By: Edward Egros

brackets

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.

Evaluating Your Bracket

Pasted Graphic 1The Law of Conservation of Mass tells us: matter is neither created nor destroyed. When you burn your horribly incorrect college basketball bracket, remember, you never destroyed it, it is in another form somewhere in the universe. So instead of ignoring your transgressions, let's embrace what still exists and see which approaches were the best when predicting who will be in the Final Four.

There's a one-seed (North Carolina), a couple of two-seeds (Villanova and Oklahoma) and a 10-seed (Syracuse). There is not as much parity with this quartet as with some tournaments in the last few years. Still, some of the favorites to win the National Championship did not survive the first two weeks of this crucible. For instance, the top three teams in the Pythagorean Rating at the end of the conference tournaments are not playing in Houston. In fact,
Syracuse did not even crack the top 25, until recently. ESPN's Basketball Power Index offers these rankings: North Carolina (1), Villanova (3), Oklahoma (6) and Syracuse (39). The LRMC Basketball Rankings still has its two, three and seven, but ranks the Orange 41st.

Some computer models have resorted to predictions without solely implementing historical data. How is this possible? Microsoft's search engine, Bing, uses social media to determine which teams will survive and advance.
It has already proven successful in other sporting events like the World Cup and NFL games. But how did it fare for this tournament? Sadly for Bing, it only predicted one Final Four team correctly (North Carolina). In fact, the system predicted the Orange to lose their first game.

It should be clear by now the two schools that ruined this tournament's predictiveness: Kansas and Syracuse. The Jayhawks were the top team by nearly all accounts, yet lost in the Regional Final,
perhaps uncharacteristically. At the other end of the spectrum, Syracuse could be the worst team ever to make the Final Four. There have been 11-seeds to make it to the final weekend of the season, but many debated if Syracuse even deserved to make the tournament. Their RPI was 72 at the time of selection, worse than other schools that were not chosen (e.g. Valparaiso, San Diego St. and St. Bonaventure). Instead of the favorite vying for the National Championship, it's the controversial at-large two wins away from glory.

Even listening to me would not have been wise. Using my own system, I only correctly predicted one team (and it was a different school than what I said was coming out of that Region on Fox 4). My National Champion was knocked out during the Elite Eight (Kansas) and my second place team lost in the First Round (Michigan St.).

So what is the best way to fill out your bracket for the next tournament?

I don't know.