2017 Early Deadline Brackets Writeup

Here's what we wrote on Monday for the 2017 NCAA Tournament, breaking down value plays like Gonzaga, North Carolina, and Iowa State.

2017 Early Bracket Writeup

Editor’s Note: The following is the 2017 Early Deadline Bracket Writeup, which was released to our subscribers on Monday, March 13, 2017. If you want to see how the picks performed, check out our 2017 NCAA Tournament Picks in Review.

If you’re a returning customer, you should already be familiar with one of the key tenets of our NCAA bracket analysis:

The dynamics of every NCAA tournament are different

In other words, there are no golden rules for picking brackets that always give you the best chance to win, if you simply apply them like clockwork every single year.

The classic examples are all the seed-based picking “rules” floating around, which are based on insufficient substantiating data and no consideration whatsoever of the current year’s bracket dynamics.

If someone tells you that you should always pick three No. 1 seeds to make the Final Four, for instance, you should run away from them as fast as you can.

If the No. 1 seeds in a given year end up being relatively weak by historical standards yet also very popular picks, putting three of them in your Final Four would almost certainly be a horrible strategy.

Examining the dynamics of this year’s NCAA champion picks

In some years, there’s a team that’s head and shoulders better than the rest of the NCAA tournament field, and it’s worth picking them as your bracket champion — even if they’re a popular pick.

Other years, the public’s most popular pick to win it all is highly overvalued, and you should avoid that team and pick a less popular alternatives.

This year’s situation, as usual, is different than recent years. In fact, as far back as we can remember, we’ve never seen a nation so divided.

No, we’re not talking about politics. We’re talking about this year’s NCAA tournament champion picks.

Most NCAA tournaments feature one or a few teams that the public really likes. This was the case last year.

Public picking rates for the top three NCAA champion picks in 2016

  • Kansas 24%
  • Michigan State 21% (ouch)
  • North Carolina 17%

Among the remaining 65 teams in last year’s tournament, no more than 6% of the public picked any of them to win it all.

In comparison, here’s the situation this year.

Public picking rates for the most popular NCAA champion picks in 2017

  • Villanova 17%
  • North Carolina 14%
  • Duke 12%
  • Kansas 12%
  • UCLA 9%
  • Kentucky 8%
  • Gonzaga 7%
  • Arizona 6%

As you can see, there’s a big cluster of teams that are all modestly popular champion picks. No less than eight teams are the NCAA champion pick in at least 6% of the nation’s brackets right now, yet no team has more than 17% public support.

As it turns out, the eight most popular tournament champion picks this year are also the eight most likely teams to win it all according to our Survival Odds. However, the order of the teams is different.

Best chance to win the 2017 NCAA tournament, based on our most recent projections

  • North Carolina 15%
  • Gonzaga 12%
  • Villanova 11%
  • Duke 9%
  • Kansas 8%
  • Kentucky 6%
  • Arizona 5%
  • UCLA 4%

Looking at that list above, the first observation is that there’s no big tournament favorite in 2017.

If the odds are true, it’s going to be significantly harder to correctly pick the NCAA champion than in some other years, even if that was your only goal.

Gonzaga the best value champion pick as of Monday

Comparing this year’s tournament win odds to public picking rates, as of Monday afternoon, Gonzaga is the highest value champion pick of the 2017 NCAA tournament.

The Zags have roughly a 12% chance to win it all, yet on Monday they were being picked by only about 7% of the public.

Of course, we want to sanity check our numbers, and make sure our projections for Gonzaga aren’t too far off the market. Here are estimates of Gonzaga’s odds to win the 2017 NCAA Tournament according to various objective sources:

  • Ken Pomeroy 21%
  • ESPN BPI 16%
  • FiveThirtyEight 14%
  • TeamRankings 12%
  • Betting Markets 11%

We’re happy with our position in that list. It’s often a yellow flag if your system’s projections are very far off the implied projections of the betting markets, and our odds for Gonzaga line up pretty closely with the betting market.

At the same time, being a little off the betting markets is OK too. For a variety of reasons, betting odds aren’t always 100% efficient. Sometimes there is value to be had, as evidenced by smart people who make a living betting on sports.

So is Gonzaga the play?

If Gonzaga is indeed the champion pick with the most value this year, what should you do with that information?

