How to Win Your NCAA Tournament Pool
By the man who wrote the book on it.
by Andrew Clark
Next to Stonehenge, the fate of Jimmy Hoffa and Lady Gaga’s outfits, there may be no bigger mystery in the world than the NCAA Tournament. Each March millions of people try their hand at cracking this seemingly uncrackable event. Many people will make quick picks using the typical information easily available to them such as RPI, records and points per game. Then there are the throngs of casual fans who will pick winners based on uniform colors. Sorry Tennessee, but for some reason, creamiscle tends to always lose.
But I am neither the former nor the latter (I kind of like Tennessee’s uniforms). Instead, I’ve spent the past few years perfecting a system that combines simple mathematics and even simpler logic to help guide me through my picks. In fact, I even wrote a book about it that was released a few months ago, called Bracketeering: The Layman’s Guide to Picking the Madness in March (ACTA Sports, $9.95).
Now, I’m not a former college hoops star — though I did once hit a buzzer beater during a sixth-grade city league game — and I don’t even have a degree in mathematics (I went with English, sadly). But by using this system, which eschews those traditional methods for a more pragmatic approach to the game, I’ve been able to pick the overall champion four times in the past six years. Along the way, I’ve been able to predict more than half of the Final Four teams while picking some pretty interesting upsets, too (Murray State over Vanderbilt in 2010, for one).
So what I’d like to do is share a few of my tips with you. I’m not going to paraphrase my whole book, but with March Madness upon us, I’m going to highlight a few pointers to help you pick your bracket. Sound good? Here we go.
Tip #1: There are going to be a lot of numbers available to you come tourney time. There will be seedings and records, RPI and strength of schedule. But no metric is more telling of how good a team is than its scoring margin. No metric at all.
Chances are you have heard of scoring margin at some point in your life, if not in basketball, than in another sport. It’s a pretty simple measure. You take how many points a team scored per game, then you subtract how many they gave up. And voila, you have scoring margin. Now why is this statistic so crucial? Well, no number tells you how dominant or well-balanced a team is than its scoring margin. A lot of times, numbers like points per game can be misleading. To give you a perfect example — and this is one that I talk about in my book — consider the 2010 Providence Friars. At the end of the season, the Friars were ranked third in the country in scoring, averaging a rather impressive 82.4 ppg. But this offensive production was quickly canceled out by their inauspicious defense, since Providence gave up 82.2 ppg. With a margin of +0.2, the Friars were nothing short of an average team. On a different note, let’s go back in history and look at the 2008 NCAA title game, which featured Memphis (+19.1 scoring margin, 2nd in the nation) and Kansas (+19.9 margin, 1st). Scoring margin is a statistic that shows you how balanced a team is on offense and defense and is the most important stat that should be used when evaluating match-ups, so don’t take it lightly.
Tip #2: As important as scoring margin is, a team’s created possession margin is almost as important. Wait, you’ve never heard of a created possession margin? Well, don’t worry. That’s because I made it up. But it works. Here, let me explain.
At one point, I started to think about basketball by taking the game apart. It was kind of like dismantling a clock. Obviously points are the most important part of basketball. But how do you get points? The answer is possessions. Then I started really thinking. If a team has, say, 10 more possessions than their opponent per game, then that’s an impressive advantage. That is 10 more chances to score. Obviously, they need to use those possessions efficiently — which I get into in my book — but having those extra possessions can go a long way. Now how do you determine a created possession margin? Simply take a team’s rebound margin, then add their turnover margin. It can be a rather telling statistic. Last year Duke created 9.7 more possessions than their opponents on average (second among tournament teams). And we all know how that ended. (For those who don’t know, Duke won the Tournament).
Tip #3: Beyond the first round, stop considering a team’s seeding or its record. Just focus on what they did on the court. I know it’s hard to ignore, but don’t get caught up in records and seedings.
On the surface, this may seem counter-intuitive. But a lot of things can happen in a season that may cause a misleading record or seeding. The 2002 Indiana Hoosiers were a rather bland 20-11, earning a 5-seed in the Tournament. Yet seven of their 11 losses were by six or fewer points. Indiana’s record and seeding obscured the fact that they were a rather strong, well-balanced squad. And considering the fact the Hoosiers made the championship that year should be all the evidence you need that putting too much weight in record and seeding can be dangerous.
Tip #4: Give a quick check to make sure that no key players have gone down. It can destroy a bracket.
A team may have put up strong numbers all year, but if someone has gone down with a key injury (Robbie Hummel last year) or won’t be playing anymore (Brandon Davies this year), you are dealing with a different squad. You definitely have to watch out for this. Trust me.
(Lastly) Tip #5: Be wary of picking teams with major weaknesses to advance late in the Tournament.
You want to pick teams that aren’t capable of getting bounced early, teams that don’t foul much and are strong on the boards, squads that don’t commit turnovers and are solid from the free-throw line. Teams with glaring weaknesses — even top seeds — can lose within the first few days of the Tournament, especially when they are matched up against well-balanced squads that are capable of exposing these weaknesses. Last year, Villanova was a 2-seed that was 327th in the nation in fouls committed (that’s very bad by the way). This flaw allowed their second opponent, St. Mary’s, to take 26 free throws, ultimately leading to the Wildcats’ early exit.
These are only a few — though very key — tips to help guide you when you’re picking out your bracket. There are many more statistics and concepts that can and should be used when it comes to predicting the Tournament (which are discussed further in Bracketeering). The NCAA Tournament is a very unpredictable and seemingly impossible event to forecast. But by using a logical, mathematical approach to the bracket, you can take some of the mystery out of it.
Andrew Clark is a law student and the author of Bracketeering: The Layman’s Guide to Picking the Madness in March. He is also a stand-up comedian.