2017 Final Brackets Writeup

If you want to see what our final recommendations were for the 2017 NCAA Tournament, you can check out our Final Bracket Writeup here.

Editor’s Note: The following is the 2018 Early Deadline Bracket Writeup, which was released to our subscribers on Wednesday, March 15, 2017. If you want to see how the picks performed, check out our 2017 NCAA Tournament Picks in Review.

We’re excited to announce the release of our official, customized NCAA brackets for 2017.

We hope you all have enjoyed using our NCAA Bracket Picks product, and have fun watching the tourney this year. We appreciate your business and your trust in our analytical skills.

Here Comes The Obligatory Disclaimer / Expectation Setting

Hopefully, with some luck, our picks will come through for a good portion of our customers this year. Just remember, though — it certainly doesn’t happen every year. This is a long term game.

And since we now customize brackets for many different types of scoring systems, several of which have radically different rewards structures (e.g. huge upset bonuses vs. no upset bonuses), it’s inevitable that when a portion of our customers’ picks are doing great, some other portion’s picks aren’t. As a result, it’s almost a guarantee that we will never have a March Madness season where all of our paying customers walk away thrilled. That bums us out, but it’s the nature of our business.

More than anything, it’s great to be hopeful, but it’s just as important to have realistic expectations. Even with our help, you’re never going to be expected to win a bracket pool of 25, 50, or 100 or more people in a given year. Most years, you’re going to lose using our picks.

But over time, the edge our picks give you accumulates and pays off. In the long run, you should win bracket pools more often than your opponents do, and the potential returns involved in doing so are very attractive. It’s just impossible to predict when the big hits will come. But it will be a boom-or-bust cycle; occasional winning years will more than make up for the more frequent years of losses.

We’ve demonstrated the efficacy of our bracket strategies with real-world data collected from thousands of customers. No other site has gathered so much empirical data on how actual people have done using their bracket advice in real bracket pools, or is so transparent and comprehensive in sharing it.

For more information, you can read some posts about our customers’ historical performance in bracket pools in the NCAA tournament section of the site blog (www.teamrankings.com/blog).

Or, especially if you’re a new subscriber or if you remain unconvinced about TR after a year or two using our picks, you can just listen to one of our long-term customers. Here’s an email we received, unsolicited, just this week:

I haven’t commented before. But, this morning I read your email from Seth talking about last year’s pool successes, etc. I’ve been using TeamRankings for a few years now. Don’t remember how many. However, each and every year since the late eighties I’ve participated in a NCAA March Madness Pool that’s grown to about 100 entries per year. It includes astute players from many states.

Me I’m a rank amateur. I hardly ever watch any of the NCAA Men’s basketball games leading up to the tournament. The only reason I even watch the games beginning with the Sweet Sixteen is — after using TeamRankings I might add — I’m always in the running to at least place or show. So, as it goes, it’s more enticing to watch a game if one has skin in the game.

Let me qualify. I don’t do just one pick. Generally, I’ll throw five to seven entries in the 100-entry pool. It pays five places win, place and show. That said, the results over the past four years defy the odds. I won this March Madness Pool last year picking UNC over Villanova. (Only one picked Villanova to win; he placed fifth.) And I won it all with Louisville four years ago.

So, participating in this 100-entry Madness Pool for over 30 years, and placing multiple entries each year, one of those WON it outright two out of the past four years. To put this into perspective, before TeamRankings, I may have placed or showed up in the top 5, but split sharing a win only once in over 30-years, I think 1987 or 1988. Wow. What a difference TeamRankings has made.

Now, let’s get to the bracket analysis. We’ll kick it off with a question that may be running through your mind:

How Can You Release Your Official Brackets Before All The Play-In Games Are Decided?

Our plan every year is to get our Early Deadline Brackets out Monday night as soon as we can, and then finish our more in-depth analysis by Wednesday afternoon.

If we conclude that the late play-in game on Wednesday evening is important to our final brackets, we’ll wait to release our Official Brackets until after that game finishes.

