Monday, March 12, 2012

NCAA Basketball Pool Betting Strategies

We're at that point where someone in CBS Sportsline HQ flips out because they're worried that all their serves will crash. It's NCAA basketball time again. Well, it's technically been NCAA basketball time for quite a while as they had this whole regular season thing. But for all of us, now's the time where we test our predicting mettle by wagering against entire teams of people from our lives. Relatives, friends, co-workers, it's time to compete with them for bracketology glory. Unfortunately, even for the experts, it's a path fraught with danger and the stench of embarrassing failure looming around every upset pick.

It's even worse for someone like me, with a complete ignorance of college basketball to the point where I'm not sure I could tell you a single player on any team. That's because I went to Penn State, a school which I can confirm does have a basketball team, but one whose last coach fled the program for a better job at the U.S. Naval Academy.

I used to pay a little more attention back when John Chaney used to coach Temple. I liked his Philadelphia attitude, persistent underdog-ness and all. That and he tried to beat the crap out of John Calipari, who everyone seems to agree is a major scumbag (video below).



Back then, I couldn't wait for the tournament because I could unveil my system.

My 'system', if you could all it that, was taking the Philadelphia Inquirer's sports section the day they ran their tournament preview, and using that information to analyze each matchup.

Of course, this was before the Internet or easily available statistics, so my analysis consisted of a couple key theories...

1 - Did the team have a really big guy? Teams with big guys tend to win.
2 - Did a team make a ton of three pointers? I thought those would be important
3 - What did the scouting report say?

Now that I'm older and a bit wiser, I realize those scouting reports were almost assuredly just thrown together by the lowest paid writer in the room once they finished filing their high school field hockey update. But at the time this was a source of expertise to me.

I didn't do very well at picking the games back then. And of course, not much has changed.

Because over the last few years I've really just come to terms with the fact that I don't know anything about basketball, and even if I did, I wouldn't be likely to win anyway.

Since I don't follow the game at all, my normal course of action would be to simplify the whole thing and pick all the #1 seeds to make the final four, and pick no upsets at all. Trust the judgment of selection sunday, that's why they're the experts right?

But if you're in a pool with a large enough group of people (like any company pool), that strategy only gets you a shot at placing you somewhere near the top quartile. You'll beat lots of people who bet on their own analysis, their own alma mater, or whatever other voodoo they use. But you almost definitely won't win, it's just because someone somewhere will have similar championship matchups/winners, and will have another pick somewhere along the way that you didn't.

And coming close to victory is actually worse that finishing in last. One year I managed to lose my pool by one point, and since ours was a winner-take-all pool, I may as well have picked Princeton to win it all.

So I won't be doing that this year. Instead, I'm going to try and pick a team for the championship that has a strong possibility for winning, but won't be an overwhelming favorite. Then, for the remaining games, I'll just go with whoever the public is taking. That should make sure I don't spend too much time on this (and can better spend it doing other things, like writing silly blog posts or maybe doing work for my client)

Using this page, I can see who people are currently picking as their winner on ESPN.com, which should certainly be a good enough indicator of the 'public'.

Now, I want a team with a reasonable shot at victory, so I'll pick from the top 10 teams in the public's mind (% indicates % of brackets picking that team for the championship).

Kentucky - 33%
North Carolina - 15%
Syracuse - 11%
Michigan State - 7%
Missouri - 7%
Kansas - 6%
Ohio State - 4%
Duke - 4%
Florida State - 3%
Baylor - 2%

Right away, we can junk Kentucky and North Carolina. Far too popular for my liking. And I'm also going to dump Syracuse as their coach has some unkind things to say about Penn State, you know, for the whole molestation thing. From our remaining seven, I also want to try and avoid teams I just have a certain distaste for. By that, I mean Duke and Florida State (sorry to Seminole fans for lumping them with Duke, but I've hated them since Bobby Bowden, and although I realize it's a different sport, I don't have to be rational here).

Now we're left with:

Michigan State - 7%
Missouri - 7%
Kansas - 6%
Ohio State - 4%
Baylor - 2%

Hmm...how to differentiate...

Well. Texas gave us Rick Perry and, somewhat more notably, George Bush. So screw Baylor.

Kansas had Bob Dole, who I actually thought was funny as a person (and apparently is still alive!). Nothing against him, but I also faintly remember seeing some anti-abortion legislation or something, so that earns another X.

Left with Michigan State, Missouri, and Ohio State, I'm not sure what to do. But, given that I'm based in Chicago, and that this region tends to be overweighted to the Big 10, I think I'll just whack the Spartans and Buckeyes because it's easy and I'm dangerously close to taking longer than 5 minutes.

So go Missouri! And apart from you, go favorite teams!

3 comments:

Matt said...

Dammit, Jared. This is what I've realized too. I'll pick OSU and now you have every incentive not to.

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