TheSportsMuse is a contributor to Midwest Sports Fans. Follow him on twitter @TheSportsMuse.
Participating in bracket pools in March Madness is as old as, well, the event itself. And let’s be brutally honest; one of the reasons that the NCAA Tournament enjoys such immense popularity is the fact that, whether your stakes are $1 or a considerably higher sum, most people in America love the madness at least in part because their wallet has a vested interest in the results.
Much like with the NFL season, I find that the most enjoyable pool associated with the NCAA Tournament is a survivor pool, or as the guy who runs mine calls it, the Win or Die. The rules are pretty simple: pay an entry fee, pick one single winner each day of the tournament without regard to those annoying point spreads, pick any team no more than once during the whole tournament, win and advance to the next day, last one standing wins, winner take all.
Sounds easier than one of Charlie Sheen’s goddesses, right?
Well as those who have done it can attest, it’s brutal. It is total strategy from Day 1, but you have to be able to adjust on the fly to account for the things you can never account for at the beginning of the tourney (like a #12 meeting a #13 for the right to advance to the second weekend, etc.). And my pool has a tiebreaker that consists of the sum of all the seed numbers you picked correctly throughout the pool, so all correct picks, sadly, are not created equally.
I have studied, I have participated, I have lost on Day 1, and I have had heartbreaking defeats at the Final 4. And now, I am ready to help you prepare your strategy to win your survivor pool. And if nothing else, I am at least giving you somebody else to blame it on, in addition to the players, the coaches, the announcers, and the ugly lady rooting against your team in Row 1, who they keep showing on TV (yes, I am talking to you, Pacific fan, who had the audacity to root against St. Joe’s in 1997).
Here are the five golden rules to have a chance to win your survivor pool.
March Madness Survivor Pool Rule #1
Map out your picks and your strategy for the whole tournament before it starts on Thursday.
While you will have to be fluid enough to shift gears in the fly, you have to at least go through the bracket and pick the teams you think will win one game, get to the Sweet 16, Final 4, etc. You cannot make your picks in a vacuum. You must make individual picks but within the context of your overall strategy.
Always pick a team you think will win that game but then lose their very next game.
For example, it makes no sense to pick a team like BYU in the second round if you believe that they will make it to the Final 4. In addition to picking teams that win so you stay alive, it is just as important to continue to have teams to pick as the rounds progress and there are fewer games from which to choose. If you pick teams on the early days that continue to win, your choices in the later rounds become limited and, sometimes, nonexistent.
March Madness Survivor Pool Rule #3
You have to take risk.
Unless your survivor pool is small (less than 50 or at most 100 entries), you cannot play it safe with the higher seeds early and expect to win your pool. You cannot expect to run the table and be the only one to do so. If the 15 years that I have participated in the Win or Die, I believe someone has won all 10 possible days (4 days the first weekend, 4 days the second weekend, Final 4 and Championship Game) only one time. In fact, because of the way the tournament is scheduled, it is only 50% that it is even possible to run the table. (See the bottom of this article for the scenarios of how to pick and what has to happen to be possible to win all 10 days). So make your picks assuming you will have to win a tiebreaker, and remember that it is better to go down swinging on Day 1 than to play it safe and have no chance to win in a tiebreaker.
March Madness Survivor Pool Rule #4
Sign up for multiple entries.
Because of rule #3 above, there is a chance you will lose on the first day if you take a team seeded somewhere in the 7-14 range. And trust me, it is depressing to get all hyped up only to lose on the first day. So do yourself a favor, and account for the additional risk to your picks with additional chances. It’s like Powerball, you double your odds if you buy two tickets instead of one, so of course that should be your strategy!
March Madness Survivor Pool Rule #5
Expect to lose.
Look, I am the first one to constantly go through scenarios in which I can win. But so far, it hasn’t happened. And that is not surprising, since in a pool of 1,000 entries, 99.9% of them will be losers. So treat the entry fee as an entertainment expense, optimize your enjoyment of the games that you pick, and take it for what it is, a chance to donate money to some guy that you have in most cases never heard of.
So now that you know the rules, I should probably tell you how to follow them (i.e., what teams to pick) to optimize your chances of winning. And this actually works and you do win, I am accepting tips!
Survivor Pool Tips for the 2011 NCAA Tournament
Opening Weekend, Thursday and Friday Games
The first round games (have you ever seen anything more absurd than the NCAA calling these second round games? Why are they so afraid of the term Play-in games?) on Thursday and Friday are all about risk and amassing tiebreaker points. Under no circumstances would I ever recommend anything higher than a 7th seed, and in reality, you really should pick a double digit seed here.
