Much of the data analysis at this site highlights how the selection committee seeding process is flawed, and you can use that knowledge to your advantage in making picks. That doesn’t mean you should favor the most probable paths for every section of your bracket. Leave the chalk-filled conservative brackets to risk-averse competitors like Barack Obama. Winning your office pool means separating your bracket from the herd with sensible, probable outcomes that differ from your opposition.
My favorite data set for filling out a bracket is the Who Picked Whom percentage breakdown that ESPN kindly publishes during tournament week ahead of the bracket due date. When analyzed in tandem with probability metrics, this data gives us a good idea of which teams are over- and under-valued. And of course you should wait until Thursday morning to submit your bracket to see what happens in the First Four, which tends to field some strong teams that will be picked less often because of the extra games.
The herd this year seems to be coalescing around Kansas and Michigan State, and to a lesser extent North Carolina. According to ESPN, 25% of Americans are picking Kansas to win the championship, with another 22% to Michigan State and 15% to UNC. On the other hand, FiveThirtyEight puts Kansas’ odds lower at 19%, and Ken Pomeroy puts them even lower at 15%. Kansas is the favorite, but it’s a weak favorite, and in a season defined by parity it seems like a mistake to default to Kansas.
Michigan State also seems overvalued. I see the Spartans as a coin toss against Virginia in the Elite Eight, so I’m picking the perpetually undervalued Cavaliers to advance and to win it all. Virginia is the 2nd best team according to Ken Pomeroy, the 3rd best according to FiveThirtyEight, the 4th best according to Jeff Sagarin, the 2nd best according to Dean Oliver, and the best team by a hair according to the 64to1 model. Despite this consensus that Virginia is a top 4 team, they’re only the 6th most picked team to win the title (4.6%) according to the bracket-filling public, even behind 4-seed Kentucky. This is a classic value pick. Pencil in Virginia with confidence, and you’re likely to be one of the few in your pool who has them. If it works out, it’ll correct all sorts of other bad picks that may happen along the way.
With the champion selected, here are my thoughts on the four regions:
Kansas (1) is the elephant in the room, and while it’s tempting to pick Villanova as the underrated upstart, I look to Kansas as the odds on favorite to advance to Houston. The main surprise I have in the South is Wichita State (11), which could easily ride its tournament-seasoned core of Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker into the Sweet Sixteen over Arizona (6) and Miami (3).
Oregon (1) seems to be the consensus weakest 1-seed, and I agree. I could see Cincinnati (9) upsetting them in the round of 32, but I have Oregon advancing one more round where they’ll fall to the underrated Baylor (5). Baylor is another undervalued team that may skirt under the radar because of their impending date with Duke (4) in the round of 32.
The bottom end of the bracket is a tough call with Texas A&M (3) vs Oklahoma (2) essentially being a coin toss. The herd is picking Oklahoma more than 3:1 there, so I’m going Texas A&M and have them beating Baylor to make the Final Four.
North Carolina (1) is the third most popular pick at ESPN to win the championship behind Kansas and Michigan State, but I have my doubts due to the tough Sweet Sixteen matchup against the winner of Kentucky (4) vs Indiana (5). Any of those three teams could easily advance to the Elite Eight, which makes it difficult to rely on any of them for a deeper run. I’m more comfortable picking the defensively sound West Virginia (3).
The Midwest is the toughest region, and Purdue (5) is an underrated 5-seed who could potentially give Virginia (1) trouble in the Sweet Sixteen. I also look for Gonzaga (11) to do well as a dark horse team to knock out Seton Hall (6) and Utah (3), advancing to the Sweet Sixteen. The Elite Eight matchup between Virginia (1) and Michigan State (2) should be one of the better games of the tournament, similar to their close 2014 matchup where Michigan State won by 2.
For posterity and future ridicule, here is the 64to1 bracket. Good luck this week!