For those of us who are basketball junkies, today is Christmas Eve. The anticipation of tomorrow is not quite the same as when we were children, but not too dissimilar. We go to bed excited, thinking about two days of nothing but college basketball. Multiple screens, tvs, ipads, cell phones, whatever we have to get as many games in front of our eyes as possible. Years ago we would print out a bracket, sit down with our beverage of choice, and pour over the games and teams and matchups, looking for that small edge that will lead us to bracket glory. Today is much simpler, no printing necessary, just click next to the team and they move forward until they are swallowed by a better team. For me, this is the best two days of sports, with basketball nonstop from 9 am to 10 pm for two straight days. The rest of the tournament is fun, but these 48 hours are sense overload, as we are bombarded with buzzer beaters, upsets, and ruined brackets. It would be interesting to chart production levels at offices around the country the next two days, and see just how much of a dip the tournament creates.
For those who have not read my bracket breakdowns in the past, first off, how dare you, second of all you are in luck because I am going to give the cliff notes about what I believe to be true when it comes to the bracket and seeding. And this information may be helpful as you fill out your bracket or edit it late into the night tonight.
1. Forget the seeds. This is my biggest beef with the selection of the brackets, and that is that at the end of the day, this is a television program. And even further at the end of the day, the people who run the tournament do it to make money. And in order to make money, they need eyes on the games. And to get eyes on the game you need intriguing matchups. So what the committee does is try and create interest. They put teams against each other that have history, storylines, rivalries, thereby creating the interest and getting more people to watch. The reason I have a problem with this is that these are players and teams and coaches who have put in countless hours of work both on and off the court, and have fought and played sick and hurt to earn their best opportunity and their best seed. And the committee doesn’t care. Yes they put each team “around” their correct seed. And yes for the top couple seeds they choose the rightful teams. But after that its all about eyes on screens. So every year, you see storylines that will create interest in early round games. The committee knows you will watch the final four, everyone watches the final four. But they want you to tune in to more than just that because you’re excited about the other games. The first way they do this is with teams that have history with each other. For instance, Gonzaga has lost three games this season. They lost to Saint Mary’s, Duke, and Alabama. Well what a shocker, Duke and Alabama are in their bracket! Now the committee has built in a storyline. Unbeatable Gonzaga playing teams that already beat them. That gets people interested. The next thing the committee does is put teams who are in close proximity to each other who may have a rivalry based on where they are located. Some memorable ones include in 2019 when Kentucky played Northern Kentucky in the first round. It was a really tight game the entire way and Kentucky was able to pull it out. But the most famous of these “coincidences” came in 2014. The reason it is most famous is because it was the year that Warren Buffet offered a billion dollars for a perfect bracket. And so everyone and their mother filled out brackets, made up new emails, made more brackets, used their parents emails, made more brackets, and so on. Trying to hit that perfect one. And what happened? The first game of the entire tournament, Thursday morning, Ohio State, the 6 seed, loses to Dayton, and the entire world is OUT. Dayton, as in Dayton, Ohio.
Now the other thing the committee does is actually pretty smart, but I hate it the most. I can handle what I just wrote about, because, well, when you get down to the lower seeds, its kind of a crap shoot on who should actually be a 12 vs an 11, so if they want to create intrigue while doing it, I don’t like it but fine. Now this one bothers me. And it was not more evident than in 2017 when UCLA, North Carolina, and Kentucky were all in the same bracket. So lets say you have some really good programs, or some legendary coaches, or some powerhouse teams who may all be at different points. Well you can put them all in different quadrants of the bracket and hope they make the final four and play each other. OR. You can put them all in the same bracket, and almost guarantee they play each other. Its so hard to win your bracket and make the final four. Which means if those teams are all in different parts of the bracket, its so hard for them to meet. So put them all in the same bracket, and you get these colossal matchups. And it goes back to the original idea. Getting eyes on screens before the final four. Because we already established everyone is going to watch the final four. But now it’s the first weekend of 2022’s bracket. Its Sunday afternoon and you find out that Michigan State is playing Duke. Two of the most legendary coaches in the game today, and one in his final season and therefore possibly his final game. Now you’re going to tune in. Tom Izzo vs Coach K. That’s must see tv on the first weekend. This is how its done. And I hate it. Besides for that potential second round matchup of Duke and Michigan State, I’m sure you, or someone you know has talked about how loaded a couple of the brackets are. Of course they are for this exact reason. They want to guarantee big time matchups. So they load a bracket and ensure some of these matchups will happen. Arizona has a great team, but their part of the bracket is crazy loaded. Even just the top half of their bracket sees Illinois and Houston. Those are two top 10 teams in the country. If I was any of those three teams I would be livid about the road just to get to the Elite 8. They earned a better path than that. Then the Kansas bracket has the Big 12 and Sec champions in it. If you ask anyone, those were the strongest two conferences in America and their champions are in the same bracket. It makes no sense. Then you look at Baylor’s bracket and it is by far the weakest. Yes they have Kentucky, the strongest 2 seed, but after that, I don’t see anyone to be afraid of. Because the committee loaded up the other two brackets to ensure these big time matchups.
