Bracketeering for Fun and for Profit

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The annual onslaught of March Madness, aka the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, always reminds me of when my alma mater almost made it to the postseason. It was 30 years ago, and in the final game of the season, our school needed to beat our archrival to have hope for a spot in the NIT. As the second-place team in the Ivy League, the NCAA’s were out of the question for my Columbia University Lions; and our archrival had already clinched the conference championship and an NCAA bid, the only one that would go to the big show.


So alternately we rained hopeful chants of “N-I-T” and raucous taunts of “first-round losers” on the players. When Columbia won, we didn’t storm the court; we figured there were bigger and better things awaiting us. There weren’t.

We didn’t get an NIT bid, and we stayed home and watched with stunned disbelief as our rivals, the University of Pennsylvania, not only failed to lose in the first round as we had predicted but marched past the University of North Carolina, Syracuse University and St. John’s University, to reach the Final Four, where Magic Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans finally put an end to the joy ride.

That level of unpredictability is a key to the excitement of the tournament. During the next three weeks, there will be 64 single-elimination games, and for 80 percent of the participants, i.e. those without an NBA future, this is truly do or die. It’s their best chance to play on a big stage and do something on a basketball court that will be remembered for the rest of their lives. The champions become legends, but teams that get to the Final Four are also remembered almost as fondly. Even teams that reach the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight are iconic.

Meanwhile, somewhere between $80 and $90 million will be bet on the games. (For Las Vegas bookies, it is a bigger event than the Super Bowl.) Tens of millions of brackets are filled out to forecast the tournament. This is no small feat. With 65 teams, there are 9.2 quintillion possibilities.

Small wonder the cat down the hall from you who isn’t a sports fan at all figures that he or she stands just as good a chance as a college hoops junkie in winning their office pool. With that in mind, here are a few tips to help you build a better bracket.

Don’t pick a sixth seed or lower to reach the Final Four. Unless you’re betting with your heart instead of your head. Those 1979 Penn Quakers or more recently the 2006 George Mason University team notwithstanding, a low seed simply has to pull off too many upsets. A sixth seed, like UCLA this year, will have to beat a No. 3 seed (Villanova) to get out of the first weekend, then a No. 2 seed (Duke University) and finally a No. 1 seed (the University of Pittsburgh) to get to the Final Four in Detroit. The auto industry faces an easier path to profitability. Upsets do happen, but it’s rare that teams get as hot as GMU or Penn did.


Efficiency matters. College basketball is just like pro basketball in that possession of the ball alternates, so the more you make of your possessions and the less your opponents do, the greater your chances of winning. At the Basketball Prospectus, there is a listing of the teams ranked by efficiency margin, and it’s intriguing. The top 10 in differential include the four No. 1 seeds, the University of Connecticut, Louisville University, Pitt and UNC and highly seeded teams such as the University of Memphis, the University of Kansas and the University of Missouri. Then there are two sleepers, Brigham Young University, a No. 8 seed who is on track to play UConn in one of this weekend’s most interesting matchups, and UCLA, who just might contradict my rule about teams in the sixth seed.

History matters. If the math of efficiency doesn’t turn you on, then try history. Some teams have a stellar history of outperforming their seeding in the tournament. Kansas typically performs better than their seeding which might make Louisville fans nervous. But Louisville also overachieves (a feat that will be difficult this time since they are seeded No. 1 overall in the tournament). Wake Forest is a perennial disappointment as are the University of Oklahoma, the University of Michigan and Purdue University.


The right thing to do may be to take all of this with a grain of salt; projecting the performance of teenagers and men in their early 20s is very risky business. And the unpredictability is a reason that fans of the tournament love it so much. Who are my Motor City four? I’ll take Memphis, Louisville, UNC and Pitt. What’s that based on? Nothing more than a hunch. I learned 30 years ago not to employ too much reason when it comes to March Madness.

Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.

Martin Johnson writes about music for the Wall Street Journal, basketball for Slate and beer for Eater, and he blogs at both the Joy of Cheese and Rotations. Follow him on Twitter