How to Win Your N.C.A.A. Tournament Pool


March is one time of the year that many people who don’t know a parlay from a point spread suddenly become sports bettors by risking a few bucks in an N.C.A.A. men’s tournament pool.

If you’re one of them, and feel as if your annual entry is starting to seem like a donation, here’s good news: If you follow a few simple guidelines, you can significantly increase your chances of winning. And you can do it without having obsessively followed college basketball this season. Indeed, you can even have an edge over the hard-core fans who don’t follow these tips and cling only to their own impressions of the teams.

When you get your bracket, don’t start right in on picking games. Instead, read the rules of the pool thoroughly.

If it’s an old-school pool that awards the same number of points no matter which team you pick, you’re going to want to stick to the favorites. Don’t be clever with U.C. Santa Barbara or Liberty. There’s no reason to; the reward is just not worth the risk.

But if the pool awards bonus points for upsets, you’ve got to go in a completely different direction. Now you want to pick long shots; indeed, you must do so to have any chance of winning.

The number to pick depends on your pool’s rules. If the bonus points for bracket upsets are stingy — say, a single point — then you may want to pick only the No. 9 seeds to beat the No. 8 seeds. If the bonuses are more generous — some pools offer 3, 5, 10 points or more for upsets — you want to start picking 10, 11, 12, and 13 seeds as well, and sometimes even 14 seeds.

One caution: Picking too many upsets in the first round in this sort of pool will get you a lot of points, but may hurt you in later rounds when the points awarded for each correct pick generally increase. So it’s probably wise most of the time to pick only one upset per pair of games. If you pick the 13 to beat the 4, don’t also pick the 12 over the 5. (You don’t usually want to be stuck with a 12 against a 13 in the second round.)

While sticking with the favorites is the best way to fill in a pool without bonus points, the number of players can have a big effect. If the pool is just you and a handful of friends, go ahead and pick all the favorites; you’ll have a great chance to do really well. But once the field size surpasses 50 or so, an all-favorites entry, though it is likely to do reasonably well, may struggle to win money.

The best bet for a bigger pool is to mix up your picks a bit once you’re down to the final eight: Maybe pick a couple of No. 2 seeds to make the Final Four and one of them to win it all.

If your pool has an even bigger field, you have to take even more chances. If you’re entering one of the large public pools with tens of thousands of entrants or more, you’re going to have to make a pretty kooky Final Four to have a chance to win.

When picking your eventual winner, it can be to your benefit not to go with the team everyone else likes. Undefeated Gonzaga is the No. 1 team in the country. That means even if you correctly select the Zags to win, you will be one of many entrants doing so. But if you look a little further down, perhaps to a team like Michigan or Houston, and you’re right, you may be one of only a few entrants to do so and therefore have a better chance for the overall win.

And know your opponents. If your pool includes a lot of Illinois graduates, say, you probably want to pick a different team to win it all.

In general, the better seeded teams have a better chance to win. But sometimes the oddsmakers see it a little differently. In any game in which the seeding and bookmakers disagree, go with the bookmakers. You’ll have a better chance to win, your opponents may be going the other way and, if your pool awards them, you’ll pick up some bonus points.

Based on the very early lines, one team that stands out is Rutgers, which is a 10 seed, but favored by about 2 points over seventh-seeded Clemson.

Based on computer power rankings, some possible upsets that won’t really be upsets in the second round include Villanova over Purdue and Tennessee over Oklahoma State.

Inevitably, there are teams that get hot in their conference tournaments and get a lot of buzz to do well in the N.C.A.A. tournament. Don’t fall for the hype. A streaky team, like Georgetown, which won four straight games to take the Big East tournament as a No. 8 seed over the weekend, is very likely to go back to how it was playing for most of the season.

In contrast, the teams that crashed out early in their conference tournaments — like Villanova, which lost to Georgetown in the quarterfinals of the Big East — are very likely to go back to playing well.

A surprisingly good indicator of tournament success was unearthed by FiveThirtyEight a few years ago: the preseason poll.

Teams that were ranked highly going into the season but underachieved often do well in the N.C.A.A. tournament. The theory is that those teams have a lot of talent — otherwise they wouldn’t have been rated as top teams before the season started. And the talent is probably still there, even though the players underperformed in the couple dozen games of the regular season, a rather small sample size.

The teams this year that might suddenly start playing like everyone expected include Villanova, No. 3 preseason and a No. 5 seed; Virginia, No. 4 preseason and a No. 4 seed; and Wisconsin, No. 7 preseason and a No. 9 seed.

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