How to Win Your March Madness Pool with Science

Mark McClusky
Sports Illustrated
How to Win Your March Madness Pool with Science
How to Win Your March Madness Pool with Science

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Here at Sports Illustrated, we have a ton of ways to help you fill out your NCAA bracket and dominate your pool. We've ranked all 68 of the teams in the field, done a deep dive on each region, and our experts have offered their picks and predictions for the entire tournament. But there's something important to realize about an NCAA tournament pool. You can't win if you have the same picks as everyone else in the pool. After all, if everyone's got the same teams, you'd all end up tied at the end. The wisdom of the crowd is great in lots of instances, but in your pool, if you follow the crowd, it's actually harder to win.

You have to find smart ways to depart from the general consensus, and find teams that are either under-valued or over-valued by the masses. This is the tenth anniversary of this annual look at the NCAA tournament—I started writing this column at WIRED and then for the last three years here at SI. I've gotten tons of emails and Twitter messages over the years from people who have used my analysis to win their pool.

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As I explain below, it's a high-variance strategy. You're likely to do really well or really poorly, but I believe it's your best shot to separate yourself from the crowd. And as a bonus, there's lots of math! Here's how it works: I compare the predictions of two of the most respected statistic-based projection systems: Ken Pomeroy's and the one from I then compare those projections to the choices made by people who have entered two of the largest online bracket contests: ESPN's and Yahoo's. When you compare the stats to the crowd, you get the numbers below.

Here's what those numbers mean: A positive number means the stats think a team is more likely to win than the crowd does; a negative number means the stats think they're more likely to lose than the crowd's choices. Games that have more than a 10% difference between the two predictions are highlighted—green for good bets compared to the crowd and red for bad ones.

There's a clear standout when you look at that chart. Duke is highly overvalued by entrants in the ESPN and Yahoo games as compared to the statistical systems. Forty percent of ESPN players and nearly half of Yahoo players have picked the Blue Devils to win the title, while the stats point to them having about a 17% chance of winning. Duke might be the best team in the field, but one thing is clear. If you pick the Blue Devils to win, you're going to have a lot of company, and you're going to have to get a lot of other games right the rest of the way to win your pool.

On the flip side, there's one of the top four seeds that's not getting a lot of respect from the public, and that's Virginia. Of course, its tournament history might have something to do with that. The statistical systems make Virginia the slight favorite to win the tournament, but only about 6% of players in the pools have chosen the Cavaliers. I know what you're thinking as you read this, but Virginia is a decent strategy to follow this year. (Please don't blame me if they crash out early, yet again.)

It's a year in college basketball where it feels like there is a group of eight or 10 teams that could win, and then not a lot of depth after that. The picks of the crowd don't quite reflect that view, though. As noted, Duke is being treated as a massive favorite, and North Carolina is much, much more preferred by the crowd than the stats. Buyer beware.

Looking further down the brackets, Wofford isn't being given much respect by the crowd, despite the Terriers' No. 7 seed. The stats put them with a two-in-three chance of beating Seton Hall in the first round, but the crowd views it as even money. Wofford has about a one-in-five chance of making the Sweet 16 according to the stats, but only seven percent of players have picked them to make it that far.

Looking for first-round upsets that perhaps aren't being picked often enough? There are some teams playing college basketball blue bloods that could shock you: Saint Mary's vs. Villanova, Northeastern vs. Kansas, Vermont vs. Florida State. None of those upset picks are favorites (although Saint Mary's is given a one-in-three chance per the stats), but all of these possible upsets aren't being picked as often as they probably should be.

Let me close with my annual disclaimer, this is a high-risk and high-reward strategy. But since most pools only offer prizes for the very top entries, there's no reason to pursue a strategy that can, at best, place you in the middle of the pack. Good luck, and please let me know on Twitter (@markmcc) how you do. If you're looking for the complete set of data, you can find it on Google Sheets.

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