First Four Analysis: What About My Bracket?

Posted by rtmsf on July 14th, 2010

If you’re at all like us here at RTC, filling out your bracket is a anxiety-ridden experience that involves countless hours of research, googling, calculating, checking, flip-flopping, ripping, ruminating, stressing, and ultimately conceding.  From the moment the brackets are released at 6 pm ET on Sunday night until well after midnight on Wednesday/Thursday morning, we’re usually no better off in terms of the key toss-up games and later rounds than we were ten seconds after the matchups were announced. 

Does This Resemble You Every Selection Sunday?

You’d think with all the time we put into this sport year-round, we’d have a better initial feel for many of the matchups.  But therein lies the problem.  We have so much information in our heads and at our fingertips that inevitably paralysis by analysis takes hold, and we have to resort to other tried-and-true methods to pick a damn winner.  These methods could include, but are not limited to, playing “home” favorites (Baylor over Duke), picking on league strength (Louisville over Cal), being contrarian (UTEP over Butler), or preferring experienced coaches (Minnesota over Xavier).  Usually, though, late on Wednesday night, mere hours before the early tipoffs of the first round games on Thursday, we go with our gut.  Our gut, of course, meaning we pick up the phone and start calling people.  Because, as we all know, groupthink is always the best sort of think.   

A typical conversation goes something like this:

RTC: You ready to talk about this?
Friend of RTC: (long sigh) Ready as I’m going to be.  Bring it.
RTC: Dude, how are you liking that Florida-BYU game?
Friend of RTC: (even longer sigh) Man, this year is the hardest year we’ve ever had in terms of picking these damn first round games. (said every year
RTC: Right, but what do you see happening there?
Friend of RTC: BYU is going to win… Florida is overrated and Fredette is going to light them up.   That is, unless Donovan figures out that he is the only player that can beat them and actually convinces Boynton and Walker to play some defense.  But the last time I saw the Gators play defense, Joakim Noah was waving pompoms around and screaming like a banshee.  So, BYU.  That’s the clear pick there. 
RTC: (scribbling down Florida into the second round) Yeah, yeah, I think that’s right.

And so it goes.  On and on through every toss-up game until we get to the end and absolutely despise the huge steaming wad of a bracket that we’ve created.  We’re talking absolute, unadulterated loathing here.  How on earth can any self-respecting blogger of the sport have Villanova in the Final Four again — that team has been terrible lately.  Or Kentucky and all its NBA-bound stars losing to the likes of plodding Wisconsin in the Sweets — we must be out of our minds.

This is How We Feel About Our Bracket on Thurs Morning

So maybe the decision that the NCAA made this week to put meaningful games into the Play-In Opening First Round will help people like us, the folks who have trouble making bracket decisions without first seeing every possible word and stat written about the games.  You see, the only way we think that the ubiquitous office and online bracket pools will reasonably continue to work now is if the new deadline is set for Tuesday’s tipoff (presumably at around 7 pm ET).  Of the roughly 90 hours from the unveiling of the bracket to Thursday’s first game start, nearly half of those (42) have been shaved off.  This sea change in available bracket analysis time will require focus and discipline on the part of the uber-analyzers (us) and absolutely no change whatsoever for those who actually win office pools (everyone else).

We’re making a big assumption here, though.  We’re assuming that the standard office pool format will necessarily change to a Tuesday night deadline so as to incorporate those three extra games (two of which may actually impact the later rounds).  It’s worth a quick look to see what the options are as we see them for the pool developers (and keep in mind, we’re not that creative when it comes to this stuff, so offer your suggestions in the comments). 

Option 1 – Office Pools Incorporate First Round Games

We think this is the most likely alternative, which is why we wrote about it above.  Since two of the four first round game winners are reasonable bets to advance to the (now) third round and beyond (as low at-larges), we can’t simply assume a victory by the higher-seeded team in the second round.  After all, #12 seeds historically win roughly a third of their games versus #5 seeds.  This means two things.  First, as noted above, your prep time just got cut in half, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Second, you’re also going to have to spend a few minutes learning about and working through those two #16/#17 games, because for the first time in forever, a Mississippi Valley State-Robert Morris game will actually count against your point total.  Now, about the question of scoring.  There are of course many ways to score these pools, but we have to figure that if the traditional first round (64 teams) counts as one point (or one unit) each, then the new First Four round will have to be a half-point (or half-unit).  It cannot count the same as the Thursday/Friday games, and we don’t expect that any pool will go that route. 

The cost/benefit here is that the entire Tournament matters to office pools once again (all 67 games) and you respect the integrity of the process by making sure that people have an opportunity to choose a low at-large that they think has a chance to go deep.  The downside is that you lose nearly half of your bracket analysis time and you will have to choose two games between teams that nobody knows or cares about.  The shortened time thing will work itself out, as most casual fans have their brackets ready to go by mid-morning Monday anyway; the more knowledgeable folks who populate the bottom of office pools from coast to coast will just have to become more efficient in their selection process.  The one other aspect of this that will have to be dealt with is how to handle the standard 8.5″ by 11″ office pool printout?  This is becoming less and less relevant with online pool management, but people still like to have a hard copy in their hands for cross-offs and highlighting.  We think that the best way to handle this is to simply keep the bracket at the same paper size, but on the appropriate First Four seed lines, a player simply circles the team he’s choosing.  For example:

A Simple But Effective Change Will Suffice

This is a very easy solution with no major logistical changes needed, and pool developers could enable their games to print out brackets that way so overall page print isn’t too small to read. 

