Field Notes: Picking for value, other tips

March, 16, 2011
3/16/11
5:27
PM ET
Still agonizing over your bracket? Field Notes is one college hoops writer’s attempt to guide you through the process as the Thursday deadline looms. Note: Said writer may or may not have a horrendous recent tourney history, which is why he’ll rely so much on advice from others in this series. Consider it a thinking fan’s guide to the bracket.

[+] EnlargeJaJuan Johnson
Michael Heinz/US PresswireWhen filling out your tournament bracket, don't overlook JaJuan Johnson and Purdue.
We've already discussed the importance of having one bracket to rule them all, as well as how to use tempo-free stats to your advantage. Last but not least, let's dig into some of the best advanced bracket tips from folks much smarter than I.

Now that you have a base understanding of a) what tempo-free stats are and b) how much easier they make the agonizing bracket selection process, it's probably time to move on to slightly more advanced* stuff, some of which builds on tempo-free stats to help you find that all-important value in selections.

(*By the way, "advanced" doesn't mean this stuff is all that tricky. Most of it is common sense. But compared to yesterday's "best shorts" strategy, the adjective certainly fits.)

Why does value matter? Because value is how you win your bracket.

The scoring in the ESPN.com Tournament Challenge is as follows:

  • First round: 10 points per pick
  • Second round: 20 points per pick
  • Sweet Sixteen: 40 points per pick
  • Elite Eight: 80 points per pick
  • Final Four: 160 points per pick
  • Championship: 320 points per pick

That's how most bracket pools work: You get a few points for picking the first-round games correctly, but even if you miss a huge number of first-round games, you can still nail the Elite Eight, Final Four, and national championship and win your pool. The national championship is especially crucial. The problem is that if you pick the same team as everyone else to win the title -- as of Tuesday night, 25.9 percent of ESPN.com bracket-pickers selected Ohio State to win it all -- you're not leaving yourself much room for error. You're stuck hoping Ohio State wins it all, but if you flub the rest of the bracket, predicting an obvious winner might not help you all that much.

Of course, going off the beaten path also requires a huge amount of risk. (What if you nail the majority of the bracket but lose because you picked the wrong champ? Ouch.) That means balancing risk by finding value. Who is the crowd picking? Who is the crowd overlooking? Where do the value gaps exist? Allow Slate's Chris Wilson to explain:
As it turns out, the wisdom-of-crowds information is extremely useful. The statisticians and expert bracketologists I talked to all urged one central point: Don't think about guessing the most games correctly. Instead, think about finding "bargains" in the bracket where collective wisdom runs askance of more objective measurements. Exploiting games where your fellow bracketologists are likely to guess wrong -- even if the odds of that happening are still against you -- will give you the best shot at jetting ahead of the pack. An NCAA bracket, then, is more like a long-shot stock than a game; the odds of winning may be low, but the big pot makes the gamble worth it -- if you know how to maximize your investment.

In other words, check out the national bracket and see who most people are picking to advance to the Elite Eight, Final Four and national title game. Chances are they're picking teams primarily based on seeds. Chances are there are other teams in the field that could win the tournament and stand a pretty decent chance of doing so, but thanks to their seed or their recent play aren't getting a whole lot of love.

How do you recognize such teams? That's step two, in which we refer to Ken Pomeroy's log5 projections for the NCAA tournament. According to Pomeroy, the No. 1 seeds are the obvious favorites to advance to the Final Four -- no surprise there -- but two teams, Texas and Purdue, both present really intriguing values. Provided you live outside Texas and northern Indiana, I'd guess you don't have too many friends picking Texas or Purdue to win the national title. But they're not exactly longshots.

In other words, as Wilson wrote at Slate, a solid bracket-picking strategy embraces risk, but focuses that risk on the later rounds. For example, you might feel really good about a particular 5-12 upset, but even if that upset pans out, all you get is a measly 10 points. But if you pick Texas to beat Ohio State in the Final Four and Kansas in the national title, you could totally finish in last place ... but you'll be in pretty solid winning position even if you don't rack up points in the rounds of 64 and 32.

Really, why not take the risk? The bracket game is zero-sum: Either you win or you don't. There are no marginal rewards for playing it safe. You might want your real life financial analyst to play it safe and produce solid gains, but if you use that strategy in your bracket you're just as likely to come in second, or third, or 10th, and there is no March glory in that. You might as well take smart, educated guesses, sprinkle in a few respectable but unpopular picks, embrace intelligent risk, and go for the gold.

Just don't do it blindly. To that end, here are a few more tips culled from various intelligent purveyors of bracket-related prognostication. Just like tempo-free stats and your own gut feelings, none of these should be relied on as a magic bullet. But if you combine them all, it's hard to imagine you not feeling prepared by the time you finally submit your bracket within the next, oh, 12 hours:

Look at the preseason poll. Wait. What? (Seriously, look at the preseason poll.) Earlier this season, Pomeroy pointed out that -- believe it or not -- the preseason poll is actually a better predictor of teams in the national title game. The New York Times' Nate Silver, who spends most of his time and energy predicting political races with frightening accuracy, delved deeper into this idea last week. Silver found that teams that outperformed their preseason expectations can occasionally revert to the mean during the NCAA tournament and are often good candidates for upsets:
Even though the college basketball season is fairly long, however, it turns out to be a mistake to entirely dismiss preseason expectations, even late in the year. Instead -- I’ve studied this issue in preparation for the N.C.A.A. tournament projections that we’re going to release next week -- the optimal blend for predictive purposes turns out to be something like five parts in-season performance to one part preseason expectations.

