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NCAA Office Pool Tips from an Expert
March 14, 2011 8:06 PM   Subscribe

Nate Siver of FiveThirtyEight.com (who prior to getting into political analysis invented the sabermetric analysis framework PECOTA) has published a detailed explanation of How We Made Our N.C.A.A. Picks. It goes well beyond the standard advice "don't just pick the favorites".
posted by TheShadowKnows (37 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
I always make my picks based on personal geography and religion. Hence, SDSU, Wisconsin, Notre Dame, UNC. UNC wins the whole shebang because that's where I live right now. Simple.
posted by msali at 8:19 PM on March 14, 2011


I make my selections based on which mascot could kick the ass of the mascot its up again. Usually this means I pick a team with a name like "Hurricanes" or "Devils" because forces of nature and demons will win out in the end.

I so wish there were a team called something like the "University of South-Eastern Rhode Island Elder Gods" just so I could cheer for them.
posted by Joey Michaels at 8:28 PM on March 14, 2011


I really really want Pitt to make it to the final four (which Silver picks them to do) but I know in my heart that they'll choke before they make it there.
posted by octothorpe at 8:29 PM on March 14, 2011


He also fails to note that there's always a 12 seed upsetting a 5. You just have to know which 12 it will be.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 8:30 PM on March 14, 2011


Joey Michaels: there is an old episode of Perfect Strangers where Belke starts kicking ass in a betting pool using that exact same strategy.

I should also mention the "Perfect Strangers" game, wherein you respond to something in conversation by saying, "oh, do you remember that episode of Perfect Strangers where..." and then go on to make up a plot out of your ass, and eventually the person you're talking to will remember the episode you're talking about.

But the one I mentioned up top is for real.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:33 PM on March 14, 2011 [11 favorites]


I remember that episode.
posted by Joey Michaels at 8:48 PM on March 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


What's the point of doing all those fancy calculations if you are just going to make the final four the four top seeds?
posted by cyphill at 8:50 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Go Gators!
posted by oddman at 8:51 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Direct link to Nate's picks. It was already an open tab in my browser. I've got 7 first round upsets (lower beats higher seed). I still think OSU is going to win it all, after that Duke, or SDSU.

Also, my Rebels were also the unluckiest team of the tournament in terms of seeding. The NCAA is still holding a grudge over Jerry Tarkanian and the early 90s.
posted by SirOmega at 8:59 PM on March 14, 2011


cyphill, they don't seem to be picks in the traditional sense. he says that his bracket will be updated once a day.
posted by ofthestrait at 9:11 PM on March 14, 2011


Ohio State sucks.
posted by fusinski at 9:27 PM on March 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


I would have cared if my alma mater, which has been to the tournament twice in my lifetime, wasn't passed over by the committee despite beating Texas, Missouri, and K-State (3x), along with almost beating Kansas and Texas A&M on the road.

But no, they'd rather have UAB and VCU. Maybe if CU were UCB....
posted by dw at 9:59 PM on March 14, 2011


and then go on to make up a plot

I just now had a lightbulb moment about a conversation that I was a part of last week. Thank you.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 10:00 PM on March 14, 2011


I pick based on which school has the worse math department. (I'd pick based on which school has the better math department, but then I'd pretty much lose all the time.)
posted by madcaptenor at 10:09 PM on March 14, 2011


I did the math bracket last year, madcaptenor.

Berkeley did not win the NCAA championship. But if they had I'd have looked like a goddamn genius.
posted by escabeche at 10:16 PM on March 14, 2011


It's harder to do the inverse math bracket, though. Towards the end you end up having to pick which is worse among two schools that both have math departments you've never heard of.

(Actually, I bet the math bracket would do better than the inverse math bracket, because "good math department" and "good basketball team" are probably both correlated positively with "size of school".)
posted by madcaptenor at 10:26 PM on March 14, 2011


Ohio State sucks.

But not as much as Duke.
posted by Rangeboy at 12:55 AM on March 15, 2011


Yeah, well, everyone who's not a fan of Northwestern can cease their lamentations forthwith.
Our Wildcats have never darkened the door of the NCAA tournament.

Not in 70 years. Not through 13 U.S. presidents. Northwestern hosted the first NCAA tournament back in 1939. Our Wildcats threw the inaugural bash, and for the next seven decades have had to stand at the door watching everyone else go into the party.

Three hundred schools have appeared in the NCAA tournament at least once. The list includes Tufts, West Texas A&M and Lebanon Valley.

But not our Wildcats.

Every other member from every BCS league has been invited. Four different Loyolas. Four schools that sound like colors — Navy, Brown, Auburn and Siena.

But not our Wildcats.
More math-based predicting fun is available here. These people had Butler in the Final Four last year, tho not in the final game. (And they had Duke winning). Nate Silver is indisputably one of the most important thinkers of our age, but I'm not sure that his NCAA predictions is quite at the level of these folks.
posted by ibmcginty at 1:17 AM on March 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Looking at Silver's bracket more carefully, he has every single Sweet 16 team going by seed, all Elite 8 teams but Purdue going by seed, and all four Final Four teams as the 1 seeds.

