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Dancing with Cinderella

Points to consider before betting on March Madness

By Kevin Blackwood

For a lot of us guys, the bad news is that most girls will date us only if we’re willing to spend money on them. The good news is that March Madness delivers every man’s dream: A cheap date to the big dance. When the NCAA tournament rolls around, you can fill out a bracket, enjoy dozens of exciting games, and flirt with your own chance to win a $1,000,000—all for free.

The explosive success of March Madness has spawned a virtual cottage industry with office pools and online bracket contests. Most of these cost nothing or charge a very nominal fee. In fact, several Internet sites connected with established names like USA Today, Sports Illustrated, and ESPN dish out a wide assortment of prizes, ranging from flat-screen TV’s to a cool million bucks—and don’t charge you a dime for your shot at winning.

College hoops has changed dramatically over the years. In the first NCAA basketball championship, Oregon’s “Tall Firs” won the title without taking a timeout the entire game. The reason: Their coach told them only to call a timeout if they were tired. In contrast, many feel the game today is over coached and overanalyzed. Consequently, there are few secrets left to uncover that will help crush your competition in the office pool. Nearly everyone is familiar with the RPI, Sagarin’s computer rankings, or how Duke does in road games in Georgia following a full moon (okay, I made that last one up, but you get the picture). Yet there are a few basic principles that can help give you an edge over the pack.

The Deep End of the Pool
Some contests award points for picking underdogs, but most office pools and bracket challenges take the form of a simple game-picking contest, where your goal is to pick the winners of as many games as possible. Because it’s a single-elimination tournament, you usually have to do a pretty good job of predicting early-round winners, or you’ll end up in the bottom of the pool before the tournament has really gotten underway.

The first round match-ups generate the most buzz. For the #16 seed, it must be like a death-row prisoner staring out from his cell at the gallows; every year, the four teams seeded at the bottom of the brackets lose to the #1 seeds. So when you fill out your bracket, don’t even think twice about this pick. And while you’re at it, skip right over those #15 seeds as well; never say never, but four wins in over 80 tries is close enough.

Those mismatches involving the top seeds against the patsies are pretty easy to pick, but other games will be virtual tossups, such as #8 versus #9 or #7 against #10. But the real appeal of March Madness comes from the #11 through #14 seeds. This is where many of the “Cinderella” teams emerge from, and how successfully you pick these underdogs goes a long way towards determining your bracket success.

The Problem
I’m sure your stock broker has told you that the past is no guarantee of future performance. But there is a ton of historical data from previous tournaments that can be helpful in determining your picks this year. For example, #13 seeds have only won 20% of their first round games against the #4 seed, while #12 seeds have fared much better, winning 33% against the #5 seed.

See if you can figure out the best answer to the following questions:
A: Some brackets give additional points for picking underdog winners. Let’s say your office pool awards five points for wins by seeds 1-4, ten points for seeds 5-8, fifteen points for seeds 9-12, and twenty points for seeds 13-16. Based on historical results, which seed would yield the most points in the first round (counting all four games): #4, #5, #12, or #13?

B: Everyone knows that the opening game between the #8 seed and the #9 seed is basically a coin flip. But historically, who has won the majority of these contests?

C: Be careful not to automatically pencil in the #1 seeds as locks to win their early games. Most stumble along the way, and since the 64-team format was introduced in 1985 there has never been a Final Four with all the top seeds surviving. In fact, in 1997 one lower-ranked team with cat-like quickness knocked three #1 seeds out of the tourney on their way to the title. Who was that team?
Bonus Question:

D: Two future NBA greats set Final Four records for points scored in a game and for rebounds in a game. Who were they? Hint: One became quite political, and the other became an NBA announcer.

A: The best pick under this format is the #5 seed, which historically averaged twenty-four points in the first round games. Seeds #4 and #13 each collected 20 points, while #12 only tallied 16 points.

B: Surprisingly, the #9 seed has won 53% of the time.

C: The Arizona Wildcats (who were a #4 seed).

D: Senator Bill Bradley set the Final Four scoring record with 58 points in 1965. The legendary Bill Russell established the rebounding standard with 27 in 1965.

Learn From the Pros
Here are some tips from savvy bookmakers to help you win during March Madness:

Teams with underclassmen often fizzle under the pressure of the Big Dance. Teams with more experience, particularly at the point guard position, tend to go deeper into the tournaments.

Home court advantage is incredibly meaningful in college hoops; teams feed off friendly crowds and wither amid hostile ones. Take a look at how close to home each first round game is. Teams playing in or near their own state will get a big boost, especially if their opponent is traveling across the country.

When in doubt, trust the point spread more than rankings or seeds. That number is usually a better indicator of the true difference in strength between the two teams.

Lessons Learned
Did you ever notice how your office pool never seems to be won by the biggest college hoops fanatics? Your water-cooler pal with the dead-on Dick Vitale impersonation may be dividing up the grand prize in his head at the beginning of the tournament, but after the nets have been cut down, he’s just another loser like the other 63 teams that got sent home early. Somehow, it always seems to be Claudette in Accounting, who doesn’t know the difference between a zone defense and a zone diet, who takes down the pool prize.

One reason this happens is that everyone is exposed to roughly the same TV coverage, media reporting, and pundits’ predictions leading up to the tournament. That means the brackets of people who follow college basketball tend to look very similar.

This is an especially important principle when the contest you enter has thousands and thousands of competitors (like the big online contests). Winning these contests generally requires two things: A lot of luck and a willingness to go against the crowd. The more unique your bracket picks are, the more chance you have to separate yourself in a big field. So don’t hesitate to go out on a limb with a few picks. Heck, this might finally be the year an underdog darling like Gonzaga makes the Final Four.

Kevin Blackwood has written three books, including Play Blackjack Like the Pros and Casino Gambling For Dummies. More information about his books can be found at

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