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There are many different strategies for winning an NCAA Tournament bracket pool.  But, no one strategy covers everyone in every situation.

The strategy you’ll see leading up to the tourney is on situational and historical statistics.  This can help you whether you are betting on NCAA basketball with pools, futures, or individual games.

Strategy to Help You Win NCAA Tournament Bracket Pools & Contests

For example, you should generally take teams that are favored by the Las Vegas spreads.  This gives us a basic idea of how probable it is that one team will advance over the other.  You’ll also see a lot of historical anecdotes about the history of the tourney, like how at least one No. 12 seed usually upsets a No. 5 seed.

Those tips are all well and good.  But, what I’m more interested in is a strategy that maximizes my chances of winning the particular bracket contests I’m in.  Not one that gives me the same information that everyone has access to year after year.

Number of Participants

The first variable you’ll need to account for is the size of your pool.  More than anything else, this should determine your strategy for making your bracket picks.  If there are between 2-30 participants in the contest you entered your best bet is to pick the favorites. That means taking the overall tournament favorite for your champion.  For each game, you should take the projected favorites.

This strategy maximizes your points.  Because the number of participants is so small, it’s unlikely anyone else follows this method to the letter.  In theory, it should give you the best chance of winning.  I offer my bracket predictions based on these small-to-medium-size contests.

If you’re like me, you are interested in how to win pools with 30 or more participants.  There is no guaranteed method to do this, but you can improve your chances of winning a large NCAA pool.  And, with over 50 million Americans entering brackets, there are plenty of large pools.

In most cases, the key is picking the correct champion.  The betting odds will show you who is the favorite, but those lines don’t reflect the true chances of maximizing a return on your bracket.

Using Game Theory to Maximize Your Return

Let’s assume that you will need to select the winner of the NCAA Championship in order to win your pool.  Your odds of winning that contest are 1/n, with n being the approximate number of people who selected that same team. Now multiply that result by the line (converted to a percentage) on that team winning the championship.  This gives you the true odds of winning the pool based on picking that particular team.

Our final formula is then (1/n)*x.  The n is the estimated number of people who chose a team.  The x is the percentage odds of that team winning the tournament.

Putting it to Use

As an example, let’s say Kansas is the favorite at 5-to-1 odds.  Let’s also say you are in a pool of 50,000 people and 65% of the people select Kansas as their champion.  This is always a rough estimate unless you actually know the percentages.  A a rule of thumb, you can assume that the four No. 1 seeds are going to account for 90% of the picks for winning the championship – with the overall number one seed getting the majority of attention.  The majority of people also follow recommendations on sites like ESPN and CBS Sports, so you may be able to narrow down your estimate with that.

Using our formula, we get:

(1/32,500) x 15%

At 5-to-1, Kansas’s probability of winning the tournament comes in at around 15%.  This gives us true odds in this pool of about 0.00046% on the Jayhawks. If everyone picks them and they win, any prize would have to be split among over 32,000 people who chose them.  Again, assuming that picking the overall winner equals winning the money.

Now let’s say you take Oklahoma in that same contest of 50,000, where only 1%, or 500 people, take the Sooners.

Oklahoma’s formula is then:

(1/500) x 3%

This puts their true probability for us in this particular pool at 0.006%.  This obviously doesn’t look great on paper.  But, taking Oklahoma would actually give you more than 13 times better chance of winning compared to taking KU.


What this means is that in large pools you are better off picking a champion that you think few, if any, other participants will take.  This maximizes your chance of being one of the few winners of the pool, which maximizes your return versus making the popular pick and splitting the prize with a large percentage of the pool.  This doesn’t mean you should take teams with absolutely no chance of winning.  You should take the “best” team that you believe will not be a popular choice.

To best put this theory to work, you also need to be aware of the following:

  • First, be on the lookout for local teams with decent championship odds.  Your pool will have more people than average taking that team to win it all – so AVOID them.
  • No. 1 seeds are going to be popular no matter what.  Don’t be afraid to take a worse seed. Or, at the very least, the No. 1 seed that is perceived as the weakest.
  • Use the Vegas odds and projected spreads on individual games to choose the rounds outside of your contrarian champion.  Of course upsets will happen.  But, your primary focus is picking the winner and on winning as many total games as possible.  Your goal is not to try to pick the few upsets that are bound to happen.  Those aren’t the games that are going win your pool, and it is typically an exercise in futility.

Something else I’m in is a fantasy league that involves picking individual players and scoring based on total points.  I put together a draft list each year that ranks the order I would select my team.

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