2. Winning your bracket- Ok that’s enough complaining, lets get to the fun part, how to win your bracket pool. Now I’m just going to give some basics here because I can’t reveal all my secrets or you won’t need me anymore. Ok so here goes. First, it is important to understand your competition. If you are in an ESPN million dollar to first place challenge, then you need to make a completely different bracket than if you are doing one with ten, twenty, or fifty of your friends. If you are in a giant competition then you need the perfect bracket. You can’t pick all the favorites because you need to hit almost every pick. So you need to pick lots of upsets and hope you get lucky. But we aren’t going to spend too much time on that. We are going to talk about how to win your local friendly bracket challenge. So the first and most important thing is that from the sweet 16 on, you need to be very confident about your picks. Because as the value of having a correct team gets incrementally higher, you need to be right later in the tournament. Think about it. Most brackets give 1 point for each correct pick in the first round, and 32 points for having the tournament winner correct. And the points double each round. So as great as it is to pick some correct upsets in the first round, its not going to make or break you. When the points get bigger, that’s when its important to be right. For instance, last year I was in third and fourth place in my pool going into the final. And I am the only one who had Baylor to win it. And when they won, that jumped me up to first and second place. So what I’m saying is kind of obvious I know, so why say it? Because people sometimes ride these underdog teams pretty far. And that’s great if they make it. But if they don’t, or say they don’t even pull an upset in their first game, you’re losing a lot of points every round as you can’t accumulate points in that part of the bracket. And how do you know which one to take? Its pretty much a crap shoot on which Cinderella team is going to make a deep run. So my advice is of course pick some upsets, but take them only to a level that if they lose in the first round, your bracket isn’t dead. Now you say well if I take Duke to go far and they lose early how is that different? That’s a good question I’m glad you asked. The difference is that everyone is going to have Duke winning at least a couple games, so everyone loses those points whereas when you take the underdog to go far and they lose, other people are still getting those points that you aren’t getting. Think about the scoring from the finish line. And if you look at the scoring of most brackets they show a total potential points possible. Think about it like this, everyone can score X amount of points if they pick a perfect bracket. And there is a finite amount of points available. So every time you miss a pick that everyone else gets, you take a step backward and everyone else doesn’t. So if you have a Cinderella winning 3-4 games and they lose in the first round, now you start lets say, 16 points behind every one else. How are you going to make those points back up, because most people have a lot of the same teams winning the other games. It becomes difficult.
Anyway, really got sidetracked there lets get back to the end of the tournament. Now I have thought a lot about this and there are two ways to pick the winner. Now the winner is the most important part of the pool because its worth the most points. The first way is to pick who you think will win the tournament. That’s a really strong strategy. If you think that Gonzaga will win the tournament, you should pick Gonzaga to win the tournament. Because you will need those 32 points. Because if everyone has Gonzaga and you don’t, and they win, you will not. And the other school of thought is this. If everyone has Gonzaga, then I shouldn’t pick Gonzaga. Because unless I’m in first place going into the championship game, I can’t pass up anyone with Gonzaga. So lets say I’m in 5th place. If I have Gonzaga, and any two people ahead of me have Gonzaga, then I can’t pass them and I can’t win. So basically if I want to take Gonzaga, I need to already be in first or second by the time we come to the final. See the conundrum here. So what is optimal? Again I think it comes down to how many people are in your pool, how confident you are in your picks before the final, and how many of your friends have read this article. I’m actually genuinely interested in the game theory of what reading this article will do to affect the picks of my friends…..
Oh you wanted picks? Ok. Gonzaga…maybe…