How To Actually Win Your NCAA March Madness Bracket Pool

March Madness basketball
(image credit: Imagn/USA TODAY Sports)

If you enter your NCAA Tournament bracket pool and pick the favorite to cut down the nets, for purposes of winning the pool, your bracket is almost certainly already busted. By pegging the favorite, 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 mathematic/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 March Madness 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.

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The most common bracket trap is to pick the team you think is most likely to win the tournament.  Every year, that’s the odds-on betting favorite and nearly all of the time it’s the most popular selection to win. You can’t see the favorite losing.

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 a No. 1 seed cutting down the nets. Not only did you pick a No. 1 seed to win it all, but you also picked the No. 1 seed — the No. 1 seed considered to be the top overall seed and the team with most favored on the betting odds. 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 a No. 1 seed will win the tournament. In fact, although there are four No. 1 seeds in the tournament, many people will have selected the same top team. 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 the betting favorite as the eventual champion.

But despite a team’s greatness over the course of the season, the numbers and the sheer difficulty of winning six games in a row against mostly top-flight competition means they have less of a chance at winning the NCAA Tournament. If we take a look back at the 2019 edition, when Duke and Zion Williamson were the favorites to win it all, FiveThirtyEight gave the Blue Devils a less than a 41% chance of counting down the nets in the final.

Ahead of the 2021 NCAA Tournament, we can take a look at ScoresAndOdds.com to see the odds to win the National Championship. Gonzaga is the favorite. As of Friday, March 12, Gonzaga’s lowest odds are +220 at FanDuel Sportsbook to win it all, and +220 implies just a 31.3% chance of winning.

Take a step back and let that sink in. The field — meaning any team but Gonzaga — is 68.7% to win based on the betting odds.

Again, chalk that up to the one-and-done format of the NCAA Tournament, 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 in 2018 by 20 points, in a game where Virginia was favored by more than 20 points.

How To Not Doom Your NCAA Bracket

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

1. Gonzaga loses. In the case that the Bulldogs go down, so does your bracket.  This is the most likely scenario.

2. Gonzaga wins the national title, but you don’t win anything because, remember, many other people also picked Gonzaga to win. So even when the Bulldogs do win the tournament, 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 Gonzaga 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 that maximizes your chances of winning the pool.  The concept is simple but often overlooked.

This is especially true in a year when there’s a team that is 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 top team knocks them out. Entering the 2021 NCAA Tournament, there are three teams in a tier of their own when it comes to the betting odds. Gonzaga has already been mentioned, and they’re the leading favorite, and then Baylor and Michigan aren’t too far off. After Michigan, there’s a decent gap before the next team’s odds.

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 dance – 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 Eight 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 than pick the winner but never win all the time.

Who Are We Betting On?

Gonzaga was awarded the top overall seed, and rightfully so. The Bulldogs went a perfect 26-0, including wins against Iowa, Kansas, West Virginia, and Virginia. Gonzaga was scheduled to face No. 2 Baylor, but the game was canceled. At +200 at FanDuel Sportsbook as of Wednesday morning, Gonzaga remains the odds-on favorite to win the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

The interesting thing about Gonzaga is that we might not see them be as popular of a No. 1 seed and tournament favorite as we’ve seen in the past. It seems like just about every NCAA Tournament, Gonzaga is among the favorites, a likable team to select, but then they fall short. It’s easier to pick a team like that when they’re not the tournament favorite and getting a better price, but when they’re +200 and no one else is shorter than +600 (at FanDuel Sportsbook), it might drive some people away from picking them.

In the West Region where Gonzaga is, Iowa (+1700), Kansas (+4500), and Virginia (+5000) provide some more appealing prices that people may want to latch onto, even though Gonzaga beat these teams in the season. It’s the public perception that Gonzaga has from falling short in the tournament that could drive bettors elsewhere.

The No. 3 team in the country is Baylor and they are the top seed in the South Region. At FanDuel Sportsbook, Baylor is +600 as of Wednesday morning. Baylor was undefeated through 18 games, but they dropped two of their last six and fell short in the Big 12 tournament. Don’t get us wrong, Baylor is still a very good squad, but the recent performance isn’t the most confidence-instilling thing entering the NCAA Tournament.

A team that could be a little bit of a surprise from the South Region is Arkansas, listed with +5500 odds to win the tournament at FanDuel Sportsbook as of Wednesday morning. Arkansas is a No. 3 seed in the region and a team we like to back at the price they’re at. Grabbing an Arkansas to make the Final Four ticket at +700 feels pretty good.

In the Midwest Region, everyone seems to love Illinois (+600). Illinois is a very good team, but there’s some variance in this region. Illinois could certainly see Georgia Tech in the second round, and they’re performing well lately, and we all know how funky March Madness can be at times. Houston, West Virginia, and Oklahoma State are all very solid squads that could end up beating Illinois. Oklahoma State will probably generate some love after beating Baylor in the Big 12 tournament, so you might want to look to one of Houston or West Virginia and hoping for some variance in this region.

In the East Region, Michigan is the No. 1 seed. This is the region where we could see the most upsets and surprises. To start, LSU is a No. 8 seed and if they beat St. Bonaventure in the first round will likely face No. 1 Michigan. LSU could definitely beat Michigan with how talented LSU is. LSU feels like one of those very talented teams that could beat anyone on a given night, but it might be hard for them to find success in each round. If they did end up beating Michigan, that doesn’t guarantee LSU a trip to the Final Four.

The bottom half of the bracket has a bunch of teams who could emerge. Alabama, Texas, or UConn could all do it, although with UConn it would probably involve them catching a little more fire than Alabama or Texas. No. 10 Maryland might even get hot and make a run, which would bounce UConn out. This region could get wild, and that’s something we love to see during March Madness. If we were putting on our on this region, we’d back Alabama (+390) or Florida State (+700) to reach the Final Four.

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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