In comparison to 10 or 15 years ago, there is now a good amount of bracket advice floating around the web that purports to be “advanced” and “smart.”

Most of it is centered around the same theme — that your best strategy to win a bracket pool is to look for undervalued teams that have flown under the radar of the general public, especially for your NCAA champion pick.

Follow that logic, and Gonzaga is a pretty clear play.

However, it’s not quite that simple. Again, there are no golden rules, and other factors (such as your pool size) also play a role in determining your optimal picking strategy.

Picking An Undervalued Champion Isn’t Always The Best Answer

We love value picks here at TeamRankings. There’s nothing better than finding a team that has a great shot to win a game — or the entire tournament — that is also flying under the general public’s radar.

That’s because to win a bracket pool, you don’t need to get a certain number of picks (or a certain percentage of picks) in your bracket correct. You don’t have to be amazing, by absolute standards, at picking winners.

To win a pool, you simply need to score higher than the rest of your opponents.

And the only way to do that is to make correct picks that your opponents get wrong.

Put another way, if you correctly pick North Carolina to survive the first round this year, that really doesn’t mean squat. Almost all your opponents will make that same pick, and they will gain the same number of points as you do. Everyone’s score might as well still be 0.

The most important picks in any bracket are the ones you make that are different from a large chunk of your opponents. Those picks give you a chance to gain points that your opponents miss out on.

And the best times to diverge from the picks of your opponents are when a team’s chance to advance to a given round is significantly higher than the rate at which your opponents are selecting them to make that round

The limits of value-driven picking

With that said, a set of NCAA bracket picks is a complex web of interdependent decisions. So to formulate a winning bracket strategy, you can’t consider every single decision in a vacuum.

In other words, while value-based picking approaches make a lot of sense, that doesn’t mean you should pick every undervalued team in your 2017 NCAA bracket. In fact, far from it.

Here’s an extreme example that illustrates why. We project that No. 15 North Dakota has a 5% chance to knock off No. 2 Arizona. But only 4% of the public is picking North Dakota to win. Therefore, North Dakota is indeed an undervalued pick.

But unless you’re in a giant pool (and/or a pool with huge upset bonuses), Arizona is clearly the better pick from a risk vs. reward standpoint.

If you take a big gamble on North Dakota and lose — the very likely outcome — you’ve just torpedoed your chances at collecting even more points from likely future-round Arizona wins. Worse yet, many of your opponents will be scoring those points, and distancing themselves from you in the pool standings.

Across the entire 2017 NCAA bracket, there are a lot of undervalued picks you could make. In fact, unless the pick popularity of two opposing teams exactly matches their respective win odds for a game, by definition, one of those two teams is undervalued.

But in most cases, if you filled out your bracket chock full of value picks, you’d end up taking way too much risk, and actually lowering your odds to win your pool.

For example, if you picked all the most undervalued teams to reach the Final Four this year, your picks would be:

  • #4 West Virginia (14% chance, picked by 6%)
  • #5 Iowa State (11% chance, picked by 4%)
  • #5 Virginia (10% chance, picked by 3%)
  • #10 Wichita State (6% chance, picked by 2%)

That’s certainly a fun bracket, but it’s not a particularly smart one.

The most likely result — with a 65% chance — would be that you get zero Final Four picks correct, and there would be only a 0.01% chance (1 in 10,000) of getting all four picks correct.

Even in a huge pool, that’s too risky. In contrast, picking “chalk” (all favorites) would give you a much better 19% chance of completely whiffing on the Final Four, and a 1.3% chance of a perfect Final Four.

In most scenarios, the ideal risk/value balance is somewhere in between these two extremes.

Now that we’ve established the limitations of picking for value, let’s take a look at some of the value picks you are likely to see in customized Early Deadline Brackets for the popular 1-2-4-8-16-32 scoring system.

Then, we’ll circle back to the all-important (in that scoring system, at least) champion pick.

How Do You Decide Which Value Picks Are Worth Playing?

There are two competing goals when crafting a bracket: Maximize reward and minimize risk.

Small pools

In very small pools with standard 1-2-4-8-16-32 scoring, it makes more sense to focus on minimizing risk. After all, you only need to beat a few opponents. So simply picking the most likely winners, and relying on your opponents to miss most of the upset picks they’re bound to make, is a good idea. A lot of people love to brag about the upset picks they “called” in their bracket, and end up getting way too risky with their picks in smaller pools.