I know he's supposedly picking game by game, but that result strikes me as insanely unlikely.
posted by ibmcginty at 1:24 AM on March 15, 2011


all Elite 8 teams but Purdue going by seed, and all four Final Four teams as the 1 seeds.

There has never been a tournament where all #1 and #2 seeds have made the Elite Eight, and only one tournament where all #1 seeds have made the Final Four (2008).

CBSSports has a pretty good presentation of past tournaments and progress sorted by seeds

... there's always a 12 seed upsetting a 5. You just have to know which 12 it will be.

I remember hearing a few years ago that if you took out moneyline bets on every 12 seed in the opening round, that you would inevitably make money because the odds were so long that you only had to hit one. This year however it looks like the sportsbooks are getting wiser as they currently have Richmond (12 seed) +115, Utah State (12 seed) + 115, and Memphis (12 seed) +215+/-5.

Ohio State sucks.

Yep.

But not as much as Duke.

Fuck Duke.
posted by clearly at 1:47 AM on March 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


We stopped letting my mom in our neighborhood pool after she won a couple years in a row picking purely based on which uniforms she preferred.
posted by klangklangston at 1:57 AM on March 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Nate Silver's picks not only have the top seed from each region advancing but the Sweet Sixteen is composed entirely of the 1st,2nd,3rd and 4th seed from each region. I guess this is a tribute to the people that rank the teams. I only recall seeing one upset in the whole bracket, Gonzaga beating St. Johns.

Regarding Ohio State, it's difficult for a team that relies heavily on the three pointer to make it all the way through the tournament. Three point shooting teams (even low ranked ones) can be dangerous, because they can beat much more talented teams, if they shoot well. The problem is that they have to shoot well for six games in a row to win the whole thing. Ohio State isn't quite as reliant on the three as some teams in the field, but they still count on those points enough that I would be reluctant to pick them to win it all. I'm not a statistician, though.
posted by jefeweiss at 5:32 AM on March 15, 2011


Yeah, well, everyone who's not a fan of Northwestern can cease their lamentations forthwith.

In a perfect world, the UWM Panthers will shellac Northwestern tomorrow.
posted by drezdn at 5:47 AM on March 15, 2011


I would have cared if my alma mater, which has been to the tournament twice in my lifetime, wasn't passed over by the committee despite beating Texas, Missouri, and K-State (3x), along with almost beating Kansas and Texas A&M on the road.

I'm not sure how much "almost beating" certain teams counts for in the selection process, but yeah, given their upset wins it seems to me that Colorado got snubbed.

Neat post.
posted by cog_nate at 6:59 AM on March 15, 2011


Nate Silver's picks not only have the top seed from each region advancing but the Sweet Sixteen is composed entirely of the 1st,2nd,3rd and 4th seed from each region.

This makes sense though if you think about what the methodology essentially is. And the reason why its flawed is precisely for the same reason why you don't just use data to determine outcomes. Luck matters a lot, more than anything else really once you get to the second round - and these models cannot account for luck.

The flipside of course is that if you win your pool by doing anything other than having the sweet 16 be the top 16 seeds then you've won via luck as well.
posted by JPD at 7:14 AM on March 15, 2011


I know he's supposedly picking game by game, but that result strikes me as insanely unlikely.

Yes -- just like any other particular bracket. Silver is arguing that his bracket is the least insanely unlikely, which seems reasonable.

e.g. he is picking osu to win, while saying it's very unlikely (only a 21% chance) they will win. no contradiction there.
posted by escabeche at 8:29 AM on March 15, 2011


Most of you can stop reading here and start filling out your brackets.

Too true. The last link is actually more readable and more useful for making your actual picks.

It goes well beyond the standard advice "don't just pick the favorites".

It goes well beyond the standard advices of "don't just pick the favorites" to say ... "just pick the favorites."

??

Final Four is all 1 seeds; Elite Eight is 1,2,1,2,1,2,1,3; and Sweet Sixteen is all 1-4 seeds, i.e. 0 upsets, 0 cinderellas.

?!?!?!

While this seems like a good way to get an above-average score, it doesn't seem like a good bet. I guess we'll see.

cyphill, they don't seem to be picks in the traditional sense. he says that his bracket will be updated once a day.

Oh, so it's useless. ... Thanks?

I've run a million pools in my day, and the worst performers are always those who don't pick the favorites or make sentimental choices, but the winners either nail the 1-2 Cinderellas big time (e.g. Butler) or hit 31/32 and 15/16 in the first couple rounds.

Picking all favorites will keep you in the top half of the table, and with a few "inspired" upsets (that are really barely upsets at all), keep you in competition. Throw 1-2 semi-longshots (e.g. 3-4 seeds in the final four; 5-7 seeds in the final 8) that come through and hit a few more actual #11-13-seed upsets in the first round, and you've got a real shot ...

... ***depending on the rules*** ... any sort of statistical analysis or betting strategy is completely useless if it doesn't incorporate the specific rules of your pool (e.g. 1,2,3,4,5,6 pts vs. 1,2,4,8,16,32 pts etc)
posted by mrgrimm at 9:13 AM on March 15, 2011


I only recall seeing one upset in the whole bracket, Gonzaga beating St. Johns.

