Monday, March 16, 2009

Bracket Madness - A Quick Thought

Sunday marked the beginning on March Madness, with the brackets being announced to great fanfare. With my alma mater, the Fighting Illini, a #5 seed I'll be rooting for them to go all the way. What I won't be doing however, is picking them to go all the way.

Experts and novices alike often play in March Madness brackets - and I've done a few myself, though I certainly don't consider myself a huge NCAA Basketball expert. It always amazes me how many people pick a large amount of upsets.

Yes of course there are going to be upsets and a lot of people pick them because of that reason. First round "upsets" defined as at least a 4 seed difference occur in the first round 17.2% of the time. But does that mean you have to pick 4 or 5 big upsets in your first round bracket?

While we can estimate about how many upsets will occur, of course we can't know which ones. It's a classic fallacy to make individual predictions fit a group pattern. Though as a group 4 or 5 upsets may be the norm, individually the favorite may give you the best chance to win each game. So sure, if you pick a few #12 seeds to advance, you may be right some of the time - but most of the time you'll be wrong, and shouldn't you be maximizing your chances of picking each game correctly?

You may get a kick out of picking an upset that nobody else has, but if your pool is like most, you'll get no more credit for picking an underdog than a favorite.

So swallow your pride, and make sure that if you're going to pick an underdog, that you actually think they are going to win. It sounds obvious, but there are a lot people who don't abide by that rule because they think they have to have upsets in their bracket.

Picking upsets becomes even more problematic in the later rounds - for instance even if you think that #4 Xaiver is better than #1 Pitt, it may not be wise to pick them because Pitt's chances to GET to that game are so much greater than Xaiver's, having to face only a #16 and #8 seed, rather than a #13 and a #5 seed.

So before you fill your bracket full of upsets, remember that the teams that are favored are usually favored for a reason - they're more likely to win - and isn't that who you'd rather have your money on?