Picking a Bracket Is More Than Just Picking Who You Think Will Win

By | March 13, 2018

When the average person fills out a bracket the logic behind each of their picks is “who will win this game?” They will do that for every match-up along the way until they are left with one team standing. Does this sound familiar? I want to go over why this is not the way you should be picking your brackets.

Over the last 2 years, I have gotten heavily involved in daily fantasy sports. When playing DFS ownership levels are crucial. Nobody really knows what the ownership of each player on an NBA slate will be but with experience you can guesstimate fairly well. Why is this information important? Without going into an in-depth article on DFS if you know a players ownership level then you can make a determination as to if the market is overvaluing a player, undervaluing or if the market has it correct. Using this same concept, however, is much easier when filling out a bracket. Here is how it works.

There are several very good models out there that will give you the probability of a team getting to the final 4 or winning the entire championship. Or you could just use the Vegas futures lines. You could even combine several models along with the Vegas line. The point is you can get a fairly good estimate as to the probability of each team winning the tournament. 538 gives a probability of each team in each round.

Looking at these numbers we want to compare them to the ESPN brackets and how the public is picking. This will give you a fair idea as to how your pool will look. The more people n the pool the more it should reflect the ESPN percentages.

Simple Spreadsheet Looking at Actual Probability from 538 to Public Picks

What is amazing about this year is how close the public is to where the model is picking. There are a couple of exceptions. Virginia is being picked to win it all 8% more than their probability to win so that is a chalky team you want to avoid. Also if you think you will go contrarian and take Arizona you may want to think again since 5% of brackets have Arizona but they have just a 1% chance to win it all. If you are eliminating champions based on my previous article on how to eliminate teams then you are looking at teams like Villanova, Kansas, Duke, Michigan St, Gonzaga, Wichita St, Auburn as potential Champions.

If your pool is weighted by seed then you will probably want to take Duke or Michigan St. and possibly Gonzaga. Let’s say your pool has 100 people and the brackets are picked at the same percentages as ESPN. Duke will be taken in 10 pools. You are now competing with 10 other people to win the pool because you generally need the winner of the tournament in order to win your pool. If you take Michigan St. you would need to beat 7 people and if you took Gonzaga then just 4 people. Also if they just get to the final game you will be generating a lot of points against the field. You may not need them to win it all if that is the case.

If you decide to go with a 1 seed to win it all like Villanova then you will really want to look at Gonzaga to go to the final 4 to have a bit of a differentiating pick. There should be about 2% of entries that have a Villanova champ with Gonzaga in the finals and that combo should actually hit 4% of the time. If you consider you are 1 in 100 or 1% to win at the start of the tournament you are giving yourself 4% chance of winning it all. If you enter a few brackets with different combinations that have this same advantage you give yourself a very good chance of cashing in.

In the South Region, we eliminated all 4 teams. That does not mean you can not use one using this strategy. We definitely do not want to take Virginia as they are being picked way above their probability. Cincinnati offers huge upside as they are 25% to get to the final 4 but being picked just 11% of the time. You could use them in Final 4’s with chalk like Villanova to help differentiate yourself as well. The numbers however on Cincinnati may change a bit as the injury to Hunter on Virginia was just released. That will put some people off UVA and onto Cincinnati.

This should help you in being contrarian without having to pick a 12 seed to win it all.  There is a balance between taking chalky picks and some longshots that will give you an edge to win at your bracket pools more often.


Good Luck!


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