How To Actually Win Your NCAA March Madness Bracket Pool

Zion Williams of the Duke Blue Devils
Zion Williamson of the Duke Blue Devils (photo credit: Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports)

If you enter your NCAA Tournament bracket pool and pick the favorite, Duke Blue Devils, to cut down the nets, for purposes of winning the pool, your bracket is almost certainly already busted. By pegging Duke, you’ll have ignored some basic game theory, rendering your bracket a very likely loser before the first game tips off.

Maybe you’ll have a shot at some cash in a pool that pays out multiple spots, but you’ll be very unlikely to win. As the great Ricky Bobby put it, “If you’re not first, you’re last.”

Oh, you prefer the old school?  “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing,” said late UCLA Bruins football coach Henry Russell “Red” Sanders.  

All right, you really do like racecar driving. “Second place is the first loser,” said the great Dale Earnhardt.

Having sufficiently made that point, what is game theory? Very simply put, it’s a mathematical/strategic theory that optimizes how a person should play a game against multiple people when the outcome depends on decisions made by others. When you enter an NCAA pool, you (and your bracket) will compete against numerous others, with the ultimate pool winner depending mostly on which team each contestant picks to win the tournament.

The most common bracket trap is to pick the team you think is most likely to win the tournament.  This year, that team is Duke. You can’t see them losing, especially with Zion Williamson back from injury and an exploded sneaker, doing things like this.

So, you pick a couple of No. 12 seeds to win in the first round, advance a few No. 2 or No. 3 seeds to the Final Four, but your bracket has Duke cutting down the nets in Minneapolis. You click submit and send off your hard-earned cash to the pool organizer.

Here’s the problem: lots and lots of other people (in your pool and in general) also think Duke will win the tournament. If you’re in a pool of 100 people, it’s possible that more than one-third to one-half of the pool will have Duke as the eventual champion. In fact, more than 41% of current brackets submitted on’s Tournament Challenge have Duke as the National Champion.

But despite Duke’s greatness this year, the numbers and the sheer difficulty of winning six games in a row against mostly top-flight competition means they have less than a 41% chance of winning the dance. Far less. Actually, only 19% according to the team at FiveThirtyEight, and mathematician Ed Fang at The Power Rank puts Duke in the same ballpark at 18.2% to win the tournament.

Right now, even the futures odds showing the most love to Duke tab them a +225 favorite to win the tournament, which implies just a 31% chance they win.

Take a step back and let that sink in. The field — meaning any team but Duke — is anywhere from a 69% to almost 82% to win, based on FiveThirtyEight, Feng, and the betting odds.

Again, chalk that up to the one-and-done format of the tourney, randomness, and tougher matchups once teams reach the Final Four. Remember, this is the same tournament in which No. 16-seeded UMBC defeated No. 1-seeded Virginia last year by 20 points, in a game where Virginia was favored by more than 20 points.

How To Not Doom Your Bracket

For this dance, if you take Duke, two scenarios are likely to play out and doom your bracket.

1. Duke loses. In the case that the Blue Devils go down, so does your bracket.  This is the most likely scenario.

2. Duke wins the national title, but you don’t win anything. Because, remember, many other people also picked Duke to win. So even when Duke does win the tourney, you have to battle it out with a huge group of entrants to hit the money. Unless your bracket is pretty darn clean in the opening round, and you’ve got at least six of eight Elite Eight teams and at least three of four Final Four squads, you are very likely to be on the outside looking in. Let’s say 41 people in your pool of 100 took Duke to win. In a vacuum, you’ve got a better chance at hitting a single number on a spin of the roulette wheel.

So how do you avoid this trap?

You should pick the team maximizes your chances of winning the pool.  The concept is simple but often overlooked.

Especially in a year when there’s a team so heavily favored to win the tournament, and thus will attract an even larger-than-usual proportion of picks to win, you actually stand an even better chance than in most years if one of the up to six teams to face the Blue Devils knocks them out. Michigan St. looms as the No. 2 in the East Region — the No. 4 squad on KenPom’s rankings, immediately behind Duke. Virginia Tech, a fellow ACC team and potential Sweet 16 opponent for Duke, is no slouch, either. On February 26 — against a Zion-less squad, to be sure — the Hokies toppled Duke 77-72.

The key is identifying a team that has a legitimate chance to win the tournament, but that is also relatively unpopular or undervalued by the rest of the pool entries. There is no exact science in selecting this team – but using traditional guideposts, it should be a top-four seed with some pedigree in a trusted ranking system. You just want to avoid those few teams who will be selected by a significant portion of entrants. Of course, pay attention to your individual pool members. If you’re in a University of North Carolina alumni pool, you should probably avoid picking the Tar Heels to win the title.

The best example here is the 2015 NCAA Tournament. Undefeated Kentucky entered the dance as the overwhelmingly popular pick, with an astounding 48% of ESPN Tournament Challenge entries selecting the Wildcats as the eventual champion. But hidden in the wave of popularity was the reality that this all-time great team still only had a 41% chance to win the tourney – a huge number, yet still 9% less than a coin flip.

If you took Kentucky, you were better off just lighting your cash on fire. Even if they won, you’d still have to fight it out with 48% of entries to hit the money.  But of course, they didn’t, and every Kentucky entry crashed and burned when they lost in the National Semifinals to Wisconsin. If you took Duke that year, a No. 1 seed and a legitimate contender with a 6% chance to win the dance at the outset (per FiveThirtyEight), you very likely won your pool or finished in the money.

Boiled down to its essence, using the 2015 example, by taking Kentucky, you picked the team most likely to win the tournament, but if you took Duke or perhaps Wisconsin, you took the team most likely to win you the pool.

A Very Important Caveat

If you follow the course I’m describing, it absolutely does not mean you’re going to win your pool this year or the year after that. Most years, your bracket will bust, and so it goes with March Madness. Sometimes, the public favorite will win the title.

Other years, you’ll be backing the wrong horse. Another year you may be on the correct, less-heralded horse but the rest of your Elite 8 picks may seriously stink and end up costing you. But there will be years when the strategy pays off, and you’ll hit the cash, perhaps winning a large pool, or multiple medium-sized pools if you have several entries. I’d rather strike gold once or twice then pick the winner, but never win, all the time.

Who Are We Looking at This Year?

virginia march madness
Kyle Guy (Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

Let’s get down to business. This year, you may want to avoid both Duke and its rival, North Carolina. They are both overvalued relative to their actual chances of winning.  

What undervalued team should you be targeting? Virginia. And it’s not even close. With last year’s loss to 16-seeded UMBC fresh in the public’s mind, combined with their early exit from the ACC tournament, reality and perception on Virginia are off. But this is an excellentteam with great offensive and defensive metrics and a 17% chance to win the tournament — just below Duke. Except nobody is picking them. Well, not nobody, but only 7% of ESPN brackets have them winning. Take advantage of this public bias.

If you want to diversify a bit, splash the pot with Gonzaga and Michigan St. If you’re in a very large pool (250 or more brackets), consider Texas Tech, Michigan, Virginia Tech, or Kansas. Just kidding, I wouldn’t touch Kansas to win it this year with your money.

For much more tournament coverage, come back to SharpSide often and also visit RotoGrinders Sports Betting.

You can follow Brett Smiley on Twitter @brettsmiley.

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