However, if the result of the late Wednesday play-in game won’t really impact our brackets in a meaningful way, we try to release the Official Brackets as early as we can, since some customers need to scramble to get them submitted on time.

This year, it turns out that the results of tonight’s late game doesn’t change our pick:

  • Neither #11 Providence nor #11 USC are projected to make a deep run. USC was a slight favorite over Providence in the betting markets as of Wednesday afternoon, so they will be a slightly tougher first round opponent for No. 6 SMU if they win. However, based on our research and betting market expectations, SMU is severely underseeded. So regardless of which team wins, SMU will be a strong favorite to win their Round of 64 game.(Note: We will be listing Play-in Winner in all the brackets we are releasing today, then will fill in the results of the game once it is known.)

What Picks Have Changed From The Early Brackets?

[If you didn’t view our early picks that we released Monday, you can skip this section. However, you may want to read our Early Deadline Bracket Writeup, linked in the right sidebar.]

A huge benefit of our customized bracket picks simulation engine is that we can tailor picks to your specific pool size, scoring system, and payout structure. That’s the great news.

The bad news is that having algorithms optimize picks for thousands of different permutations of scoring systems and pool sizes means that there’s no quick answer we can give to a question like, “What’s changed since Monday?” that applies uniformly across all of the many brackets we just published.

Thousands of individual picks may have changed across all the unique brackets being seen by all our customers for different types of pools.

Still, we do our best to do as many “Early vs. Official” bracket comparisons as we can, and we’ll summarize here some of the biggest changes likely to be seen by customers using the most popular 1-2-4-8-16-32 (with no upset bonus) scoring system.

First, though, let’s quickly review why picks can change between the Monday and Wednesday brackets.

It’s really quite simple. Our customized brackets are data-driven, and over the course of the past two days, several important data inputs to our algorithms can change. Examples include:

  • Betting odds / betting market expectations (sharp bettors causing lines to move)
  • Public picking trends (certain picks getting more or less popular nationally)
  • Player or team information (e.g. injuries, suspensions)

In addition, time is another critical element to our analysis. It’s an absolute sprint for us from the moment the tournament field is announced on Selection Sunday evening until now. By Wednesday night, we’ve had three times the amount of time to analyze the 2017 bracket as we’d had on Monday night when we released our Early Deadline Brackets.

This means:

  • Roughly 48 more hours to run millions more bracket and bracket pool simulations on our 18 servers we have fired up over at Amazon
  • The same amount of additional time, minus a few hours of sleep a night, to scour the web to identify and incorporate solid bracket analysis being done by other thought leaders, observe how betting lines are moving, pore over proprietary tools we’ve built to analyze team-specific factors like lineup performance, and explore matchup effects between individual teams who are likely to play one another

This is why we tell everybody to wait for our Wednesday bracket release, unless you absolutely can’t. In short, we’re smarter on Wednesday.

So…what HAS changed in the last two days?

Here are the some of the most common differences you might see in traditional 1-2-4-8-16-32 scoring when you click to update your brackets for those pools:

#1 Villanova to the Final Four (replacing #2 Duke)

Our Early Deadline Brackets released Monday rely on a consensus of several rating systems (TeamRankings, Ken Pomeroy, ESPN BPI, Jeff Sagarin, etc.), initial betting market data like point spreads, plus our own analysis of how injuries and lineup changes are likely to affect each team. We also take into account NCAA tournament champion futures odds from major offshore sportsbooks.

Since our initial set of brackets was released, the betting markets have moved strongly against Duke. As a result, we re-examined Duke’s game-by-game results in more detail, and we think the market’s move is justified.

Although Duke just won the ACC tournament, only two of their single-game performances in that tournament were at an elite level. And in the two weeks prior to the ACC tournament, Duke had only barely been playing at a Top 25 level.

We still rate Duke as the second most likely team to make the Final Four out of the East region, but their chances are no longer neck-and-neck with Villanova, which was the case on Monday.

