It’s late. You have until 11 am tomorrow to turn in your pool. You are not one of the go getters, but have been busy all week and have not taken the time to turn it in. You don’t know what to do. Let me help.
Let’s start with some general rules. First, know your rules, and know your opponents. Are you in a pool that escalates point values by 1 point for each round, or do they shoot up dramatically? Do you get any bonus points for upsets or picking worse seeds to advance? Are you in an office where half the alumni attend [insert name of highly ranked school]? All of these should impact your decisions.
In 2004, I worked in an office that had 90% Kansas fans. Out of 130 entries, I was the only one that had Bucknell winning in the first round and one of a handful that had #6 seed Wisconsin going to the Sweet 16. Did I think they would win? No, but I liked my pot odds.
So adapt this advice–riskiness, how likely a particular team is to be overvalued in your particular pool–to your situation. Let’s get started.
First, don’t start by just looking at second round games, going through, and then starting back through the third round, rinsing, and repeating, until you get to the final. Doing it this way, you often talk yourself into New Mexico versus Vanderbilt in the final. No, write the ending first. Who do you think will win? Secondly, who do you think will provide the most value among teams most likely to win?
I agree with most people that Kentucky is the favorite. I am not, however, officially picking Kentucky as part of my bracket strategy. My guess is that in a typical pool, close to half of the entries are going to have Kentucky as the winner. Even as the favorite, they do not have a 50% chance. Think about this: they won 9 of 11 games against NCAA tournament teams (besides Lamar). We’ll give them a pass in round one, meaning they would need to win five games. 82% (win percentage against tourney teams) to the fifth power is 37%. That still overstates their chances, but the point is . . . Kentucky is going to be bad value unless you are in the Louisville Alumni Pool.
I would also avoid North Carolina. Lots of people like Carolina. They have a relatively easy road to the Elite 8, at least that is the perception. I know they are talented, and if they win it all it would not surprise me, but I’m not playing on them. Between North Carolina and Kentucky, you’ve probably accounted for a very large chunk of your pool.
I would recommend either Ohio State or Kansas. There are a couple of reasons. First, they are both #2 seeds, and in my experience, a typical pool of casual fans will overrate the 1-seeds when selecting a National Champion, and slightly underrate the quality #2’s. In this case, both of these teams profile as 1-seeds and are probably providing value. Which one? You pick, go with whichever you prefer. They are both on the same side of the bracket. Pick both to reach New Orleans, then make your pick and take the winner to the title.
That leaves the other side, where we will table Kentucky for now, and probably have them in the final. That leaves the West Region. We’ll get to that and leave it open for now.
Now, let’s work backwards in the regions.
The East has one team that people are crazy about, far more than their profile would dictate: Florida State. Since we know we are picking Ohio State to advance far, knock the Seminoles out early. I suspect you will get good pot odds there. Whether you want to pick St. Bonaventure or the winner of Cincinnati/Texas is up to you and depends on things like bonuses for upsets.
On the other side, I like the Vanderbilt/Wisconsin winner to reach the Elite 8. I wouldn’t pick either to get upset in the first game. Whichever you have winning take on to next game. Based on history of those types of 4/5 matchups, I think that is a pretty even game. As for Syracuse, I’m not taking them past the Sweet 16. It’s up to you if you want to take Kansas State over them before that.
We’ve got Kansas advancing. I’m also taking North Carolina to the Elite 8, mainly because I just don’t see a risk worth taking on this side of the bracket. Where I do take risks is in the 4/5 range in this bracket, knowing that I have UNC advancing. This is the region most likely to produce a 12 or 13 run, so take California/South Florida or Ohio to win, maybe both, and then go for it, pick them to win again. As for the 3/6 grouping, I’m definitely picking NC State over San Diego State, and then the Georgetown/Belmont question depends on the scoring system. If I get a huge bonus for upsets, I’m taking Belmont. If not, I’ll go with Georgetown, with the winner to the Sweet 16.
Michigan State or Missouri? Or a massive upset from a team that beats one of those two in the 2nd game? Those are the choices here. I think Michigan State would be a bad matchup for Missouri. I’ve heard people say that Missouri has matchups against teams that play like them. Having watched them all year, I can say I think that favors Missouri, and they are better off playing the likes of Florida and Marquette than a physical team that has a 4 that can still guard, but also pound the boards. I also think Michigan State is slightly more likely to lose before the Elite 8, so take your pick.
If you pick either Memphis or Saint Louis to beat Michigan State, or Florida/Virginia to beat Missouri, take that team on to the Elite 8. In the other parts of the bracket, I’m picking the winner of New Mexico/Long Beach to reach the Sweet 16, am willing to pick an upset in Louisville/Davidson, and think the Marquette grouping is a wide open pairing with Marquette as the favorite.
Am I taking Kentucky to the Final Game or not? Depends on how risky I want to be. I’m a risk taker. I think Kentucky’s best chance to lose is at the Sweet 16. How many times have we seen the favorite lose at that stage, including last year with Ohio State? That matchup will probably feature either Indiana, who beat Kentucky earlier in a close game, or Wichita State. I’m taking Wichita State to the Final Four if I pick them to win here. Go back through the last twenty years, and this Wichita State is stylistically similar to teams that have made runs from this position–multiple Michigan State teams as 5 seed in 2010, Butler as a 5 seed in 2010 (who beat #1 overall Syracuse), Indiana in 2002 (over #1 overall Duke), Florida in 2000 (over #1 Duke). Butler, Indiana, and Florida went on from that upset in the Sweet 16 to the title game before losing.
So, my title game loser is either Kentucky or Wichita State. Wichita State is obviously a big risk, but big reward. They get to the Elite 8, you are probably in the money.
As for the rest of the South, I’m taking Baylor to the Elite 8, eliminating Duke in either the Sweet 16 or 3rd round, and flipping a coin on the 6/11, 7/10, and 8/9 matchups.
My last second recommendations are:
–Pick #2 Kansas and #2 Ohio State to the Final Four and pick one to win the Title.
–Pick either #1 Kentucky or #5 Wichita State to go to the Title game out of the Top Half of the South Region.
–Pick either #2 Missouri or #1 Michigan State to win the West.
–Pick North Carolina to the Elite Eight.
–Be willing to pick upsets in sub-regions where you are not taking that team far anyway, like Florida State, Duke, and in the Michigan/Temple pod.
–If you are in a pool where everyone reads me (because you work with my relatives) then take Kentucky to win it all.
[photo via US Presswire]