Entering the 2015 NCAA tournament, more than half of the public was picking Kentucky to win the title -- and with good reason. The Wildcats were 34-0 and in the midst of one of the most dominant defensive seasons in college basketball history.
When filling out your bracket, you were likely faced with a challenging decision. Take Kentucky, the undisputed best team in the country, or pick another team (such as Duke), with the assumption that if that team wins the tournament you are almost guaranteed to rank highly in your pool.
An underrated part of winning your pool is finding the hidden value picks; merely copying the “national bracket” is rarely going to do the trick. That often means using an element of game theory to find good teams that might be underrated by the public.
By comparing the public’s pick percentages in ESPN’s Tournament Challenge with ESPN’s BPI tournament projections, we can find the greatest value picks in the tournament. In a season defined by parity, that could mean looking beyond the public’s tournament favorites and at a strong team -- such as Virginia -- with a solid chance to win the title.
Why pick Virginia?
Virginia enters the 2016 NCAA tournament with the second-best chance to make the Final Four (34 percent) and win the title (13 percent), according to BPI’s projections.
But in the latest Tournament Challenge brackets ,the Cavaliers are only the fifth most likely to make it to Houston (23 percent) and sixth most likely (4 percent) to cut down the nets.
The public’s hesitancy in picking Virginia likely comes down to its potential Elite Eight matchup with Michigan State. The Spartans have knocked off Virginia in each of the past two tournaments, including last year in the second round as a No. 7 seed.
If Virginia makes the Elite Eight, however, BPI projects there is only a 58 percent chance it will face Michigan State (public expects 81 percent). Further, if the Spartans and Cavaliers were to face off, BPI expects another close matchup with the game projected as a virtual tossup.
With Michigan State advancing to the Final Four in 61 percent of public brackets, it appears that the public is overvaluing the Spartans' chances of meeting and beating Virginia in this tournament. If that’s the case, why not take a flier on an experienced and efficient team with the potential to win it all?
Why to avoid heavy favorites?
In a year that has seen a record number of AP top-5 teams lose, the spread between the top and middle of the tournament field is likely to yield a more wide-open tournament.
According to BPI, no team has better than a 43 percent chance to make the Final Four or a 17 percent chance to win the tournament. It is likely one or even two of the three public favorites will make the Final Four, but there is certainly value in finding an “outsider” that you feel strongly about in this year’s field.
Early upset picks
We’ve all heard the advice that you have to pick at least one 5-vs.-12 upset and ride a double-digit seed to the Sweet 16. But if everyone is picking the same upset, there is not too much value in that.
Who are the best double-digit value picks? In the first round, there is value in picking Gonzaga, Yale or the winner of the First Four game between Vanderbilt and Wichita State. The Gonzaga Bulldogs, in particular, have a 71 percent chance to beat Seton Hall according to BPI, but are being picked in less than the half of the public’s brackets.
In terms of a sleeper to make it to the Sweet 16, pay close attention to that Commodores-Shockers game Tuesday. Both teams rank in the top 30 in BPI and would have at least a 41 percent chance to beat Arizona (first-round opponent) and Miami (potential second-round opponent). They have a combined 24 percent chance of making the Sweet 16, according to BPI, which is nearly four times the chance the public is giving them. In all five years of the existence of the First Four, one team from the first two days has won at least one more game in the tournament.
There is no perfect formula when it comes to picking your bracket, but, by choosing the strong, undervalued teams in the tournament, you will give yourself the best chance to win your pool.