In addition, public picking data has shifted over the past few days. When we published our initial brackets, Villanova was being picked to make the Final Four by 45% of the public, and Duke by only 37%.

That gap has now narrowed by more than half. As of today roughly 42% are picking Villanova to make the Final Four, while 39% are picking Duke.

With Duke’s popularity as a pick rising even as their prospects for advancement look to be worsening, it now makes more sense to pick Villanova to reach the Final Four in our 1-2-4-8-16-32 Best Brackets.

#6 SMU to the Elite Eight (replacing #3 Baylor)

#6 SMU to the Final Four (replacing #2 Duke) [in very large pools]

#6 SMU to the Title Game (replacing #1 Gonzaga) [in very large pools]

We rated SMU very highly in our initial analysis. They seem to be a sort of “reverse Louisville” where they tend not to blow out weak teams by a ton, yet they still win relatively comfortably. Then, they perform very well against the strong teams on their schedule.

But as of Monday the betting markets didn’t seem to agree; the futures odds we saw for SMU were more pessimistic than our own outlook was. So we tempered our expectations and docked SMU’s rating a bit before creating our round by round Survival Odds.

Two days later, the betting markets have moved strongly in favor of SMU, and are more in line with our initial numbers. As a result, SMU is now showing up as a dark horse pick to make a deep run in some larger pool size brackets.

#1 North Carolina to Win the Title (replacing #1 Gonzaga) [in very large pools]

This move goes hand-in-hand with the SMU dark horse run above. Some of our Early Deadline Brackets for larger pool sizes differentiated themselves by choosing Gonzaga as champion (an undervalued champion pick), along with some other moderate value picks in the earlier rounds.

With today’s release, some of those brackets have changed to have a less risky champion pick (North Carolina) and some more conservative picks earlier in the bracket. Those safer hedges now offset a more risky deep run by SMU.

We have always seen North Carolina as the favorite to win the tournament, and Gonzaga as especially underrated by the public. Bracket picking strategy is often about balancing those two, and thanks to the upgrade in SMU’s prospects, our latest simulations show that you’re now better off by taking more risk on SMU and less risk on the champion pick.

#4 Florida to the Sweet Sixteen (replacing #5 Virginia)

The betting market has moved strongly against Virginia in their Round of 64 game, with their money line (implied odds to win the game) worsening from -420 to -335. That translates to a reduction in win odds of several percent — a swing that not only decreases Virginia’s chance to get out of the first round, but also implies that Virginia probably isn’t as strong of a team as we initially thought. We docked Virginia’s rating a bit before running our final bracket simulations, and they no longer look like such a great value pick over #4 Florida.

#12 Middle Tennessee to the Second Round (replacing #5 Minnesota)

Minnesota is one of the toughest teams to forecast this year. Sure-handed senior guard Akeem Springs was lost for the season with an injury during the Big Ten tournament. Springs had the lowest turnover rate on the team (11.7%), and also led the team in three-point attempts (5.5 per game) Since he suffered the injury in the next-to-last game of the season, we’ve only got a one-game sample (i.e. not enough info) on which to judge Minnesota without him. We docked them some in our initial analysis, but still had Minnesota slightly ahead of Middle Tennessee. Since then, the point spread for this game has shifted from Minnesota being favored to Middle Tennessee being favored, and we’ve adjusted our Survival Odds accordingly.

#11 Rhode Island to the Second Round (replacing #6 Creighton)

The point spread for this game at respected offshore sports book Pinnacle has moved from Creighton -2 (that is, a 2-point favorite) to a “Pick” (even matchup). Creighton guard Mo Watson had the best assist rate in the entire country this season, and used 28% of the team’s possessions when he was on the court (that’s high — the average is 20%). Watson was injured midway through the year, and the Bluejays haven’t performed as well without him. We docked Creighton in our original Survival Odds as a result, but based on the significant move in the point spread, we suspect we didn’t dock them enough. So in the latest simulations we penalized them a bit more, and in our Official Brackets Rhode Island is now an upset pick in even more brackets than previously.

