I want to trounce my fiance this March Madness.
August 30, 2016 7:02 AM   Subscribe

I am a Canadian who has seen almost no basketball. I want to trounce my fiance in our yearly March Madness bracket in a few months, or, barring that, have lots of fun intelligently talking about predictions/rankings/upsets/games with him in February and March. What sites or books should I read for good, regular, in-depth college basketball analysis (or the history of NCAA, or whatever), either (a) now or (b) after I learn what basketball jargon means?

I would ask him, but he just casually finds things to read sometimes and doesn't make an effort to read about it.

Historically, I filled out my bracket either (a) entirely at random or (b) straight-chalk with a set number of upsets per division, determined at random or by reading FiveThirtyEight.

Our bracket-times are already really fun even though I know almost nothing and learn things as they happen.

How little I know about basketball: he had to explain the shot clock to me, two or three years ago. That remains about the extent of my knowledge.
posted by flibbertigibbet to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (11 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I love this!

ESPN, The Ringer, Rotoworld, Deadspin, CBS Sports. I basically read a lot of sports websites. Also look out for podcasts. Bill Simmons podcast discusses basketball a lot too. You could scrub through and find relevant parts.
Try to watch as much as you can once the season starts. Also the Yahoo app is great, have notifications set so you get push notifications about news as it happens. It's in easily digestible chunks. You can have it set for league news or specific teams.
When watching right down/look up everything that isn't familiar to you. Watching is really the best thing you can do for yourself.

Good luck!
posted by shesbenevolent at 7:09 AM on August 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Reading a bunch of websites will not give you an edge when it comes time to fill out a bracket. Just look at a dozen or so "expert" brackets and go with the consensus. You'll save time and do better than an average person.
posted by paulcole at 7:21 AM on August 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Reading websites and familiarizing yourself with players and teams will definitely help with brackets. It seems as if you want to understand what you're doing and learn something, simply filling out brackets without doing that isn't going to achieve that.
I'm a football fan but just did my first fantasy football draft. It really helped to learn more about teams and players. Especially paying attention to injuries/past injuries and new team combos etc. Copying expert brackets isn't particularly fun. It's also fun to get invested in your players.
posted by shesbenevolent at 7:27 AM on August 30, 2016

Best answer: I would check out an eBook by Ed Feng called How To Win Your NCAA Tournament Pool. His site, Power Rank, is also a good read.

Next, you'll want to check out Ken Pomeroy at kenpom.com.

Finally, and this was my secret weapon when I still did March Madness pools, is poologic.com. I won a number of pools using the suggested picks from that site.

Good luck!
posted by reenum at 7:29 AM on August 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Barely a quarter of "experts" do any better than chalk, which is right about at the average of all users. Your best bet is to see who the experts look to be in the Final Four and proceed backwards and forwards from there.
posted by Etrigan at 7:57 AM on August 30, 2016

Best answer: To learn more about college bb, not necessarily do better in the pool: Fran Fraschilla (@franfraschilla) and Doug Gottlieb (@GottliebShow). Gottlieb was heavily influenced by Jim Rome, thus has a little brospeak, but he's got a great basketball pedigree, and usually has some pretty good insight.

Gottlieb used to be on the CBS college basketball podcast. Not sure if he'll do that with NBC.
posted by punchee at 8:07 AM on August 30, 2016

Best answer: I've been running an online NCAA pool since 1996, well before the espns and yahoos got into the mix. Last year I had about 800 people enter, and the pool was won by a 10-year-old girl. Second place was a 12-year-old girl. This is not to say that a middle school aged kid can't have a lot of basketball knowledge, but these ones did not.

My opinions on picking a pool winner are purely data-driven. If you want to beat just your fiance, go with something almost exactly "chalk". If you are trying to win a pool with lots of entries, you should not pick a #1 seed to win the tournament (in 20 years of the pool, no one has ever won the pool with the wrong tournament champion).

While a #1 seed might have an e.g. 10% chance of winning the tournament, if 100 people pick that team to win your chances of winning the pool are more like 0.1%. An underachieving #3 seed can get hot in the tournament though. They may only have a 3% chance of winning the tournament, but if you are one of only a couple people that picked them as champion, your chances of winning the pool are much higher.