Obviously, this implies that in-season performance -- such as measured by computer power ratings -- ought to be weighted much more heavily. But preseason expectations do deserve some consideration, and accounting for them might allow you to win an extra game or two in your tournament pool.

Two such teams to watch this year? No. 2 seeds Notre Dame and San Diego State. Of course, that's not to say those teams are locks to be upset, and you shouldn't necessarily dismiss them out of hand. The point is, the preseason poll might offer more useful information than you'd think. Which isn't difficult, because if you're like me, you'd assume the preseason poll has absolutely nothing to offer. Not always true!

Use the Las Vegas lines. Pretty obvious one here. The gambling lines can be a major advantage, because they're a quick, crowdsourced snapshot of the way people who wager on games feel about certain outcomes. Even better, you don't have to worry about the spread in your picks. You just need a winner and loser. When gamblers feel so strongly about a game to bet on it at a certain spread, you can be fairly confident there's something behind those odds bet. Of course, like the national bracket, this is also a good way to exploit inefficiencies and find values. If you feel particularly strongly about a certain pick based on your other research, that might be a good time to go against the grain and try to notch some extra points that many of your bracket competitors could leave on the table.

Don't put too much emphasis on recent play. Do you remember when Florida lost three of its last four regular season games in 2006 and 2007? No, you don't. Know why? Because those teams won the NCAA tournament. It didn't matter that they had apparently faltered down the stretch. It didn't matter that they lacked momentum coming into the NCAA tournament. Jon Wertheim and Tobias J. Moskowitz, authors of "Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won," hammered this point home this week:
When picking fund managers, too many investors have made the mistake of focusing on recent extreme performance in hopes it presages future success. It doesn't. Likewise, don't put too much stock in momentum when making picks. For as often as we hear about teams "coming in on a roll" or "getting hot in time for the tournament," there's little indication that good teams that win their conference tournament fare better statistically than good teams that don't. The worst recent performers are likely to do just as well as the best recent performers. For as often as we hear about the teams "riding the wave of momentum" (see: Jim Valvano's 1983 North Carolina State team) there's seldom much predictability to it.

In other words: Don't overrate recent slides or recent boosts. I don't think you should totally discount a team's recent performance, especially if you believe it's more representative of that team's ability over the long-term ... but best not to get carried away.

Take the measure of the entire bracket. This is supposed to be a "wide-open" NCAA tournament. Is it really? The Audacity of Hoops's David Hess ran a few projections and calculated a few odds, and the answer is basically yes, but with plenty of caveats. No. 1 seeds are still obvious favorites, for one. But because the committee did such a strange job seeding this year's bracket (especially relative to efficiency numbers) seeds could end up meaning even less than usual in determining who advances to the later rounds.

Some seeds are not as beneficial as you think. Piggybacking off that last point, the chance of individual seeds' success and the relationship of seeds to team strength is not linear. As Nate Silver wrote the other day, because No. 1 seeds are typically so much stronger than the rest of the field, you'd rather be a No. 10 seed (which plays the No. 2 seed in the second round) than a No. 8 (which plays the No. 1).

Don't forget about geography. And one last point from Silver -- dude has been killing it on the tournament front lately -- is this: Where teams play matters:
Since 2003, for instance, teams playing an N.C.A.A. tournament game within 50 miles of their campus are a remarkable 24-2. One of the two losses came in last year’s championship game, when Butler -- playing just miles from its campus in Indianapolis -- came within 2 points of defeating a heavily favored Duke team.

By contrast, teams travelling at least 1,000 miles to play their game are 121-174, having won just 41 percent of the time.

Some of that has to do with how the selection committee seeds the field. As everyone knows, the selection committee gives top teams the benefit of tourney sites as close to their campus as possible, and you expect top teams to win regardless of venue. But that doesn't explain the huge correlation between minimal travel distance and success in the NCAA tournament. In other words, fire up the Google Maps.

Step back, relax, take it all in, and fire that bracket off. You did the research. You dove into tempo-free. You read the very helpful and intelligent words of the aforementioned writers above. You scoured the Internet and found your own sources of guidance. You compared mascots, just to be safe. You're ready.

Now take a step back and inhale. Close your eyes and count to 10. Find your zen, your center, or what Happy Gilmore would call his happy place. ("We've only just begun ... to live.") Make peace with the first rule of bracket predictions: No matter how much you think you know, by this time Sunday, your bracket will probably be torn to shreds. It's the first rule of the NCAA tournament, and while everyone basically knows it, it's all too easy to forget by mid-day Friday.

But remember: You gave it your best shot. You went in with the best possible knowledge. You made the picks you believed were right. The rest is up to the players, the coaches and the insanity that makes this tournament so very special. Embrace it, and remember: Whether you dominate your bracket contest or finish dead last, the next three weeks won't be anything but awesome. In a competition that thrives on uncertainty, there are few things quite as certain as that.

Good luck, everyone.

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