An Important Note About “Chalk” (aka Picking Lots Of “Favorites”)

Every year we tend to field some similar questions about our brackets. Here’s one we get from at least a few customers almost every single March Madness, referring to at least one of the brackets recommended for their pool:

  • Why are you recommending all #1 seeds in the Final Four? That never happens!
  • I didn’t need your “expert” help to tell me to pick four #1 seeds. I could have done that myself!

As noted above, in quite a few brackets we will be swapping #2 Duke out of the Final Four, and replacing them with #1 Villanova. This creates a “chalkier” bracket, with lots of No. 1 seeds in there.

However, when it comes to smart bracket strategy, you need to learn to think beyond seed numbers, and stop assuming that picking lots of No. 1 seeds to make the Final Four is an “obvious” or “not brilliant enough” strategy.

What matters much more than seed numbers is how your picks are similar to or different than the picks your opponents are making. Because by definition, the only way to win a bracket pool is to get picks right that your opponents get wrong.

Using this case an example, swapping out #2 Duke for #1 Villanova in the Final Four actually creates a more undervalued Final Four than leaving Duke in. And that’s a good thing.

To hammer this point home, let’s take a deep dive and explore why having four #1 seeds in your Final Four this year isn’t a problem.

  1. One of the four #1 seeds this year is NOT the most popular pick to reach the Final Four, and another is close to a toss up in the public’s eyes.

The public’s most popular Final Four team in each region this year is:

  • #1 Kansas (Midwest)
  • #1 North Carolina (South)
  • #1 Villanova (East)
  • #2 Arizona (West)

So by picking all four #1 seeds, you’re actually going against the crowd on one of your Final Four picks, since more people have #2 Arizona making it than #1 Gonzaga.

Differentiating your picks from your opponents’ picks like this is a key aspect of bracket pool strategy, in large pools especially. Again, seed number “chalk” doesn’t mean anything if there happens to be a No. 1 seed that very few people are picking.

In addition, #1 Villanova is being picked by roughly 42% of the public to make the Final Four, but #2 Duke is right with them, at a 39% pick rate.

With two possible picks have roughly equal popularity, you don’t have a good opportunity to differentiate your bracket. So it’s usually smarter to go with the team with better odds to advance, and that’s Villanova, not Duke.

(However, it may make sense to pick Duke in a second or third bracket if you’re playing multiple entries, in order to create some pick diversity).

  1. The Final Four isn’t the most important round (at least in standard scoring).

Arbitrarily judging a bracket based on only its Final Four picks simply doesn’t make sense. It especially doesn’t make sense to pay close attention to the Final Four, but then to ignore the picks in the last two rounds, which are worth double and four times the number of points, respectively, in the 1-2-4-8-16-32 scoring system.

A lot of our suggested brackets will have Gonzaga over North Carolina in the title game. Gonzaga is only the 6th-most popular tournament champion pick this year, being picked by roughly 8% of the public. So for your most valuable possible pick — the most likely pick to make the difference between you winning your pool or not — our brackets are suggesting a pick that 92% of your opponents DIDN’T make.

Now, combine that Gonzaga champion pick with a title game opponent of North Carolina, and in a typical pool you’d only expect 2% of your opponents to have the same last three picks as you — even though you’re picking all No. 1 seeds!

With three relatively low risk picks (relative to other late round picks, at least), you’ve already differentiated your bracket from 98% of your pool opponents. If this short list of critical strategic picks comes through, you’re going to have a great shot at a prize. In many pools, there’s simply no need to take a bunch more risk with your other picks, like adding on a dark horse Final Four pick just because you don’t like the optics of four No. 1 seeds.

Now, let’s compare the “Four No. 1 Seeds” Final Four strategy to a bracket that picks what looks like a crazier NCAA championship game: #3 UCLA over #2 Duke.