There are actually 6 (!) upsets in the first round (three 9 seeds (he seems to be following conventional betting strategy there), two 10 seeds, and one 11 seed), and then all favorites.

Here's your most important piece of advice this year: wait until late Wednesday, early Thursday to make your final picks, because of the not-play-in but first-round games that are tonight and tomorrow (unless you think Clemson and USC have no chance).

I'd wait until Thursday morning (early on the west coast) to confirm your final picks anyway.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:20 AM on March 15, 2011


We stopped letting my mom in our neighborhood pool after she won a couple years in a row picking purely based on which uniforms she preferred.

My wife used that logic during the NCAA football season. She'd look at how the teams looked coming out of the locker rooms and say who she thought would win based on who she thought had the better/tougher-looking uniform.

She wasn't wrong on a single game that I watched all season. Including the bowl games.
posted by educatedslacker at 10:08 AM on March 15, 2011


Yeah, most vexing was that mom just loves that Tarheel blue. "It's so light and pretty!"
posted by klangklangston at 10:14 AM on March 15, 2011


I came to this thread to figure out how Nate Silver's analytic method could help a know-nothing sports hater like myself could win my boyfriend's office pool so that he'd stop asking me to play every year.

I'll be picking based on uniforms. Thanks, klangklangston and educatedslacker.
posted by pineappleheart at 11:58 AM on March 15, 2011


Blind Brackets: Pick your brackets using stats about teams unassociated with their identities. If it was more fleshed out, I think this could be possibly the best way to pick a bracket.

Yeah, most vexing was that mom just loves that Tarheel blue. "It's so light and pretty!"

Sounds like she is messing with you. Does she also like the deeper blues of Memphis, UCLA, Kansas, Florida, Duke, UConn, Georgetown, Butler, Xavier ... and possibly how Tom Izzo looks in a suit, Jim Boeheim's glasses, and Rick Pitino's hair?
posted by clearly at 12:19 PM on March 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


We stopped letting my mom in our neighborhood pool after she won a couple years in a row picking purely based on which uniforms she preferred.

Urban legend. Every pool I've ran, the person who picked on "uniforms" or "mascots" came in last or near last.

If they did perform at all it was only because their taste in uniforms seemed to magically correlate with the higher seeded teams.

I won my first NCAA pool when I was in 4th grade (poor Freddie Brown!), but I didn't pick on uniforms or anything stupid.

I was 10 years old and didn't know much, so I picked mostly favorites with a very few minor upsets. So yes, you can win an NCAA pool with very little or no basketball knowledge. But you cannot do it by basing your picks on colors or mascots. No way. (Unless of course, everyone in the pool is an idiot.)
posted by mrgrimm at 12:42 PM on March 15, 2011


"Urban legend."

My mom isn't bigfoot. Her method worked as well (better, even) than the mishmash of hunches, grudges and wishes that the rest of the pools I've been in have featured, especially workplace ones. My father never picks Duke to go further than the second round, because he hates them. I have a feeling that if he made brackets this year, he's got Ohio State maybe making it to the Sweet 16. But a relatively small pool (10 or so people) of folks who don't watch much NCAA outside of the Big 10? I'm not saying that it's a prediction scheme I endorse, but it won twice and mom was all gloaty about it, so she was out.
posted by klangklangston at 1:34 PM on March 15, 2011


I usually pick my brackets based on which schools produce the tallest people. Never fails to fail.
posted by localhuman at 7:19 PM on March 15, 2011


Connecticut, for instance, is a very fashionable pick right now, and I wouldn’t necessarily bet my life on the proposition that they only have a 1-in-142 chance of winning the tournament, as our model seems to conclude (in part because they have a very difficult draw). But I would emphatically recommend against picking them, just because everyone else in your pool is liable to.

Re-reading his "expert" picks is an exercise in comedy.

He would have finished *well* in the bottom half of the table in my pool this year. (Though I should not talk, b/c so will I. I had Louisville winning in a 1x/2x/4x/8x/etc. pool and it was certainly the earliest I've ever been de facto eliminated.)

Actually, with VCU taking down Kansas (since I had UL) and UNC likely beating UK (I had UK over OSU then losing to UNC), I'm actually gonna end up semi-respectable. Actually, I probably would be better off if UK beats UNC since I had Duke beating UNC in the Final Four (and many people picked UNC to win it all).

By the way, if this year doesn't convince the NCAA to expand the tournament to 128 teams, I'm not sure what will. People were bitching that VCU didn't deserve to get in, and now they're in the Final Four. How many other VCUs didn't get in that could have made the Final Four.

I'd love to see VCU steal it all, if only to be the lowest seed ever to win it, and the only team to ever win 7 games in the tournament.
posted by mrgrimm at 2:14 PM on March 27, 2011


Also, I hate UNC like most people hate Duke. Go Cats!
posted by mrgrimm at 2:19 PM on March 27, 2011


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