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Using Big Data to Win Your March Madness Pool

Big data is used to forecast and interpret situations of many types. Could it even help you win your March Madness pool?
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The rising interest in big data — mining reams of data to help predict outcomes — is affecting many areas of modern life. Could this data-driven approach even help you win your March Madness pool?

Consider my story. One glorious year back in 2001, my March Madness office bracket was a pristine sheet of victory. Leading up to the National Championship game, one side of my bracket was perfect. Yep, perfect. I had correctly picked every single game in the South and Midwest regions. Not one single wrong choice, every upset making me look like a psychic. The other side had a few blemishes, but not many.

Unfortunately, the person chasing me in the standings, despite being far behind in the number of correct picks, still had a chance to win. That individual picked Duke to win it all. I had Arizona. The way this pool was weighted, as so many are, if you pick the National Championship winner correctly, only other people who also picked that winner have a chance of beating you.

Thus, the National Championship matchup of Duke vs. Arizona made this a winner-take contest between me and my office nemesis. I lost and promptly joined the ranks of rabid Duke haters

That loss stung more than others because it was the first year that I really considered data when filling out my bracket. It was the first year that I considered things like the relatively high probability of a five seed losing to a twelve seed. It's probably a good thing I lost that year. Otherwise, I'd probably be frittering away a month of productivity each March, chasing bracket perfection.

People get crazy when it comes time to fill out the brackets. "In the past, at my old investment fund, I used to organize a huge binder for our CEO every year that analyzed each conference, the teams in that conference, and how they performed during their conference tournaments preceding March Madness," said Andrew Schrage, co-founder of Money Crashers, a personal finance website. "It took one or two days of work, but those binders gave the CEO a substantial leg up heading into March Madness."

These days, Schrage believes his old strategy would be ineffective. As the big data experts tell us, we are drowning in an ocean of data. There is so much data available now, and you can access numerous sites that let you run simulations, calculate probabilities and analyze all sorts of data points. Today, you'd be foolish if you were to try to do it all yourself.

However, most people want to actively pick their own brackets. What fun is winning if it was really the Madness-bot 3000 that made all the picks? Most of us want to feel like we made prescient choices. Here, then, are five data-driven ways you can improve your chances in the office pool:

1. Consider The Size of Your Pool

Anyone who's spent even a little bit of time studying probabilities knows that you're much better off playing other players than the house. Games that favor the house mean that over time you will always lose.

However, if you're going to play players, you have to factor their probable behaviors actively into your strategy. Few do this when it comes time to fill out brackets.

"More than anything else, the number of brackets you’re competing against in your 2013 NCAA bracket contest should dictate your strategy for making picks," said Tom Federico, CEO of TeamRankings.com.

Small pools (the 2001 pool I was in had only had about 20 people in it) favor the powerhouses. "[In a small pool], it’s stupid to make a bunch of big upset picks. Favorites usually win. The cardinal sin of competing in small bracket pools is shooting yourself in the foot by getting too risky, and losing out to someone who picked a bunch of likely winners and got most of them right," Federico said.

Conversely, in big pools with a thousand or more participants, the favorites will all be overrepresented. Thus, picking the favorite makes your chances of winning a long shot. "If you picked Kentucky in a 1,000-person pool last year, for instance, you had almost no chance to win your pool, even though you got your champion pick right," Federico added.

In a big pool, it's likely that roughly forty percent of your opponents will pick Kentucky (or this year, Louisville or Indiana — although neither is as big of a favorite as Kentucky was last year). "Kentucky was a dumb pick in very large pools, whereas a team like two-seed Ohio State made a lot more sense," he said.

Size matters, but if you really want to Moneyball your way to the top, you'll need to refine your strategy further.


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