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How to Win Your NCAA Tournament Pool

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I'm still working on my most likely NCAA bracket, but my clever assistant Galen Hall submitted the following as a way to maximize your chances of winning your pool this year:

Maximizing Win Probability
When filling out your March Madness bracket, remember that your primary goal is not to pick the most likely bracket, but rather the bracket that has the best chance of winning your pool. Maximizing win probability requires the player to consider not only a team's odds, but also the distribution of picks of the other participants in his pool as well as pool size.

For example, consider a single entry into a 100 bracket pool. One would expect to win this pool (and the corresponding bragging rights) about 1% of the time, and our goal as a savvy bettor is to increase that probability. Most basketball fans are aware that Kansas is the best team in the country this year, and also the team that is most likely to win the tournament. Sports books in Las Vegas estimate their chances to be around 20-25%.

So, Rock Chalk Jayhawk is an easy call, right? Not quite. A quick glance at the Yahoo! pick distribution tells us that a staggering 43% of the brackets filled out thus far have selected Kansas as their champion. Even if you choose Kansas, and they do win, you still have only a 1/44 chance of winning your pool! By picking Kansas, your win probability has dropped from 1% to 0.51%.

What about Kansas' talented neighbors eighty miles west? The #7 KSU Wildcats might not be as good as #1 KU, but they're a much better pick. Las Vegas has given them a 3.7% chance of winning the tournament, but only 1% of Yahoo! pool entries have chosen them. So, if you decide to pick Kansas State, the one out of thirty times that they win, you'll almost certainly be crowned champion of your 100 person pool. (You'll get a ton of points that nobody else gets for picking a rare champion, as well as tons of points from their run through prior rounds).

Kansas and Kentucky are great picks if you want to get the winner correct, but pretty bad selections if you are trying to win a big pool. Duke, West Virginia, Villanova, Georgetown and Kansas State would be much wiser selections in large pools.

Compensating for Pool Size
An astute reader may have noticed that a this doesn't hold true for smaller pools, where your baseline win% is higher. That's why we apply the exact same concept, but on a smaller scale in small pools. Powers like Kansas, Kentucky and Syracuse now become viable options, but we still must diversify our bracket with picks that are both somewhat likely, but also unpopular.

As a rule, the smaller your pool is, the more conservative your bracket should be. As the pool size grows, we must induce positive-expectation variance by picking more unusual teams to make runs, and for those runs to be deeper.

This should be inherently obvious -- in a two-person pool, you would pick all favorites. In an 8-person pool, you would pick almost all favorites, with a couple small surprises. In a 40-person pool, you'll induce more variance with one or two surprise Final 4 teams, and some early round upsets, and so forth.

Picking Your 2010 Champion
In small pools, where you must stick with favorites, I would still avoid the overly popular Jayhawks. With their weak draw, Duke is the best choice, and Syracuse, Kentucky and West Virginia are all good choices in spite of their precipitous paths.

Against 25-50 competitors, OSU, Villanova, Georgetown and KSU become good options for uncommon champions if you pick the rest of your bracket conservatively. Duke, Syracuse, Kentucky and WV are still good choices if you pick more boldly.

I can't stress enough the balance between pool size and variance. If you pick Baylor to win in a 50-person pool, you've done enough! If Baylor wins, you're already golden, so don't blow it by picking a bunch of ridiculous upsets.

Picking Your 2010 Final-4 / Elite-8
If you need a team to make a surprise Final 4/Elite 8 run there are plenty of good choices. WVU is a solid pick in a mid to small pool. A riskier choice for a pool large enough to accommodate their value is Wisconsin, who has a 9% chance to reach the F4 but was picked by only 2.1% to make it that far.

Georgetown (11.7% chance vs. 7.2% picked), Baylor, Kansas State and Pitt are all solid choices. Some great sleepers for 100+ entry pools are BYU (7.6% vs. 0.7%) and Michigan St (7.6% vs. 1.9%).

Villanova, with a 23% shot to reach the Final 4, but selected a shocking 32% of the time, is probably the worst possible pick.

Picking Your 2010 Round of 32 and Sweet 16
In the second and third rounds, there is a ton of room for personal preference and creativity. There is enough data available online for you to infer solid selections, and it's up to you to mix and match the appropriate number of early round upsets with one or two deep runs or a surprise champion to create a high-value bracket. Remember, the larger your pool, the more aggressively you want to pick upsets with value!

Picking your 2010 First Round
The first round is easy. Everyone likes to pick cute upsets, but generally these don't create a ton of value. It's better to just pick solid teams with a couple of higher seeded 'upsets' in games that are basically coin-flips. For example, #11 Minnesota is actually favored by a point over #6 Xavier, and yet only 30% of people have picked them.

Other great underdogs include ODU (15% picked), Murray State, (13%) and the two teams from the much-maligned Pac-10. While Siena has a great shot to pull an upset over the Hummel-less Purdue, everyone already knows it, with 33% of players choosing the Saints.

Summary
For the sake of simplicity, I have used raw odds from Vegas. You'll have to modify these odds with extra information that you may be able to obtain. For example, handicapper 'Dr. Bob' is able to create much more accurate bracket probabilities, and you'll have to apply these concepts to those numbers.

Likewise, the Yahoo! numbers are reflective of fans nationwide, and they may not be the same as fans in your area. If you are with your co-workers in Washington, D.C., please do not think it's a good idea to select Georgetown as your "surprise" champion.

The purpose of this article is to help you maximize your chances of winning your pool. Most March Madness pools feature many contestants, but pay out only the top few, so we want to embrace high variance. Picking a conservative bracket with a common champion will get you to finish in the top 20% of your pool almost every year, but it will be difficult for you to win. If you pursue these strategies, you'll come in dead last fairly often, but you'll also win much more frequently. And in the memorable words of Herm Edwards, "You play to win the game!"

My first round analysis and brackets will be available on Wednesday at drbobsports.com.

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