Bracket Pool Strategy: Duke or Michigan State to Win, Take a Chance on Tennessee or Cincinnati

Bracket Pool Strategy: Duke or Michigan State to Win, Take a Chance on Tennessee or Cincinnati


Bracket Pool Strategy: Duke or Michigan State to Win, Take a Chance on Tennessee or Cincinnati


It’s crunch time when it comes to getting your NCAA Tournament picks. The good news is, we can also look at incoming data on what people are picking in the tourney pools after two days, and adjust our strategy to what is happening. Here, for example, is the pick distribution from Yahoo online pools.

Now, it’s important to look at your specific league rules, such as points for upsets, and adapt your strategy. It’s also important to know about how many people enter your pool. For smaller pools, let’s say 30 or less, you want to be less risky than in a massive pool of several hundred. The goal is to win the pool, and it doesn’t really matter if you are eliminated in the Sweet 16 or at the Final Four. So my advice here is to maximize the chances of winning, not just based strictly on who I think will win, but also the relative value of getting it right because of pool pick concentration.

For example, 57% of all pools on Yahoo are picking Virginia to the Final Four, 42% are picking them to the championship game, and 25% to win it all. Those percentages far outstrip their actual odds, even as the top-rated team entering the tournament (just over half of all top teams have failed to reach the Final Four, and they don’t have an easy draw.) Villanova is also picked to advance to the Final Four in a whopping 68% of pools, 38% to go to final, and 20% to win. Put it together and almost half of all pools have either Virginia or Villanova as the winner.

Obviously, if you don’t pick UVA or Villanova, and they win the title, you aren’t winning a pool. But–and this is important–you may not win even if you do pick them in that scenario, because of the volume of contestants that have them. I’m giving this advice with the knowledge that it will probably not win you the pool. The goal, though, is to take you from 2-3% in a 40-person pool to having about 5-10% chance of cashing.

Ken Pomeroy has the true odds for each of them at 18%, and gives each just less than a 45% chance of even reaching the Final Four. If you pick against them, though, then you are likely to have odds in your favor if you pick the right champ, and nail someone else to the Final Four from their group.

So let’s look at teams where the Yahoo bracket percentages are most out of line with Ken Pomeroy’s tourney estimates. Here are the most overvalued to reach the Final Four:

  • #1 Villanova (68% pool picks vs. 44% Ken Pom) = -24%
  • #1 Virginia (57% pool picks vs. 41% Ken Pom) = -16%
  • #1 Kansas (31% pool picks vs. 15% Ken Pom) = -16%
  • #2 UNC (39% pool picks vs. 26% Ken Pom) = -13%
  • #4 Arizona (18% pool picks vs. 5% Ken Pom) = -13%
  • #3 Michigan State (32% pool picks vs. 21% Ken Pom) = -11%
  • #3 Michigan (21% pool picks vs. 13% Ken Pom) = -8%
  • #1 Xavier (20% pool picks vs. 15% Ken Pom) = -5%
  • #5 Kentucky (8% pool picks vs. 6% Ken Pom) = -2%

That’s basically the #1 seeds, with the two highest rated being the most preferred, along with the other big name power programs. Some of that is to be expected, we tend to pick #1 seeds, but it shows where some relatively overvaluing is occurring.

Here are the undervalued teams, by percentage, to reach Final Four:

  • #2 Cincinnati (11% pool picks vs. 22% Ken Pom) = +11%
  • #3 Tennessee (4% pool picks vs. 12% Ken Pom) = +8%
  • #3 Texas Tech (3% pool picks vs. 10% Ken Pom) = +7%
  • #5 Ohio State (2% pool picks vs. 9% Ken Pom) = +7%
  • #4 Auburn (2% pool picks vs. 9% Ken Pom) = +7%
  • #2 Duke (31% pool picks vs. 37% Ken Pom) = +6%
  • #2 Purdue (17% pool picks vs. 23% Ken Pom) = +6%
  • #6 Houston (1% pool picks vs. 7% Ken Pom) = +6%
  • #5 Clemson (1% pool picks vs. 7% Ken Pom) = +6%

Some of those might be too risky–if you don’t want to take a team to the Final Four you don’t think has a 10% or so chance then you will rule some out. But Tennessee and Cincinnati are at 12% and 22% respectively out of the same quadrant, but barely being picked. That’s because everyone is picking either Virginia or Arizona or Kentucky out of the South. 83% of pools have one of those teams in the Final Four. I’d lean Cincinnati, but could also be talked into Tennessee. If you do multiple entries diversify with both. If you think in poker terms, this is pot odds situation where you are getting 2 or 3 to 1 on those two teams. If you are in a pool with 40 entries, about 25 will have Virginia. You might be the only one or one of two with Cincinnati or Tennessee.

And then look at Duke. Of the top favorites, they are the only one providing “make it to the Final Four” value. That’s because a) they nominally aren’t the #1 seed even though they are the top team in the region, and b) the early test in the Sweet 16 with Michigan State. But I feel that Michigan State-Duke matchup is a benefit if you want to find value. It will make some entrants shy away from wanting to take their pick in that game too deep, because of the risk. Well, in the real tournament, everything is a risk. I think taking Duke or Michigan State deep is the way to get one of the top four favorites in this tourney at a pool discount. Sure, your pick to win it all may eliminate you if they lose. But if you nail it, you are sitting pretty heading to the Elite Eight.

I also ran some similarity comps, using the Ken Pom data of offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency, and tempo, along with seed similarity. This is different than the “odds” to advance to each round, which just apply the overall power rating to the potential schedule. This is looking for similar type teams, and how they did. Here is the result with the 10 most similar comps going back to 2002, using pre-tourney data, for each of the top 4 seeds in each region.

Several things stand out there. Duke is a very good pick (they are similar to both of the last two North Carolina teams in efficiency scores and tempo). Villanova type teams have won titles, but also gotten knocked out before the Elite 8 half the time. Cincinnati and Tennessee types look really good here, even with Villanova in wins. What this shows is that defensive efficiency pre-tournament is a good indicator. The top 5 in defense are Virginia, Cincinnati, Texas Tech, Tennessee, and Michigan. (Duke is 7th, rising dramatically after going to zone). Purdue comes off poorly here, because their defensive efficiency numbers aren’t great, and that combined with the slow tempo has been a bad indicator. The #3 seeds overall are very strong in this tournament and are probably providing value as a group.

So my recommendations for pool:

  1. Duke (or Michigan State) to win the title, getting some value because they aren’t listed as #1 seeds. I’d go Duke since Obama went Michigan State;
  2. Cincinnati (or Tennessee) to come out of the South, both are great value because everyone is picking the South winner to come from the top of the region;
  3. Depending on how risky/deep your pool is and whether you get bonuses for picking lower seeds, Villanova to the Final Four, or Texas Tech if you are in a deeper pool. Texas Tech to the Elite 8 is great value (only being picked in 18% of entries to advance that far). Because of the defensive numbers, Purdue’s comps include two 15-2 stunners (Middle Tennessee over Michigan State and Norfolk State over Missouri), and several other 2’s that lost in the 2nd game.
  4. The West is wide open. Michigan is a high variance play, they face a tough road early but can easily win if they get to Los Angeles, Gonzaga can win, as can UNC or Xavier, but the latter two aren’t great value and this is the one I have the least conviction on.
  5. Play it generally safe in the early rounds. If in doubt, play against the top-rated RPI conferences because the committee tends to overvalue them (Big 12, Big East are #1 and #2, ACC #3) and on strong mid-majors like Nevada, Loyola-Chicago.
  6. Good luck and get those picks in by game time.