How do you win your NCAA tournament bracket? If there was one surefire formula to domination, the same people would win their office pools every year. Instead, it is often the person that knows the least about basketball that takes home the bragging rights, choosing their teams seemingly at random.
One of the two greatest tournaments in sports is set to start this week as the NCAA men’s basketball championship set to tip off Thursday afternoon. March Madness—next to the soccer World Cup—is the most captivating series of games to happen, and luckily for us, it happens every year. Underdogs become national heroes as basketball pageantry takes center stage over the next three weeks.
Today is the last full day to fill out your 2014 NCAA Tournament brackets. Then comes a weekend of obsessively checking your picks to see if some Cinderella has knocked off your Final Four pick. Good thing we have these all-seeing and all-knowing computers in our pockets that let us get the information we want anywhere and anytime. What better than a smartphone to keep you in the know?
Top 4 iPhone & Android Apps For NCAA Basketball Tournament
Several bracket apps are available for iPhone and Android users, but there is a good chance your tournament administrator is only going to use one of four: Yahoo, CBS, ESPN or the official March Madness app. The three leading companies are also the tops in fantasy sports apps, and what is the NCAA tournament but a glorified fantasy sport? Of the two money brackets I am in this year, both are using Yahoo.
Yahoo Sports & Tourney Pickem (iOS/Android): Yahoo used have an individual NCAA tournament app, but it has since been rolled into one Yahoo Sports app. Download this app to manage your bracket and get sports news at the same time.
ESPN Tournament Challenge (iOS/Android): ESPN has some of the most comprehensive coverage and bracket-picking tools on the Web. The self-proclaimed “World Wide Leader In Sports” has doubled down on mobile development over the last several years, and this full-featured NCAA tournament app is a culmination of its efforts.
NCAA March Madness Live (iOS/Android): The official tournament app through NCAA’s partner, NCAA March Madness Live allows you to track your bracket and watch every game live. The app is developed by Turner Sports Interactive, which will host all the NCAA men’s tournament games on its series of cable channels.
CBS Sports (iOS/Android): This is essentially a repurposed version of the CBS Sports website, much like Yahoo’s own offering. And like Yahoo, CBS is a leader in fantasy sports and many bracket administrators will use it for their own pools this year.
Some Tips To Fill Out Your Bracket
If you have even remotely considered filling out a bracket this year, you have probably heard of billionaire Warren Buffet’s challenge. If you fill out a perfect bracket, Buffet and Quicken Loans will pay you a cool billion dollars.
Yeah, good luck with that. The base odds of filling out a perfect bracket are 1-in-9.2 quintillion, assuming that every game in the tournament is a coin flip. In actuality, every game is not a coin flip. For instance, No. 16 Albany seed has no chance to beat No. 1 Florida in the first round. In fact, no No. 16 seed has ever beat a No. 1 (and only a handful of No. 15 seeds have ever beat No. 2 seeds, so don’t start getting all gung-ho over Eastern Kentucky and Wofford).
Nate Silver, on his relaunched FiveThirtyEight website hosted by ESPN, says that if you play the odds in every game, the likelihood of winning Buffet’s billion-dollar payday are still only about 1-in-7.4 billion. If every person on Earth filled out a different bracket, there is still a chance that nobody would win. But hey, it is worth trying, even if most of the earnings will be hit with a 39.6% tax from federal and state governments.
It’s far more advisable to fill out a bracket and focus on the small money—your local pub’s pool, or the office bracket. It may not be a billion dollars, but it can pocket you a couple hundred bucks. Still, there are a few fundamental guidelines you should follow to maximize your potential.
Pick early upsets, then erase them: The first weekend of the tournament is the most fun and exciting because it is when we see the underdogs stun some of the biggest college basketball programs in the country. Remember Florida Gulf Coast last year? Nobody expected them to reach the Sweet Sixteen, but that’s March Madness for you. So go ahead, pick a couple lower seeds in the first round. This year, you may want to take a look at No. 12 Harvard (over Cincinnati), No. 11 Providence (over University of North Carolina), No. 12 Stephen F. Austin (over Virginia Commonwealth University) or No. 13 Tulsa (over UCLA). But be warned: If you do pick one of these underdogs, don’t expect them to go much further. Keen bracketologists will erase these teams from the field before they reach the Sweet 16.
Pick no seed under four to hit the Final Four: It is a statistical improbability that a seed under No. 4 will hit make it to the Final Four. Yes, there are memorable runs by lower seeds like No. 11 VCU in 2011, No. 11 George Mason in 2006 and No. 9 Wichita State last year. These are called “bracket busters” for a reason. The reason that those runs are so fun and dramatic is because lower seeds just don’t usually advance that far. This is about probability, not perfection. A healthy mix of No. 1 through No. 4 seeds in your Final Four bracket will give you the best odds of winning your office pool.
Look for teams good behind the arc, on the boards and stealing the ball: Louisville won the national championship last year. This was no fluke. Louisville’s strength on defense was getting steals and turnovers, in which the team was ranked second in the country. On offense, Louisville was proficient at grabbing offensive rebounds (tied 21st in the country). If a team can give itself extra possessions while limiting those of the opponent, that is usually a good way to win a basketball game. If you are looking for upsets, teams that are good from the 3-point line tend to steal a game or two within the NCAA Tournament.
With all that being said, I have two brackets this year. There’s one where my alma mater Virginia Commonwealth knocks off Florida to go to yet another Final Four, and the other one says Florida is too strong for everybody and rumbles to a championship. The latter is more realistic.
My Final Four picks: Florida, Iowa State, Louisville, Arizona.
Top image: Barclays Center, Brooklyn, New York from the Atlantic 10 Tournament 2013 by Dan Rowinski