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Re-post: Before Entering an NCAA Bracket Pool, Make Sure to Check the Scoring System

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Back by popular demand is my article from last year about the importance of checking the scoring system in your bracket pool. As always, good luck!

NCAA Tournament March Madness pools are as common these days as reality television shows. Seemingly everyone is entered into one and follow their brackets like gospel. However, most people neglect to take into the account the importance of the proper scoring system.

Yahoo, ESPN, and other sites cop out to appease the masses and use the “doubling points system.” In this system, people that really don’t watch or care about basketball are rewarded because having the correct champion is worth as much as the entire first round combined.  You read that correctly, 1 game = 32 games.

I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument on why this is a good system. In fact, I contacted Yahoo and ESPN asking them why they use that particular system. The response that I received was that: “it’s easy to understand” and “allows people that don’t follow basketball to be more competitive.” The second response more or less baffled me. It’s a skill competition, why dumb it down so a 4 year old who knows nothing about basketball can simply pick two one seeds, put them in the finals and rack up the points. Yes, I know the finals don’t always pit one-seeds against each other, but it’s the most common situation and outcome.

The scoring system that I have used in my pool is a modified progressive system that rewards correct picks by round in the following fashion: 1 point for a correct first round prediction, 2 for a second, 4 for a third, 6 for a fourth, 8th for a fifth, and 10 for having the champion. While the system that I use isn’t necessarily mathematically perfect, it’s close, correctly rewards the prognosticator who correctly predicts the champion, and negates the following scenario that is possible under a 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 system from occurring:

Player A who has:

29/32 correct in rd. 1

15/16 correct in rd. 2

4/8 correct in rd. 3

2/4 correct in rd. 4

1/2 correct in rd. 5

0/1 correct in rd. 6

for 107 points,

would lose to Player B who has:

10/32 correct in rd. 1

7/16 correct in rd. 2

5/8 correct in rd. 3

2/4 correct in rd. 4

1/2 correct in rd. 5

1/1 correct in rd. 6

for 108 points.

Player A would have 51 wins out of 63 and lose to player B who has 26 wins out of 63 with 63 of their 108 points coming from 1 team. If you can only get 40% of your games right you shouldn’t beat out someone who got 81% right. Essentially, in a normal year, player B just put 4 #1 seeds in the elite 8, 2 in the finals, and guessed the correct one to win and beat someone who hit more than 4/5ths of their picks and had the team that lost in the finals.

I’ve encountered the argument that bracket pools are just about picking the winner of the tournament.  If that were the case, it wouldn’t be a bracket pool; it would be a question… which team is going to win? People that watch and study the teams shouldn’t be punished for their knowledge and analysis.

Another argument that I’ve read is that hitting 80% of the games is nearly impossible. This is a fallacious argument, but also good argument for NOT using the doubling points system, since if a player  is accomplishing something that is “nearly impossible,” they should certainly beat a player that has more losses than the Clippers.

To take it a step further, and using history as a guide, here is a breakdown of just picking the better seed (using an average of 6.2 lower seed 1st round upsets as a guide).  Obviously year to year it is a fluid machine, and this accounts for rounding.

26/32 higher seeds win round 1

12/16 higher seeds win round 2

5/8 higher seeds win round 3

2/4 higher seeds win round 4

1/2 higher seeds win round 5

1/1 higher seeds win round 6

47/63 (75%)

There are better studies based on more advanced logarithmic permutations and calculus, but those really aren’t necessary to belabor a point that is painfully obvious to see.

In my opinion the only way where a grossly over-weighted system should be used is if they are using seed multipliers. Seed multipliers provide a fun twist on bracket pools, but in reality shifts the matchup breakdown away from true technical accuracy and turns it into a best available bad decision analysis.

To drive home the point in another way, using the 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 system simply having the winner and runner-up of the tournament correct, and every other game either blank or incorrect would give player B a win over player A that has a pretty good tournament sheet, nails nearly 2/3rds of their games, and has the runner-up in the finals, see below

Player A

21/32 – 21 points

12/16 – 24 points

4/8 – 16 points

2/4 – 16 points

1/2 – 16 points

0/1 – 0

43/63 (63.5%) = 93 points

Player B

2/32 – 2 points

2/16 – 4 points

2/8 – 8 points

2/4 – 16 points

2/2 – 32 points

1/2 – 32 points

11/63 (17.5%) = 94 points

Regardless of anyone’s take on the situation, it should be easily agreed upon that someone with 40/63 correct and the runner up is more deserving of a win than someone that left their sheet blank aside from the winner and runner up and had 11/63 correct.

Whether you are a seasoned veteran of bracket pools or a first-timer, make sure you check the points system and plan your picks accordingly.

Best of luck with your brackets!

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