UCLA is being picked as champion by 9% of the public (compared to Gonzaga’s 8%), and Duke is being picked to make the title game by 26% of the public (compared to UNC’s 25%). So despite the seed numbers, that #3 over #2 pick is likely to be a more popular choice among your opponents for the final game than our “boring” #1 over #1 suggestion. But guess what? The #1-over-#1 matchup and pick is much more likely to occur.

It’s a no-brainer which strategy offers you better value and a better chance to win, even in large pools.

In typical 1-2-4-8-16-32 scoring, your two finalist picks are worth twice as much as your Final Four picks, and we put a whole lot of analysis into figuring out the optimal strategy for those two picks (and, of course, for the NCAA champion pick).

  1. A lot of people make bracket picks that are too risky for their pool

We imagine part of the issue here is that ESPN, CBS, and other media outlets have trained people to think that the way to win a bracket pool is to nail every upset and every dark horse team correctly. Generally, that’s not the way it works.

For example, one of us is in a yearly pool in the 100-200 entry range. The last time anybody in the entire pool picked all four Final Four teams correctly was 2009. In over 1,000 cumulative tries since then, no one has gotten a perfect Final Four. Yet every year, somebody still walks away with a nice chunk of change in their pocket for winning.

The winner most years is usually somebody who makes solid picks through the first few rounds, gets two or three Final Four teams correct, and/or nails the tournament winner. (In years where a very unpopular pick wins it all, though, the winner may not even have picked the champion right.)

Given that context, it often makes sense to pick conservatively across most of the bracket, and concentrate your risk in one or two educated bets on high leverage picks — usually including the NCAA champion, but not necessarily including another Final Four team.

In other words, we agree with all the talking heads on TV that if you pick almost all favorites in the early rounds, you’re very unlikely to get all of your early round picks correct.

However, the alternative is making more worse-than-coin-flip level upset picks, and praying that you happen to pick all the right ones. In most cases, playing it conservative early on is the much better call, especially since in many popular scoring systems the first round games are worth next to nothing anyway.

  1. Four #1 seeds is neither a magical or cursed combination of teams.

What we mean here is that the advancement odds of each #1 seed is independent from the odds for the other #1 seeds. If the first three #1 seeds happen to make the Elite 8, it games doesn’t lower the odds of the fourth #1 seed making it.

So if millions of objective bracket simulations indicate that four #1 seeds in the Final Four is mathematically the optimal strategy to win your pool, there’s no reason to hold back or doubt that conclusion just because those four teams all happen to have the same seed value, and because it happens to be No. 1.

As we all know, history tends to repeat itself, and a very similar situation occurred in 2008. Some of the longtime customers reading this writeup likely remember it well.

That year, the four No. 1 seeds all looked very strong, and as a result our official bracket (we only released one or a couple brackets way back then, assuming the 1-2-4-8-16-32 scoring system) had all four #1’s in the Final Four.

We took a lot of grief for it. It never happens, they said.

Well, guess what, it happened. All four No. 1 seeds made the Final Four, and in addition to that perfection we got both finalist picks right and the champion pick as well (thanks to some Kansas luck). To this day, it remains our best bracket pick performance ever, and customers who followed our advice absolutely dominated their pools.

Can it happen again this year? Who knows. And probably not. Just don’t say it can’t happen.

Where Are All The Upsets??!! These Brackets Are Boring

Another common question is: Why don’t you pick more first round upsets?

Well, one big reason is point #3 in the above section (“A lot of people make bracket picks that are too risky for their pool.”).

Designing an optimal bracket strategy is all about balancing risk and reward. If you’re already making an unpopular or more risky champion pick and/or one or two Final Four picks in that same vein, taking on a bunch of additional risk in the early rounds picks may only end up lowering your odds to win the pool.

In a situation like that, if your “big bet” picks come through, you’ll likely be in the driver’s seat for a top-tier finish in the pool standings. So your main goal in the early rounds should be to avoid giving away that (hypothetical) future lead by making, and potentially missing, a bunch of relatively risky upset picks.

