How to Hack Your March Madness Pool the WIRED Way
Each March, millions of Americans who pay little or no attention to college basketball during the other 11 months of the year test their knowledge of the sport with friends, co-workers, and families in March Madness pools. I’ve got friends who couldn’t tell you the difference between a three-point shot and a three-second violation who have strong opinions on where mid-major teams should be seeded or what the home court advantage will be in the regional finals for Michigan State.
But your office pool isn’t held in a vacuum. It is a fight not only to be correct in your picks, but to be differentiated from your fellow players.
That’s where we come in.
Insanely, this is the seventh straight year that I’ve outlined a WIRED strategy for maximizing the value of your picks in an NCAA men’s basketball tournament pool. Over the course of those years, I’ve heard from numerous readers who have used this method to help win their office pools. So here we go with WIRED’s annual guide to March Madness. I’ve made a couple of tweaks to the methodology, but the broad idea remains the same.
Generally, most people’s picks look pretty similar. After a while, you see a consensus. For instance, the millions of people in ESPN’s online pool almost universally believe the top four seeds will win their first game (they’re almost certainly right, as a top seed has never lost to a 16 seed in the first round). You can look at each round, and each game, and see the percentage of people who’ve picked which team to win. Call it the wisdom of the crowd, which is pretty darn good. Even with the unpredictability of the tournament, the crowd’s consensus picks usually finish in the 80th percentile or so.
But if you run with the crowd, it’s hard to beat it. To do that, you must look for teams that others are over- or under-valuing. Like so:
I’ve compared the average of those empirically-driven projections with the percentage of ESPN users who pick a certain team to advance to a certain round. A positive number means the stats say a team is more likely to win than the crowd thinks; negative means the stats say they’re more likely to lose than the crowd thinks. Games that have a difference of more than 10 percent are highlighted—green showing teams that are good bets compared to the crowd and red showing bad bets.
This has been a year without a dominant team in college basketball, and that’s reflected in the projections—no team is given better than a 15 percent chance of winning the tournament. That favorite is the Kansas Jayhawks, and they’re the top pick for the crowd as well, receiving 24 percent of the picks on ESPN. Those results are reasonably in line, although the crowd is more bullish on the Jayhawks than the stats think it should be.
The top team that seems highly overvalued is the Michigan State Spartans, a squad that the stats indicate isn’t nearly as good a bet as the crowd believes. Perhaps that is a reaction to the team being snubbed for a top seed. But unlike previous years, there’s not really a top-tier team that’s highly undervalued—a reflection of the parity in the field. The crowd has undervalued two top seeds—Virginia and Villanova—but not by a big margin.
If you’re entering a pool for the NCAA’s Women’s Basketball tournament, there’s an overwhelming favorite—the undefeated UConn Huskies. It’s not a shock, as UConn has dominated women’s college basketball for the past 16 years, winning nine national titles since 2000 and making the Final Four for eight years running. ESPN pool entrants have picked UConn to win 67.5 percent of the time, and amazingly, have probably undervalued the team. FiveThirtyEight thinks Connecticut has a 70 percent chance of taking its eleventh NCAA title.
What about the inevitable early tournament upsets? Wichita State, an 11 seed, is a slight favorite in its first round game according to 538, but the Shockers aren’t getting many picks from the crowd. They could be a nice choice. Also, Yale, Stephen F. Austin, and Gonzaga look like underrated upset picks. Meanwhile, Temple is getting some traction as a popular upset pick, but the stats think the crowd is too optimistic.
For the women’s tournament, there’s one standout upset pick. The stats suggest No. 12 seed Albany has a 50/50 shot at knocking off No. 5 seed Florida, but only 10 percent of the players on ESPN have picked the Great Danes to get the win.
Of course, this is a high-risk, high-reward strategy, and with such a balanced field, there are bound to be a lot of variation. Best of luck to you all. Please let me know on Twitter (@markmcc) how you do, and if you’re looking for the full set of data, you can find it on Google Docs.