With that in mind, I have created an expected value of Thursday and Friday picks based on the percentage Ken Pomeroy (www.kenpom.com) assigns to their winning the game multiplied by their seed number. Based on this formula, teams to consider for Thursday and Friday are:
- Utah St: 7.21 (60.1%; 12 seed)
- Gonzaga: 5.83 (53%; 11 seed)
- Marquette: 5.78 (52.5%; 11 seed)
- Michigan St: 5.50 (55%; 10 seed)
- Richmond: 5.32 (44.3%; 12 seed); you know from my 5 v. 12 post, I like this pick!!
- Florida St: 5.08 (50.8%; 10 seed)
- Belmont: 5.07 (39.0%; 13 seed)
- Penn St: 4.90 (49%; 10 seed)
- Illinois: 4.65 (51.7%; 9 seed)
- Old Dominion: 4.60 (51.1%; 9 seed)
- Michigan: 4.55 (56.8%; 8 seed)
Note: as an added bonus for picking Michigan or Old Dominion, despite getting less tiebreaker points than the others, they do play #1 seeds in round 2, making it less likely they will stick around for an extended stay to burn you.
Opening Weekend, Saturday and Sunday Games
Rejoice. You made it through the first two days, and I guarantee you half your pool will be knocked out after this point! After celebratory high fives with yourself and chestbumps with the mirror, take a look for two teams that wore the dark uniforms in round 1 (9 seeds and below) who get to meet face to face in round 2. If you get that opportunity, pick that game. If not, some middle-seeded teams that have a real shot to get to the second weekend if they survive their first game are:
- Texas, Kentucky and Louisville (in that order) are all teams that Pomeroy gives a better than 60% chance of making it to the second weekend (Sorry Charles Barkley, Arizona gets less than a 25% chance)
- If you want to roll the dice and let it fly, the best lower seeds chances to get to the Sweet 16 and give you the most tiebreaker points are Washington (a #7 seed who will give a young UNC team fits, if they win game 1) and Utah St. (a #12 seed). Pomeroy would give Washington a better than 40% chance against UNC, and Utah St a 40% chance against Wisconsin and presumably better against Belmont if they were to upset the Badgers in Round 1.
Sweet 16 Games
At this point, you really need to re-strategize, based on where you stand in the tiebreaker situation versus others that are still alive and what the Sweet 16 matchups look like. If you are ahead on the tiebreaker, take the worst seed that you really think will win, and let the people chasing you take more risk. If you are behind on the tiebreaker at this point, you need to take some shots because you are running out of chances to gain in the tiebreaker.
Purdue, and their #3 seed, may be a strong pick if you hold a good tiebreak position (with San Diego St, Syracuse and Notre Dame next in line). If not, teams to consider if you need to gain ground (if they are still alive and you have not yet picked them) would be teams such as Gonzaga, Washington, and if they do get to this point, UNLV.
Make your picks now that give you the chance to run the table if the results go your way, especially if you are in a strong tiebreaker position. Leave yourself as many possible options versus your competition so that if things break your way, you have a clear path to victory. No matter how deep in the tournament your pool goes, it will be decided on these two days. Make good strategic picks and hold your breath. If you survive, you will probably win the title.
Final Four and National Championship Game
Usually by this point, you won’t have a lot of flexibility left. My best advice here is to do your best to still have Duke available for Monday night so that if your pool comes down to it, you will be the winner!
So there you have it, your blueprint to a fun NCAA tournament with the best possible chance of winning your survivor pool. And if you do win yours, you will definitely be more qualified than I am to write this article next year.
Thank you to Andrew B. Stitzer, the organizer of the Win or Die Pool I have referenced, to provide the following scenarios. If you are interested in entering the Win or Die, please email Andy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
East/West plays Southeast/Southwest in championship game
Regional Finals: East & Southwest play Thurs/Sat while West & Southeast play Fri/Sun
If you want to play to win all 10 days….if you have a team in West winning whole thing:
- Day 7, Saturday pick East
- Day 8, Sunday pick Southeast
- Day 9, Saturday pick Southwest
- Day 10, Monday pick West
in the East…
- Saturday pick Southwest
- Sunday pick West
- Saturday pick Southeast
- Monday pick East
in the Southeast…
- Saturday pick Southwest
- Sunday pick West
- Saturday pick East
- Monday pick Southeast
in the Southwest…
- Saturday pick East
- Sunday pick Southeast
- Saturday pick West
- Monday pick Southwest