However, we know that some of you want to make a few more first round upset picks because, OK we admit it, they’re fun, even if they may technically be dumb because they will indeed slightly lower your odds of winning your pool. Still, you could win a year’s worth of bragging rights for picking that crazy 13-over-4 upset.

With that in mind, here are some first round double-digit seed upset picks that present decent value. By “value” we mean that their win odds are higher than their popularity, so the rewards of picking them (if you only consider the first round) are more than commensurate to the risks involved. Ordered by seed level:

  • #10 Wichita State over #7 Dayton (70% win odds, picked by only 65%)
  • #10 Oklahoma State over #7 Michigan (39% win odds, picked by only 26%)
  • #11 Rhode Island over #6 Creighton (51% win odds, picked by only 38%)
  • #11 Kansas State over #6 Cincinnati (37% win odds, picked by only 20%)
  • #12 Middle Tennessee over #5 Minnesota (52% win odds, picked by only 41%)
  • #13 Vermont over #4 Purdue (20% win odds, picked by only 15%)
  • #14 New Mexico State over #3 Baylor (13% win odds, picked by only 1%)
  • #15 Northern Kentucky over #2 Kentucky (4% win odds, picked by only 2%)

Not to be fuddy duddies here, but we reiterate that we are not encouraging you to pick more upsets. If you want to truly maximize your chance of winning your pool, we suggest sticking to the brackets the product recommends.

Dipping into the 30% win odds range or lower by picking some of the teams in the above list is taking a pretty big roll of the dice for what in most cases is a minimal reward.

Closing Remarks

Every year, the dynamics of the NCAA tournament bracket are different, and those differences influence your optimal picking strategy. For example, in any given tournament:

  • The most popular NCAA champion pick might range from severely overvalued to moderately undervalued. (2017: North Carolina, the most popular champion pick, is slightly undervalued.)
  • The most likely team to win the tournament might have far higher champion odds than any other team, or there could be no clear favorite. (2017: No team is head-and-shoulders above the rest, with North Carolina holding a small edge over Villanova and Gonzaga according to our projections.)
  • The most popular Final Four picks might be all #1 seeds, or include some lower seeds. (2017: #2 Arizona is one of the most popular Final Four picks)
  • The NCAA Selection Committee might do a great job seeding teams, or there can be clear “misses” where a double-digit seed is actually the favorite to win its first round game in the betting markets. (2017: #10 Wichita State is about 70/30 to beat #7 Dayton in the first round, and both #11 Rhode Island and #12 Middle Tennessee are very slight favorites in their first round games.)
  • The four regions might be evenly balanced in terms of overall team quality (or top team quality), or there can can be one Region Of Death. (2017: Two of the top four teams in our adjusted power ratings, Villanova and Duke, are both in the East region, plus that region has a No. 6 seed, SMU, that’s good enough to be a No. 3 seed.)

When dynamics like these change from tourney to tourney, no simple set of bracket picking rules can return you the optimal bracket for all the possible scenarios — especially once you take into account different pool sizes and scoring systems.

That’s why we designed our bracket pool simulation engine. We let millions of simulations (using carefully constructed inputs) do the heavy lifting, and figure out the smartest risks you should take given the reward structure of your pool’s scoring system, and the number of other people you need to beat.

Then we interpret the results, turn them into our custom brackets, and summarize them in this writeup.

We hope our analysis of the 2017 bracket, and related bracket strategy examinations, have been helpful and informative. At the end of the day, you are paying us to help you implement the smartest possible process for making bracket picking decisions. Our goal is for you to feel like you’ve gotten your money’s worth from the data, tools and insights we provide.

It’s still going to take luck to win this year, but the smarter your strategy, the less luck you need. Trust the process!

If you have any questions for us, feel free to ask away in the Q&A Forum. Enjoy the Madness in 2017.