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How to Win Your NCAA Tournament Pool

Tips and Strategies for Winning the Pot


NCAA Bracket

Looks like a winner to me...

Photo Illustration © Charlie Zegers
Updated July 03, 2011
I'd love to be able to tell you who all the winners will be in this year's NCAA Tournament. Of course, if I could, I wouldn't -- I'd be too busy sitting in a sports book in Vegas. But since I lack the precognitive gifts of Allison DuBois or a sports almanac from the future like Biff in Back to the Future II, I'm making educated guesses like the rest of you.

Of course, there's more to taking home the big money...

Did I say money? Silly me. Let me say this loud enough that our friends in law-enforcement can hear...

I know perfectly well that making cash wagers on the NCAA Tournament is, in most cases, illegal and that people play tournament pools for the entertainment value...

So there's more to taking home the big "entertainment value" than just picking the games. As our old commander-in-chief might say, there's some strategery involved... and here are some strategeric tips.

Let History Be Your Guide

There's a good reason that the top-seeded teams are top-seeded. Generally, they're better than the others. Since the NCAA expanded the NCAA Tournament to 64 teams in 1985, number one seeds have landed 43 of a possible 96 Final Four bids and won the title 15 times.

The lowest seed to ever reach the Final Four: eleven.

Also worth noting: when it comes to reaching the Final Four, the big conferences tend to dominate. Keep that in mind while you're looking for "this year's George Mason."

Think Ahead

Most NCAA Tournament pools use a scoring system that awards more points in each round -- a correct pick in the first round might be worth two points; in the elite eight it might be worth 16. Given that the later-round games are worth more points, the key to winning is trying to make sure you still have teams playing in the tournament's second and third weeks.

Pick upsets -- but pick upsets that won't hurt you too much if you guess wrong. For example... Let's say you take a 12 seed in the first round over the five seed. Odds are that upset pick is going to get knocked out in the round of 16 by the number one anyway, so you're not risking that much by picking the underdog.

On the other hand, picking a very high seed to get knocked out early and guessing wrong can mess up your bracket for weeks.

Don't Be Intimidated

There's probably a guy in your office pool who claims to know college basketball backwards and forwards, who takes vacation days for the opening Thursday and Friday every year, and who has an autographed photo of Jay Bilas on his cubicle wall. Don't be intimidated by him. People like him are prone to "over think" their brackets and talk themselves into some really ridiculous scenarios. While he's thinking, "If Radford gets hot from three, they can knock North Carolina out..." you should be thinking about what you'll buy with his money.

Don't Be Overconfident

Let's say you're the guy I described a moment ago... Even if you know college hoops backwards and forwards, can rattle off the names of the assistant coaches at Stephen F. Austin and the name of the student inside the Western Kentucky mascot suit, don't assume that will win you the pool. I'd be willing to wager big money that as many office pools are won by someone utterly clueless as to basketball, making decisions solely based on seedings, where their cousins went to school and uniform colors as are won by superfans.

Know Your Opponent

Remember -- you're not competing against Duke, North Carolina and Kentucky. You're competing against Bob in sales and Sally in accounting. In order to maximize your chances of taking home the most, uh, "entertainment value," it's not a bad idea to scout the opposition a bit.

For example: I play in a pool with my wife's family every year. They're from Connecticut... and they're all either Connecticut graduates, Connecticut fans, or both. Now, even if I thought Connecticut was the best team in the country, there's simply no way I'm going to pick them to advance beyond the Sweet 16 or so. Why not? Because I know that a good portion of my pool will have Jim Calhoun's boys advancing as far as reasonably possible.

If Connecticut advances and everybody has them, you get the same thing that happened when Jim Carrey granted everyone's lottery prayers in Bruce Almighty; everyone wins, but no one wins very much. On the other hand, if Connecticut loses, I have a huge advantage on the rest of the pool.

So if you're playing in a pool full of Carolina alums, pick Duke. If you know your boss is a Memphis booster, take a long look at Pittsburgh. Picking the games correctly is nice, but having the pot all to yourself is nicer.

Let Me Do the Work For You

In a pinch, you're welcome to use my picks as your own. Really. No credit required. But be sure to send some of that "entertainment value" my way if you cash in.
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