Class Is In Session: Bracket Optimization 101

March 16, 2004

By Brian Litvack

There are few, if any, better feelings in life then winning the NCAA tournament office pool. With each correct pick your sports prowess is legitimized. You feel the envy and admiration of your co-workers. You walk around the office with the swagger of a John Gilchrist, the confidence of a Chris Duhon, and the giddiness of Dicky V.

The final shining moment comes when the designated Ed Martin (pool manager) awards you a small fortune for all your hard work and painstaking effort. After all, you rubbed the eraser right off your No. 2 pencil Thursday morning as you tweaked your bracket one final time. Don't forget that you almost popped a blood vessel in your neck when your sleeper barely escaped in the first round.

The following strategies will separate you from the pretenders and get you even closer to the Promised Land.

1) Mind vs. Soul
The most important decision you will make in filling out your bracket is whether you want to go with your heart and pick your favorite teams to advance, or if you will put aside all bias and stay focused on the title.

I consider myself a college basketball aficionado and I always believe that I'm in it to win it. But whenever my beloved Johnnies are in the field (in prior years they have actually abstained from strip club escapades, cannabis sessions and coaching carousels to participate in the main draw) all my cold, hard calculating gets thrown out the window. Like Jared from Subway at the Cheesecake Factory, I lose all sense of reason and indulge in my most primitive desires.

But then I think about the water cooler talk, I think of my championship strut, and of the dough bulging out of my pockets. I realize that I must pick with my head. This year I'm taking UConn to go the distance. I can't stand Calhoun's accent, Husky mania or Ben Gordon's two-handed shot. It pains me to root for the Huskies, but as your high school phys-ed coach used to say, no pain no gain.

2) The Law of Probable Differentiation
My buddies and I came up with this theory in college and for a few weeks each March we actually believe that our discovery is as important as Einstein's theory of relativity. The Law Of Probably Differentiation states that one must make some of his picks based on teams that have the ability to go far but are not being touted by the media or picked by the masses.

Most pool entries have uncannily similar upset picks, sleeper teams and Final Fours. This usually leaves a few teams with a legitimate shot to make the Final Four as being overlooked. Identify and choose these teams and you can be the big winner.

This strategy gives you a good shot of winning without having to do well in the first few rounds of the tournament. On the other hand, using probable differentiation, I had Xavier and Louisville going to the Final Four last year. These duds aided me in the discovery of the theory of diminishing returns, something you want to try and stay away from.

This year probable differentiation may apply to teams such as Texas, Providence, Georgia Tech, NC State and Cincinnati.

Bonus Points Management
Many pools award bonus points if first round upsets are correctly picked. The best way to maximize your chance to receive bonus points is to fill out your Sweet 16 teams first. Then choose first round upsets for all the No. 3, 4 or 5 seeds you have losing in the second round. You might lose a few more first round games but this will certainly be made up by hitting on a few bonuses that you wouldn't have picked.

If your pool rewards bonus points by seed difference (No. 12 beats No. 5 = 7 Bonus) then think about taking all the No. 9 seeds over the eights. You get double the points if you win and the nines have a 42-34 edge over the eights since the field was expanded to 64 teams.

No. 16's
A 16 seed has never beaten a top seed in the 18 years since the field was expanded. The 15 seed has won four times and has never advanced to the sweet 16. Therefore the combined record for the two lowest seeds is 4-156. Don't try and be a hero and pick one of these teams to win because it isn't happening.

So here you have some bracket theory that if applied correctly can be a most powerful tool. Good luck, my pupils.

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It pained him to do it, but's Brian Litvack picked Ben Gordon and the Huskies to win the national championship.