Option 2 – Office Pools Offer a Hybrid Solution

Since hybrid is all the rage now at the NCAA (we expect to see Greg Shaheen driving a new Prius around soon), office pools could follow suit and offer a hybrid solution themselves.  We think this is less likely, but it’s still a possibility.  In the event that they are concerned that people will not have enough time to fill out their pool brackets by the Tuesday evening deadline, then they could utilize a standard Thursday morning deadline for the “real” pool, and perhaps offer bonus points to the folks who want to get theirs in early and try for a competitive edge.  A few additional half-points could potentially be the difference between first and third place at the end.  From a game theory strategy, nobody in their right minds would wait until the Thursday games to fill out their bracket (after all, you’re leaving potential points on the table), but people are not rational animals, so it wouldn’t shock us to see someone try something like this. 

Option 3 – Office Pools Continue to Ignore First Round Games

Undoubtedly some rogue pools who refuse to acknowledge that the NCAA Tournament has expanded to 68 teams will employ this method, and if it turns out that people are not getting their pool entries in by the deadline in Option 1 above, this could be where it ultimately settles.  The full 90-hour window would still be in effect, and the First Four games would be ignored.  The problem with this option is obvious, however — a Monday morning picker could select 30 games before finishing his coffee, but for the two games involving the at-large winners, he would have to rely on faith that a #4-#6 seed will do its job and win its second round game.  We know that is a tenuous proposition, so the only way to ensure his best possible picks are entered is to wait until late Wednesday night or Thursday morning to submit his sheet.  This bestows a distinct competitive advantage on those who wait and remember to finish their brackets, but the most likely scenario is that a) people just pick the higher seed on Monday regardless of who might win the First Four games; or b) people forget to finish their brackets in the small window after the Wednesday night games, meaning there’s a high number of no-shows in those pools.  Neither of these propositions sounds very good to us, but at this point, this is still all theoretical — practice may be somewhat different than hypothesis.

Those are the three main options for office pool games beginning in 2011 as we see them, but the marketplace will ultimately settle this issue and we’re certain that after everyone gets used to whatever changes occur, they’ll be just as popular as they have been over the last two decades.   

rtmsf (3737 Posts)


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5 Responses to “First Four Analysis: What About My Bracket?”

  1. JR says:

    I think the first option is most desired. Like you said, teams that play in the opening round could spring an upset. Although you can still have the option to pick them if the deadline is Thursday (and don’t get screwed if they lose) Plus, the only reason you need more than 2 days to fill out a bracket is if there is an injury question. I think the first option is the best and the one I hope ESPN chooses which will in turn likely dictate other office pools.

  2. MDKIFF says:

    I like Option #1, except for two things: (1) the shortened timeframe for picking (covered by your article), and (2) my expectation that the “First Four Round” will still be largely ignored by people for a while – except for big fans of CBB and fans of the teams playing. Therefore, I think that there is a decent chance that Option #3 will emerge as the frontrunner by default. Remember that we’ve already run into this situation on a smaller scale with the PIG – people had to make the brainless choice of the #1 seed vs. one of two teams before they knew who would actually play in the game. I think that people (office pool folks) would prefer to make their picks by Thursday and pick based on the possible teams in each game – most people in pools don’t care too much or pick so much chalk anyway. As for bigger pools with more hard-core players, I think that Option #1 will win out – but not for the standard office pool.

    Another ida is to make sure that the First Four Round (great name, BTW) games are played between teams with the same school colors, so that all of the secretaries out there who inevitably win these damn pools will be able to pick the later games knowing what color the competing teams will be wearing. As long as the FFR teams are both wearing blue and white, they will know that the game b/w Michigan State and FFR Team will be green vs. blue, and can make their choice accordingly.

  3. rtmsf says:

    So if I’m hearing this correctly, you think that most people will wait until either late Wed. night or early Thurs. morning to make their picks if given the opportunity to do so? I’m not sure I agree with that. I have no way to know for certain, but my anecdotal evidence suggests that the casual fan (the ones who don’t follow the sport until March) does his office pool picks on Monday. I don’t think that will change regardless of who is playing in the FFR. So regardless whether the deadline is Tuesday or Thursday, that person is not really impacted.

    The people that this change will impact, however, are 1) serious CBB fans; and 2) non-fans who take office pools seriously. Both of these people are going to want an edge wherever they can get it, and I don’t think that pool administrators will allow them to get that obvious advantage by waiting until Thurs morning to submit their picks (knowing the two at-large teams who have already advanced).

    JR is right when he says that ultimately, ESPN and probably Yahoo’s pools will be the drivers of how this settles. Fun debate, though.

  4. MDKIFF says:

    Fair point – I just think that people are conditioned to fill out the “normal” pool sheet and won’t want to deal with having to pick (or be explained how they have to pick) four early games, and then pick the next game those teams will play in. I agree whole-heartedly with JR’s point that ESPN, Yahoo, CBS will determine all of this in the end – the electronic sheets makes it easy and idiot-proof. The only issue is timing, and that’s up to pool organizers, unless the platforms don’t give them an option.

  5. rtmsf says:

    Which is harder, though?

    Telling them to pick every game by Tuesday night as you would any other bracket; or telling them that they can do an either/or (pick early and risk those points or wait until Thursday morning and run the risk of forgetting to do it)? From my angle, just filling out the extra 4 games is far easier and, as you said, idiot-proof.

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