Just to give more weight to Etrigan's comment, I have a program that produces 1,000 completely random brackets, which I call the 1,000 Chimp Army. These brackets are much, much worse selections than a "chalk" bracket, which picks the favorite. These are coin flips. Last year of the 800 human participants only 10 people beat all the chimps. Picking a good bracket is truly a crap shoot.
posted by mcstayinskool at 9:17 AM on August 30, 2016

Best answer: From an non-basketball side, your second historical method is pretty good. With rare exception, a 1, 2, or 3 seed wins (although in 2014, Connecticut, a 7 seed won) . It is a generally a safe bet to have nothing but 1, 2 or 3 seeds in the Final 4, but it is pretty rare to see all 1 seeds there. So, you are generally pretty high-percentage to finish off the tournament with your final brackets a mix of those.

The prominent upset action is in the first round. I don't have any good info on how many are typical, but I would guess there are usually two to five first rounds upsets in a typical year, and that is not considering 8-9 matchups which are really a toss-up. 1-16, 2-15, 3-14 and 4-13 matchups rarely ever upset. The real action is in the 7-10 to 8-12 games, with the 12 teams hitting some sort of statistical blip in upsets the last few years.

Then there are a few qualitative rules. First, if you have a personal connection with a team, particularly an underdog, you have to pick them for two rounds past what they deserve. If a significant other has a relationship, it only has to be one round. Also, if a number of people in your pool has a relationship to a school and you do not, you can never pick that team, both for strategic reasons and so you can mock your friends when the upset does not happen.
posted by rtimmel at 9:23 AM on August 30, 2016

Response by poster: Again, I'm also interested in being able to intelligently talk about it all with my fiance as I like talking to him about our brackets.

Last year, our brackets had the same winner and same final match-up (I think we picked the single most popular option that year); we were among the hoard disappointed by Kansas' upset, and the mutual scrabble to find the best way to save our brackets and the gentle, mutual teasing was so much fun (Me, last year: "I'm torn; I want the chalk to win to save the flaming ruins of my bracket, but I also want them to flame out to ruin your bracket"). How much better if I knew more about the game! More gentle ribbing! More of me being interested in the games we watch together, instead of being like "WOW THEY SURE ARE TALL AND CAN TAKE BIG STEPS."
posted by flibbertigibbet at 9:56 AM on August 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Specifically at ESPN, you might want to read "Bubble Watch" once it starts appearing in February. The author, Eamonn Brennan is practically the only college ball writer I can stand at ESPN that you can read for free, and I'd read his stuff before anyone else's there. Bubble Watch goes through the major and mid-major conferences, listing teams that are locks to make the tournament field, as opposed to teams that "should be in" or "have work to do". It's not so much about the tournament as just getting into the tournament, but the blurbs on all the teams listed or in the conference summaries will give you some familiarity with why some teams are considered better than others.

KenPom was mentioned, but you might want to know what you're looking at before you go there. It's a ranking site, but mostly based on math and advanced stats vs. gut feeling like the AP and coaches' polls. The key for the rankings there is efficiency - how many points a given team scores per possession vs. how many points its opponent scores. So, teams that are really good on offense and run at a really high pace (another jargony term - how many possessions happen in a game) so they score a ton but can't stop the other team from scoring do worse than teams that may play slower but do much better per possession.

I also like reading Mark Titus, who should be showing up at the Ringer this season. When he was at Grantland, he would put out a top-12 power ranking (self-described as the most powerful power ranking) and one other article a week. He somehow managed to be pretty insightful, positive, and hilarious all at the same time.
posted by LionIndex at 2:26 PM on August 30, 2016

Best answer: You're asking two questions that aren't terribly related to one another: how to pick a better bracket, and how to understand basketball. As others have noted, the two aren't necessarily related. But they're both fun questions! So I'll let you in on my secret methodology (which should also help you learn a little about the game, if I do it right).

The first, and most important, thing is, as everyone else has noted, picking the right national champion and most of the Final Four. Without that, you have no real hope of winning a bracket pool with more than three or four participants. The good news is, you already seem to be OK at doing this. The bad news is, your fiancé is, too. So how do you do it?

The key is to separate the 64* team field into tiers. I like to do five tiers: A) national championship contenders, B) good teams that won't win the championship, C) meh, D) teams that deserve to be in the tournament but probably won't win a game, and E) teams who are so bad they shouldn't even be there. If you're just getting started, you can probably compress B, C, and E into one big meh category. Tier A should only be about 7 or 8 teams. Tier B is probably another 8-10, and tier D is probably around 7 as well. Tiers C and E aren't consistent from year to year.

