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March 18, 2009
Finding Some Sanity
Amidst March Madness
those of you not living on Lostís island, youíre probably filling
out an NCAA bracket. So letís take a moment to talk about it.
The first thing you might want to keep in mind is that the selection
committee we all love to analyze and berate is smarter than you. In
general, people pick too many upsets. In most pools, correctly-predicted
upsets accrue more points. But unfortunately, thatís only one reason
people pick them.
Ever play ball with someone who likes to take circus shots all the time?
He laughs when he misses them, assuming youíll laugh with him. But then
there comes that one golden shot, maybe itís a hook from the opposing
free throw line, and it actually goes in. All of a sudden the guy thinks
heís Lebron James. I hate that guy. The point is that the other reason
you pick about 10 upsets per region is because, when one of them is
right, you feel like a genius. Meanwhile, your smart friends are
applauding you while taking your money.
Would you like to know an even better way to score points than picking
scads of upsets? Donít pick against teams that could very likely make it
through the first three rounds. Unless you have a Tonya Harding-esque
inside tip on one of the top five seeds, itís probably better not to
pick against them. Will a three or four seed fall in this tourney?
Almost certainly. Do you know which one? Probably not.
a related note, realize that eight and nine seeds are not
interchangeable. There are four eights and four nines, which mean there
are three teams separating any given eight from a nine. My advice, take
a good look at the rules of your particular pool. In poker, itís called
First of all, compare the amount of money that stands to be lost in
relation to what could be gained. If the host of a particular tourney is
taking a third of the money given, youíre in a lousy pool. The other
application of ďpot oddsĒ in a tourney bracket is to carefully consider
how much is gained by picking upsets. Some pools donít even place higher
weight on upset wins. I would say this takes the fun right out of it,
but if youíre in one of these brackets, do yourself a favor and just
pick the higher seed. But even when an upset pick yields twice the
return of a non-upset pick, itís still usually smarter to pick the
hereís the conclusion. If upset picks are especially weighted in your
pool, only pick a few. For the first round, Iíd take two nine seeds in
the whole bracket, one 10 seed, and maybe two if you feel very strongly,
and one 11 seed. Youíre only hurting yourself by picking 12s or 13s, and
if you actually pick a 14, youíre worse than the guy who routinely takes
half-court hook-shots. I donít care if itís worth extra points. You look
silly, and will almost certainly lose.
Upset picks are more likely in rounds two through four. There is less
margin of talent in teams one through 32 than teams 33 through 64
because of auto-bids. Also, predicting latter-round upsets is slightly
less risky because, even if youíre wrong, there are fewer rounds to
follow in which your lousy pick will hurt you. My advice is to take two
five or six seeds to the sweet 16, one or two three seeds to the elite
eight and one two seed to the final four. And once again, remember that
this is only in a weighted bracket.
Obviously, the smart two seed this year is Memphis. They were extremely
close to being a one. Purdue could be an overachiever, and UW could well
be an under, as they have been in recent years. The Pac-10 is somewhat
of a shadow of its former self. If you have to pick against a six,
consider going against UCLA. And concerning three seeds that might reach
the elite eight, consider Villanova and Syracuse.
Remember, trust the committee! (Except for Saint Maryís, which got
seriously hosed this year. Arizona, losers of five of their last six,
over a 25-6 Saint Maryís team that just got its star back? Seriously?)
motto for competition is to take it seriously. Competing is fun, and
winning is especially fun. If youíre not going to play for real, then
donít ruin it for those who do. So enjoy this yearís tourney. And keep
in mind: Itís up to you to inject some sanity into the madness.
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