Large pools

In very large pools, value comes more to the forefront, as you need to differentiate your bracket from many competing entries in order to have any realistic shot of winning (and even then, your odds to win are still long). So if you’re in a very large pool, you’re usually going to see some riskier pick suggestions in our customized Early Deadline Brackets.

Mid-Sized Pools

For bracket pool sizes in between, figuring out the optimal balance of risk vs. reward — based on your pool’s size, scoring system, and payout structure — is often a much more nuanced challenge.

For example, using data from our Data Grid:

  • No. 5 Iowa State is a solidly undervalued pick to make the Elite Eight (21% chance to make it, but only picked by 9%)
  • But you’re adding a lot of risk compared to the safest alternative, No. 1 Kansas (47% chance)
  • In very small pools, picking Iowa State probably isn’t worth the risk. In bigger pools it might be. But where’s the cutoff?

Now, repeat this same question and analysis for every undervalued pick in the entire tournament, compare all the risks and rewards, and try to figure out how much risk overall makes the most sense for your specific pool.

The complexity piles up rapidly, and the answers are all interdependent.

We Use Technology Do The Heavy Lifting

Finding the best set of picks for an entire bracket, for a particular type of pool, with a particular total number of entries, simply can’t be done manually. The complexity involved in doing all the optimization is much too high.

That’s why we built our NCAA Bracket Picks product, which leverages millions of computer simulations to identify the combinations of decisions for different pool types that, as a whole, will deliver a big edge.

(P.S. Based on our initial simulation run of bracket pools with standard 1-2-4-8-16-32 scoring, if you’re only entering one bracket in a pool this year, picking Iowa State to make the Final Four only starts to make sense once you have around 2000 entries in your pool. Try figuring that out by hand.)

So What Are The Best Value Picks This Year?

In pools with standard 1-2-4-8-16-32 scoring, here are some value picks that you may see in our customized Early Deadline Brackets.

Solid value picks to make the Final Four

  • #4 West Virginia (14% odds, picked by 6%) — public overrating #2 Arizona (20% odds, picked by 38%)
  • #3 Oregon (14% odds, picked by 11%) — public overrating #1 Kansas (29% odds, picked by 54%)
  • #5 Iowa State (11% odds, picked by 4%) — public overrating #1 Kansas (29% odds, picked by 54%)
  • #5 Virginia (10% odds, picked by 3%) — public overrating #1 Villanova (31% odds, picked by 45%)

Most years there are teams with 25% or better odds to make the Final Four that are also being underrated by the public. That’s not the case this year, so the value picks listed here are significantly riskier than in other years.

Solid value picks to make the Elite 8

All of the Final Four value picks above, plus…

  • #3 Florida State (27% odds, picked by 25%) — public overrating #2 Arizona (42% odds, picked by 68%)
  • #6 SMU (20% odds, picked by 8%) — public overrating #2 Duke (49% odds, picked by 71%)
  • #3 Baylor (20% odds, picked by 15%) — public overrating #2 Duke (49% odds, picked by 71%)
  • #4 Purdue (19% odds, picked by 8%) — public overrating #1 Kansas (47% odds, picked by 73%)

Solid value picks to make the Sweet 16

All of the Final Four and Elite Eight value picks above, plus…

  • #7 Michigan (32% odds, picked by 24%) — public overrating #2 Lousiville (50% odds, picked by 69%)
  • #10 Wichita State (29% odds, picked by 11%) — public overrating #2 Kentucky (63% odds, picked by 84%)
  • #7 St. Mary’s (27% odds, picked by 7%) — public overrating #2 Arizona (63% odds, picked by 86%)
  • #6 Cincinnati (26% odds, picked by 13%) — public overrating #3 UCLA (63% odds, picked by 83%)
  • #8 Wisconsin (23% odds, picked by 7%) — public overrating #1 Villanova (72% odds, picked by 88%)

Solid first round upset value picks

  • #10 Wichita State (71% odds, picked by 61%) over #7 Dayton
  • #9 Vanderbilt (54% odds, picked by 48%) over #8 Northwestern
  • #12 Middle Tennessee (47% odds, picked by 37%) over #5 Minnesota
  • #11 Rhode Island (46% odds, picked by 35%) over #6 Creighton
  • #10 Oklahoma State (40% odds, picked by 24%) over #7 Michigan
  • #11 Kansas State / Wake Forest Play-In Winner (37% odds, picked by 19%) over #6 Cincinnati

Keep in mind that most of the Early Deadline Brackets published on Monday will only feature some of these picks, since using all of them would almost certainly introduce too much overall risk into your bracket.