Once you've got your tiers, you can start filling in your bracket. No team in a given tier will ever lose to a team in a tier below it. That means A teams will never lose to B teams, B teams will never lose to C teams, and so on. The only time a team in tier A would ever lose is to another A team. Those evenly-matched games, especially the A vs. A and B vs. B games, are the pivotal games that will decide whether your bracket is good or not. As a bonus, they're also the most fun games to watch.

I'm probably more "scientific" than most people, in that I actually compile a spreadsheet to determine my tiers. There are eight columns: final regular season AP poll ranking, final regular season coaches' poll ranking, final RPI ranking, final KenPom ranking, number of prospective NBA draftees, whether or not the team won its conference regular season championship, whether or not they won the conference tournament, and the number of other teams from their conference in the field of 68. The rankings give a good mix of subjective (polls) and objective (RPI, KenPom) evaluations of a team; the number of prospective NBA draftees gives you an idea of how many talented individuals a team has; and the conference stuff gives you an idea if the team is lucky or not (more on that in a second).

Most of this data should be readily available on any sports site (ESPN, Yahoo Sports, etc.). You can find mock drafts by googling "2017 nba mock draft" - look at a couple of different ones to avoid bias.

If you're statistically inclined, you can do z-scores and stuff to help you sort the teams into tiers, but most of the time that's unnecessary. You can generally eyeball it. The only real rule is: If a team won its conference tournament, but not its regular season championship, and it's the only team from that conference in the tournament, that team belongs in tier E. They will not ever win a game. They got lucky and won a game they shouldn't have won in the conference tournament, and their luck will run out (sooner rather than later, as they'll be matched up against a national title contender).

The best way to learn about the game, then, is to track those metrics over the course of the season, and pay attention to fluctuations. If a team is ranked in the top five at the beginning of the season, but only around 20th at the end, is it because they were overrated to start? Or did one of their best players get injured? (And if he is injured, will he be back in time for the tournament?) If a team was not ranked highly to start the year, but ended up in the top ten, was it because they somehow got more talented? Or were they maybe a young team at the beginning of the year, and once they gained some experience, they felt more comfortable? Maybe they played a tougher schedule, and so some of the games they lost were to other really good teams. Each week when polls are released, all the big sports sites release poll commentary, so read that (especially toward the end of the season).

Some other rules of thumb:
-Learn about coaches' reputations. Some coaches (e.g., Tom Izzo of Michigan State or Coach K of Duke) have reputations as big game coaches. You can question you fiancé by saying things like "you're betting against Izzo in March, really?".
-Don't worry about early round upsets. The media hypes these as the most important part of the tournament. The reason for the hype is that, as basketball, most first and second round games are dreadfully boring. One team is hopelessly overmatched and loses by 40. So in order to get people to watch, the media have to play up the three or four times a year that doesn't happen. They don't matter, though. The whole reason they're upsets is because nobody picked the underdog to win. You don't fall behind by missing out on an upset, and you don't get ahead by picking one right.
-A 1 seed has never failed to make it to the Sweet 16. Although there have been some prominent 2 seed upsets in recent years, they still win something like 96 percent of their first round matchups. You can find probabilities for all different seeding matchups on Wikipedia. By the time you get to 8 vs. 9, the 9 seed actually wins a majority of the time. You shouldn't go by probabilities exclusively, but if you do pick something that's improbable, you should have a good reason for doing so from your other research.
-Location is generally overrated. The media makes a lot of noise about the fact that a team will only be playing 30 miles from campus or something like that. Ignore it.
-When picking upsets, look for lower-seeded teams with one very talented player. Steph Curry with Davidson in 2008 is the classic example. Last year's Stephen F. Austin team was a better example.
-Look for head-to-head matchups. One of the nice things about basketball as opposed to football is that good teams often play each other during the regular season with some regularity. If there are no head-to-heads, you can look for common opponents.
-When in doubt, pick the team with the best power forward. A lot of good teams will have a good big man. Only the very best will have two, and so the team with two will almost always beat the team with just one.

Good luck, and enjoy!

*Yes, there are 68 teams in the field, but if your bracket has to pay attention to the First Four, you've already lost. The First Four in Dayton is a fun tradition, and UD Arena is one of the better places to watch a game, but let's be serious: the tournament starts on Thursday.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:48 PM on August 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

« Older Help me plan a whirlwind tour of London   |   Where to eat in Harper's Ferry and Charlottesville Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.