It’s tempting to select Kansas as the NCAA national champion in this year’s tournament. They are at the top of the 2016 Pomeroy college basketball ratings and boast a top 10 offense (118.9 points per 100 possessions) and defense (92.0 points allowed per 100 possessions). They can hit shots from anywhere and have the third highest three-point success rate in the nation (42.2 percent).
Yet if you want to win a big, online pool with millions of entrants, the Jayhawks are one of the worst potential champions you can select because a lot of other people will have them, too. For example, according to the latest data from ESPN’s Tournament Challenge, 23.9 percent of people have selected Kansas to win the national title, despite FiveThirtyEight’s projections giving them just a 19 percent chance.
The key in these big pools is to differentiate yourself, and that means making value picks that may go against conventional wisdom. By comparing other picks in ESPN’s Tournament Challenge — a terrific proxy of how the general public is evaluating teams — with tournament projections, we can find the best value picks for each region.
OK, it’s gut check time. Remember, this is a bracket to maximize a chance of winning out of millions of entrants, so you have to be willing to make decisions that aren’t popular. And that includes leaving No. 2 Michigan State out of your Elite Eight. Yes, that’s counterintuitive going to subject you to ridicule, but 80.5 percent of brackets have them going that far despite odds of 59 percent.
Instead, advance No. 3 Utah. The Utes have the 15th highest effective field goal percentage in the nation (55.2 percent) and do not give the opposition many freebies at the foul line (23.4 free-throw rate against, lowest among college teams).
Also consider penciling in No. 5 Purdue (24 percent chance on just 13.8 percent of brackets) or No. 4 Iowa State (15 percent to get to Elite Eight) in the Midwest bracket.
No. 11 Gonzaga could be a good, bold choice, too. The Zags have almost twice the chance of surviving (31 percent) than the public gives them credit for (18.1 percent).
Don’t put No. 3 Miami (Fla.) into the Sweet 16. The Hurricanes are a good offensive team (12th highest adjusted offensive efficiency) with few weaknesses, but they have a 36 percent chance at making it that far despite the public picking them on 58.4 percent of the brackets. Look for another pick in the bottom of that bracket.
Up top, it makes strategic sense to advance No. 4 California, who can hit the three-point shot and create points in the paint, to the second weekend.
The Golden Bears have a 48 percent probability of reaching the Sweet Sixteen but only 36 percent of the public believes in them.
Consider leaving off No. 5 Baylor, who allows a whopping 37.1 field-goal rate on three-point shots against, higher than the 34.7 percent average.
Plus, the Bears have a high turnover rate on offense (18.9 percent, 228th in the nation), making it hard to justify their 33.5 appearance rate in the Sweet Sixteen, a proportion that dwarfs their projected chances of 27 percent.
Push No. 6 Texas through to Sweet 16 though. The Longhorns are underappreciated despite ranking 30th in Pomeroy’s ratings.
Another shrewd move you can make is selecting No. 7 Wisconsin to go far in the East. The Badgers have a good value proposition with only 6.5 percent of brackets trying to capitalize on their 11 percent chance of an Elite Eight appearance. Their defense allows just 95.3 points per 100 possessions (24th best in the country) and they don’t give up much near the basket.
Even if you don’t pick the Badgers to the Elite Eight, avoid No. 2 Xavier from going much further than the Sweet 16. The Musketeers’ KenPom rating has them closer to mid-seeded teams rather than the bracket’s elite.
Final Four and beyond
There are two teams you want to focus your Final Four around: No. 1 Virginia and No. 2 Villanova. They have a 30 and 22 percent chance, respectively, at advancing at least this far yet they are not on nearly as many brackets as they should be, which is probably related to their performance in recent tournaments.
The Wildcats can score (117.2 points per 100 possessions) and defend (93.0 points allowed per 100 possessions), while the Cavaliers feature Malcolm Brogdon, one of the best players in the country.
The senior guard was named a First-Team All-American — becoming the first Cavalier to earn such an honor since Ralph Sampson in 1983 — after averaging 18.7 points per game on 46.8 percent shooting, including 40.9 percent from beyond the three-point line.
And it’s the Cavaliers you want as the last team standing. They have a 10 percent chance at winning a national title but only 4.5 percent of the public is willing to ride them the whole way. Before you balk at those low odds, consider Kansas has just a 19 percent chance, yet is the winner on almost a quarter of the brackets.
Michigan State accounts for 20.8 percent of brackets, but their chances of becoming the national champion (9 percent) are projected to be even lower than Virginia’s.
Is it easy to pull the trigger on this type of bracket? No, but it is the best way to maximize your value throughout March Madness.
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