In addition, some of these picks may only be used in our alternative brackets for people making multiple entries into a pool, but not in our Best Bracket for a given pool.

It’s imperative to understand that we are not saying, or expecting, that all of the above value picks will win or make it to the rounds specified. In fact, we expect teams like Rhode Island and Oklahoma State to lose in the first round, since we have their win odds at below 50%. But a gamble on a team like those just might be worth the risk in certain pools.

And now…back to Gonzaga

Notice we didn’t list any undervalued NCAA champion picks in the lists above. That doesn’t mean that none exist this year.

In fact, a handful of teams appear to be decent value tournament champion picks when you look at their profile in a vacuum:

Undervalued picks to win the NCAA tournament (that have a realistic chance)

  • #1 North Carolina (15% odds, picked by 14%)
  • #1 Gonzaga (12% odds, picked by 7%)
  • #3 West Virginia (3% odds, picked by 1%)
  • #3 Oregon (3% odds, picked by 2%)
  • #5 Virginia (2% odds, picked by 1%)
  • #5 Iowa State (2% odds, picked by 1%)
  • #6 SMU (2% odds, picked by only 0.3%)
  • #7 Michigan (2% odds, picked by 1%)
  • #3 Florida State (2% odds, picked by 1%)
  • #3 Baylor (2% odds, picked by 1%)
  • #4 Purdue (2% odds, picked by 1%)

Three of those teams stand out as having compelling cases for being the best NCAA champion pick in at least some pool scenarios:

  • #6 SMU has the highest ratio of win odds to pick percentage
  • #1 Gonzaga has the largest difference between win odds and pick percentage
  • #1 North Carolina is the most likely winner of the tournament according to our projections, and is also undervalued, which is a solid combination

Given those profiles, we initially figured that North Carolina would be a good champion pick in small pools, Gonzaga a good pick in medium sized pools, and SMU a good pick in huge pools.

However, one of the key findings from our initial simulation runs this year is that making some of the earlier-round value picks listed above, in concert with a Gonzaga-as-champion pick, is a better gambit in big pools. It provides a better reward than you would get from picking SMU as champion with slightly less overall risk.

Early Bracket Strategies & Recommendations

So, with our two title favorites both also being undervalued by the public, it’s not a big surprise that the Early Deadline Best Brackets for 1-2-4-8-16-32 scoring recommend:

  • #1 North Carolina as a champion pick in small pools
  • #1 Gonzaga as a champion pick in medium sized pools

Gonzaga is a slightly riskier pick than UNC, and that risk/reward tradeoff doesn’t quite make sense until your pool size gets above 75 or so entries.

As mentioned above, a bit more surprising is the fact that despite SMU’s better value ratio, our Early Deadline Brackets for 1-2-4-8-16-32 scoring are also recommending:

  • #1 Gonzaga as a champion pick in very large pools

By the way, roughly 50% of the bracket pools that our customers set up in our system use the most popular 1-2-4-8-16-32 scoring system, or an equivalent. That’s why we focus this writeup on that scoring system.

The remaining 50% of customer pools are spread quite thinly over a wide range of other scoring systems. So just remember that if your pool doesn’t use 1-2-4-8-16-32 scoring, you may have a different team than North Carolina or Gonzaga as your recommended champion pick.


The bracket pool simulations not picking SMU as the champion in very large pools surprised us at first.

After all, if SMU is being picked by 0.3% of the public, then probably only three other people would pick SMU as champion in a 1000-entry pool. And with SMU’s odds to win it all at roughly 2%, you would effectively have a 2% chance to be in a “mini-pool” for first place against only three other opponents, if SMU indeed wins the tournament.

Assuming your bracket has an average shot (25%) to outscore those other three opponents if SMU wins it all, an SMU champion pick would therefore give you about a 0.5% chance to win a 1000-entry pool.

Compare that to a Gonzaga champion pick, with a 12% chance to win it all, and 6.7% of opponents picking the Zags. You’d have a 12% chance of being in a “mini-pool” for first place with an average of 67 opponents if Gonzaga did win the tournament. With a 1-in-68 (1.5%) chance to win that mini-pool, overall you’d have about a 0.2% chance to win the pool.

