If you want to win a big, online pool with millions of entrants, a perfect bracket helps, but it isn’t necessary.
According to data from the past six years of the official bracket game of the NCAA tournament, no winner had a perfect bracket heading into the Sweet 16. However, every one of the last six winners had the Final Four exactly right, including the participants in the championship game. The last three winners were perfect starting in the Elite Eight.
But being right is only half the equation — you also have 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.
The best play in this region is advancing No. 5 Virginia into the Sweet 16, and possibly into the Elite 8. According to the latest data from ESPN’s Tournament Challenge, 7.5 percent of people have selected the Cavaliers to appear in the Elite Eight, yet FiveThirtyEight’s projections give them an 18 percent chance of making it at least that far, the perfect value play to hinge your bracket around.
Virginia outscored opponents by 26.7 points per 100 possessions after adjusting for strength of schedule, seventh-highest in the country, in large part by having the best defense in the nation (87 points allowed per 100 possessions).
No. 6 SMU is another value play. Slightly more than a third of brackets have them in the Sweet 16 (37.5 percent) but projections have their actual chance closer to 46 percent. And much like Virginia, the Mustangs play shutdown defense, allowing 94.8 adjusted points per 100 possession (29th best). SMU also takes care of the ball (17 percent turnover rate, 69th best) and doesn’t foul often (460 free throws against, eighth best).
Advance No. 4 Purdue to the Elite Eight — only 8.7 percent of entrants are taking advantage of its 20 percent chance of making it that far.
The Boilermakers can shoot from long range (40.6 percent on three-pointers, fourth-highest success rate in the nation) but they can also pound you inside and score almost a point per possession (0.97) in the post. Caleb Swanigan, a candidate for national player of the year, and Isaac Haas combine for 17 rebounds per game and both scored more than half the time on put-backs off offensive rebounds this season.
Wichita State has no business being a No. 10 seed. Its adjusted net point differential (plus-26.4) is better than No. 1 Kansas (plus-26) and four points better than the next best double-digit seed, No. 10 Oklahoma State. Yet not everyone has bought in. Just 4.2 percent of participants in ESPN’s pool have them in the Elite Eight — perhaps due to having to beat No. 2 Kentucky to get there — despite a 15 percent chance of getting there, the highest for any double-digit seed in this year’s tournament. Oklahoma State has the next best chance at making the Elite Eight with 6 percent.
The Shockers are also a textbook example of what a Cinderella team should look like. They create extra possessions through offensive rebounds (11.9 per game, 37th in the country) and turnovers (19.9 per 100 possessions on defense, 90th) with good enough three-point shooting (40.7 percent) to run up the score.
Gut-check time: Move No. 7 St. Mary’s past No. 2 Arizona and No. 3 Florida State into the Elite Eight. Crazy? Not really. St. Mary’s can score (119 adjusted points per 100 possessions, 15th in the country), defend (94.3 adjusted points allowed per 100, 26th), and shoot (39.9 percent on three-point shots, 14th) — what more do you need in a value play?
Only 4.4 percent of people think the Gaels can make it that far despite projections giving them a 26 percent chance, third-highest in the region behind No. 1 Gonzaga (60 percent) and Arizona (39 percent). No. 4 West Virginia (26 percent) also has a slightly higher chance of getting to the Elite Eight than Florida State (22 percent), illustrating this bracket could be one of the most unpredictable.
Final Four and beyond
Over the past 15 years, every national champion except one, Connecticut, a No. 7 seed in 2014, was a No. 1, 2 or 3 seed, so we will limit our value plays to the top-seeded teams. And there are only three in this year’s tournament that are undervalued in the Final Four, title game and as an eventual champion: No. 1 Gonzaga, No. 2 Kentucky and No. 2 Louisville.
If you don’t fear No. 10 Wichita State as an upset pick, selecting Kentucky to be your national champion isn’t a bad play. If you do, then going with a Gonzaga-Louisville final, with Louisville winning, would be contrarian enough to pass all the other brackets and rooted enough in reality to feel good about it.
The Cardinals have the sixth-highest adjusted net point differential (plus-26.7) entering the tournament with strong guard play by Donovan Mitchell, an all-ACC first-team member who had a breakout season with a team-high 15.7 points per game with 2.6 assists and 4.6 rebounds per game, a better reflection of his capabilities than the poor performance against Duke in the ACC tournament.
Mitchell was also selected to the ACC all-defensive team, solidifying Louisville’s sixth-best defense (90.4 adjusted points allowed per 100 possessions) this season.
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.