Last year I used the title of a well-known David Foster Wallace essay to describe my feelings towards filling out a bracket. I'm here to report that my feelings towards filling out a bracket haven't changed much. It's still something I feel like I should like more than I actually do.
The problem, I think, is that it's not a puzzle that can be solved. If you know a lot about basketball or a little, spend a ton of time on the process or none, the challenge of predicting 63 independent events – 31 of which don't have participants yet – is the same and that challenge is huge. I suppose that's democratizing, but when I look at a blank bracket I feel as if whatever basketball knowledge I've accumulated doesn't matter, which is accurate.
So in recent years I've just shifted that personal burden to the public. Because ESPN gives us access to its People's Bracket and Who Picked Whom data I now use that information to determine which teams too many people like to advance compared to win probability.
It's basically a hunt for value, which gives me the soothing feeling of strategy. Say I like Gonzaga to get to the Sweet 16. The public is picking the Zags at a higher clip than their win probability, so maybe I shift that pick to Ohio State. Any time I get one of those value-based picks wrong, I can rest easy knowing it was a justifiable play.
I'm sure you don't care about any of that, but I felt it was important to at least explain what's coming next. Using BPI and 538 for the win probabilities, these are the teams offering some value in this year's tournament:
CINCINNATI: If you're looking for a potential tournament winner that will impress people, BPI and 538 both give the Bearcats significantly better odds than the public is giving them. Cincinnati, as a 2-seed, doesn't offer much in the first two rounds, but starts to offer some value in the Sweet 16 and a lot of value beyond that. BPI gives the Bearcats a 10-percent chance of winning it all, 538 a 6-percent chance, but less than 2 percent of the brackets at ESPN have Cincinnati as the winner.
PURDUE: The Boilermakers could have a tough out in the second round if Butler gets there and might have to beat Villanova to get to the Final Four. If you think Purdue can get there and do the latter, you'll probably be gaining ground on most people in your pool. Per BPI the Boilermakers have the third-best chance to win the whole thing. The public has Purdue 10th.
HOUSTON: This is more of a tweener than a team to take to get to the Final Four, but the Cougars offer great value through the first four rounds. A potential matchup with Michigan looms in the second round, but the Wolverines, thanks to their momentum-building run to the Big Ten Tournament title, are one of the most overvalued teams in the tournament. If you like Michigan that's fine, just know everyone else does, too. If that then becomes a team you'd like to beat, pick Houston to do it in the second round. The Cougars' win probability is about 20 percentage points higher than the percentage of picks.
DAVIDSON: Here be the bid-stealers. BPI gives the Wildcats a 40-percent chance to beat Kentucky in round one. 538 isn't quite as bullish (24 percent), but what's really happening here is the Big Blue Nation effect. People know Kentucky and 83 percent of them were picking these Wildcats to win. The winner here probably takes on another set of Wildcats, Arizona, and it is way overvalued, too. So, if you want to be really bold, pick Davidson to win twice but probably abandon that ship after that.
FLORIDA STATE: 538 says Florida State has a 71-percent chance to beat Missouri against a picks percentage of 44.3 percent. Based on that, if you pick Missouri in the first round you must be a Tigers fan. There is every reason to take the Seminoles here, and if you want to roll with the garnet and gold again, they do probably draw the weakest 1-seed in the second round.
VIRGINIA TECH: Call it the Collin Sexton Effect. Too many people (51.3 percent) are picking Alabama when the Hokies have a 60-percent chance to win. Asking Virginia Tech to do more than that in the next round against Villanova, however, is probably pushing things.
LOYOLA-CHICAGO: I didn't know Miami's voting block was this strong. Just 28 percent of folks are picking the Ramblers when the game is likely closer to a tossup. Ramble on.
While you can probably reverse engineer a lot of it from what's already here, tomorrow we'll look at the teams offering little value in this year's tournament.
May your bracket picking be existential-crisis-free.
The Grab Bag
- ICYMI: Greg Smith looks at the first 100 days of the Frost era from a recruiting perspective, the Husker women drew a 10-seed in the tournament and Jacob Padilla looks at how some future Huskers did in the state basketball tournament.
- Since we're talking probabilities, 538 gives the Huskers a 24-percent chance to beat Arizona State in the first round.
- Here's a more serious look at the 68-team football bracket.
- Transfer Ticker: Former Nebraska and Virginia Tech quarterback AJ Bush is headed to Illinois, while ex-Michigan State running back Madre London is headed to Tennessee.
Today's Song of Today
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.