Just considering the risks and rewards of these two potential champion picks, it seems like SMU is the better play in very large pools.

However, once we dug into the details, we realized we were overlooking a key factor. It’s much more difficult to use value picks in the earlier rounds to improve your overall win odds when picking SMU, than it is when you pick Gonzaga.

The example of Iowa State

As an example, in very large pools our Early Deadline Brackets are suggesting picking Iowa State to make the Final Four, paired with the Gonzaga champion pick.

That Iowa State pick has only about an 11% chance of being correct, compared to 29% for picking Kansas instead. As it turns out, making a risky pick like Iowa State to the Final Four doesn’t make much sense if you already would have great odds to win your pool (25%) if you picked SMU to win.

Imagine your pain if you made a huge bet on a relative longshot like SMU, and then they won…but you took fourth place instead of first place in 1000-entry pool because of a risky and incorrect Iowa State in the Final Four pick.

But the situation is different when your baseline odds to win a “mini pool” of people who correctly picked the NCAA tournament champion are only 1.5%, as in the Gonzaga case.

In that scenario, not only is an additional gamble like Iowa State to the Final Four mathematically justified, but it also ends up creating a better overall risk vs. reward profile for your bracket as a whole than the SMU-as-champion option.

In the end, then, our initial intuition was both right and wrong: If the only pick you had control over in your very large pool bracket was the NCAA champion pick, then SMU would indeed be a better champion pick than Gonzaga.

However, when also you factor in value picking options elsewhere in the bracket, taking multiple smaller risks in the earlier rounds and picking Gonzaga as champion ends up being a better tradeoff than making one huge bet on SMU.

The Duke Play In Larger Pools

In addition to an undervalued Gonzaga champion pick, in larger pools, the other calculated risk the majority of Early Deadline Best Brackets are taking for 1-2-4-8-16-32 scoring is Duke making the Final Four.

To be clear, Duke isn’t technically undervalued to make the Final Four; 37% of the public is picking them to make it, despite them having only a 27% chance to do so. But Duke is still less overvalued than alternative Villanova, who is being picked at a 45% rate despite only a 31% chance to make the Final Four.

So it’s a bit of increased risk (4% less likely), but the potential reward makes it worth it (8% less popular).

Also Some Exposure to Oregon

In addition, in some larger 1-2-4-8-16-32 pools, we’ll be suggesting a truly undervalued Final Four pick of Oregon or Iowa State to emerge from the Midwest region instead of Kansas.

Kansas is the most overvalued Final Four pick this year, with 54% of the public picking them, despite only having a 29% chance to make it. The drop from Kansas’s 29% survival odds to 14% (for Oregon) or 11% (for Iowa State) is indeed a big one, but in large pools it’s a justified risk given Kansas’s popularity.

If you think a pick like this sounds a too risky, just remember, you have almost no chance to win a huge pool to start. Increasing your odds to win therefore requires identifying the choicest opportunities to differentiate your bracket from a sea of others.

Following over half of your opponents in picking a team that doesn’t even have a 30% chance to make the Final Four is not the best way to do that. Even if Kansas makes it out of its region, it will likely be a pyrrhic victory for you. Most likely, you’ll still be fighting an uphill battle against many other opponents still in contention to win the pool.

Farewell until Wednesday night…

Our initial round of millions of 2017 bracket pool simulations is now complete. Thank you, 18 servers at Amazon running tournament and bracket pool simulations all night!

We’ve factored in recent public picking trends, Vegas odds, team ratings from several of the world’s top predictive systems, and hands-on analysis of injuries and lineups using proprietary tools we’ve built.

We manually reviewed the Early Deadline Brackets for many different scoring systems and pool sizes before posting them, and did our own separate analyses to confirm that their simulation-driven picks passed the smell test.

And now, we’re confident that these brackets will give you a significant edge in your pool. Just remember:

If your pool doesn’t have an early submission deadline, we strongly recommend that you wait to use our Official 2017 Brackets, scheduled for release late Wednesday night.

The more time we have to do analysis and run simulations, the better.

We’ll be back with at least a few more comments after we release our Official Brackets on Wednesday night.

If you have any questions for us, feel free to ask away in the Q&A Forum.