can be predicted.

Still, many tactics for winning your pool have stood the test of time. Last year, I went over a few strategies which I will revisit:

Firstly, start with your National Champion. While Duke seems to be a heavy favorite,
Virginia ranks first in KenPom, college sports data scientist Luke Benz has Gonzaga winning most frequently in his simulations and one significant variable is the overall talent at point guard, and the most talented seem to play for Purdue and Michigan State. Certainly the Boilermakers and Spartans are riskier, but any one of these four teams are acceptable alternatives to the heavy favorite.

Next, you do not need as many upsets as you might think. Look at the size of your tournament pool and adjust the number of total upsets based upon how many other brackets you are up against. Per
Andrew Beaton:

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If you are up against something much greater, you can see the growth is asymptotic, so do not go crazy picking dozens of underdogs.

Lastly, look at who everyone else is picking and choose those that are being undervalued.
ESPN's Tournament Challenge shares its popular vote, and if you go by KenPom and Benz's simulations, participants are overvaluing North Carolina, Kentucky and Villanova, and undervaluing Virginia, Gonzaga and Virginia Tech. Regional bias may cause more people to pick a team close to their area, and if it is being overvalued, there may be an opportunity to oust them early and gain points others will not.

Though I cannot independently confirm, there are roughly as many analytical projections of the perfect bracket as there are actual realistic permutations. What research can show is which factors typically matter. For starters,
geography matters. Teams that play significantly closer to a site than their opponents have a tangible advantage. Two of the more notable matchups this year involve Oregon/Wisconsin and UC Irvine/Kansas State, both happening in San Jose, CA. The Ducks are roughly 558 miles away from the arena, while the Badgers are four times that distance. UC Irvine is located approximately 382 miles from the SAP Center, whereas Kansas State must travel more than 1,700 miles to play its first game of the tournament.

Preseason rankings also matter: no matter how the season played out, projections before the first games are played typically perform well (
good news for Kansas, Kentucky and Gonzaga). Offensive and defensive efficiency metrics are also significant (though never foolproof). One factor that does not seem to be important is team experience. While pundits seem to enjoy citing if a team has been through the tournament rigors before or how many seniors/juniors they have, young teams have performed well and senior-laden teams have been upset early. Overall, it should not factor into decisions.

Taking as many of these factors into account, here are two brackets I have submitted to a pool or two. The "Gonzaga" bracket is for smaller pools and the "Michigan State" bracket is for larger pools. I will blend these two into my Final Four picks for television, podcasts and such (subject to change).


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May the odds be ever in your favor.