How To Win Your NCAA Office Pool

There's a Method to March Madness, Say Experts

Mar 13, 2019

SMITH BRAIN TRUST  The NCAA men’s basketball tournament will officially get under way next week. The field of 68 teams vying for the championship will be revealed on Selection Sunday, March 17, so get ready for the office pools.

Though many workplaces around the country will see a dip in productivity, the upside to March Madness is the camaraderie it builds among employees. There’s a teamwide morale boost when people get excited about the games and participate in an office pool to pick the outcome of the tournament.

So why not really get into this year and try to impress your co-workers with your bracket picks? Don’t just participate; play to win. Sean Barnes, assistant professor of operations management at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, has this advice to help you make your best effort to claim bragging rights:

Take note of the size of your pool. Is this a small pool containing only a few participants, or a large pool? The larger the pool, the more you may need to differentiate your bracket by making some potentially unique selections. This differentiation could be achieved by picking some upsets early on, or by picking a dark horse to take down a higher ranked team later in the tournament.

Do your homework. Do at least a little bit of research, whether it’s reading a prediction article from a source such as FiveThirtyEight, or watching some games in the conference tournaments. This minimal effort may be enough to differentiate your preparation beyond what most of your competitors are willing to do. You’d be surprised how much of a better bracket you can build if you have a few good tips on teams expected to go deep in the tournament or pull off an early upset, or if you’ve actually seen the teams play.

Consider the stats. It’s worth digging into the historical data to gain an understanding of how to build your bracket. There are articles that contain statistics about the proportion of games in which each seed (1-16) advanced past each respective round in the tournament. These summaries provide a good frame of reference for how you should structure your bracket. For example, until last year – when the University of Maryland Baltimore County defeated the University of Virginia – No. 1 seeds were undefeated against No. 16 seeds in the first round, so it’s a good move to pick the No. 1 seeds to advanced to the 2nd round. No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4 seeds are also highly likely to advance past the first round (at least 80% chance or higher), so it’s also not your best bet to go beyond one well-researched upset of a No. 3 or No. 4 seed (if at all). On the contrary, No. 10, No. 11, and No. 12 seeds have won 35-40 percent of their first-round games, which are prime candidates for an upset selection. On the tail end of the tournament, stick with the higher seeds. The top four seeds all have at least double-digit Final Four appearances, and the top three seeds have participated in at least 10 championship games.

Find your Cinderella story. Consider the characteristics of a Cinderella team when choosing those lower-seed teams to advance. Choose a team in the top 50 in point-scoring, ideally one with one or more top offensive players and consistently good three-point shooters. Look for a team with a positive turnover advantage, meaning they often gain more possessions per game than their opponents. And look for teams with consistent tournament appearances in recent years, because the players who have been to the Big Dance before are less likely to make mistakes in key moments.

Hedge your risky picks. For example, if you take a chance on an early round upset, try not to push that team too deep in the tournament. That way, if you make the wrong pick, that mistake won’t propagate for several rounds. Set up those Cinderella teams to lose to a top seed (1-4) at some point down the road. If you get it right, you’ll cash in on the benefits regardless of whether you picked exactly how long that team would last.

Watch the games! Whether you’ve wagered money on your pool or not, having something at stake makes the games more exciting to watch because you have a preferred outcome for many of the games (until your picks get eliminated). The best part about the NCAA tournament is the variability in the outcomes due to the single-game elimination format, which is also why Warren Buffett has been willing to bet $1M a year for life that you won’t get it right.

Barnes says he usually fills out a bracket himself, but he doesn’t always have time to do the research it takes to win. If you can’t put in the time to do all the research, he says watching the teams play leading up to the NCAA tournament offers some of the most valuable information. “When you can see teams in action you get a better sense of where their strengths are and who might be underrated,” he says.

If you opt in to your office pool, any effort you make to research your picks is better than nothing. “If you’re just blindly picking, you don’t have a much of a chance,” he says.




About the Expert(s)

Sean L. Barnes is an Assistant Professor of Operations Management in the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, College Park. Prior to joining the Smith School, he was completing his doctoral degree in the Applied Mathematics and Scientific Computation (AMSC) program in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Maryland, College Park. His current research interests are modeling the transmission of infectious diseases, healthcare analytics, agent-based modeling, discrete-event simulation, and network analysis.

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