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Therapy for March Madness

The NCAA Tournament kicks off on Thursday. For those in the HBS community unfamiliar with it, the Tournament (known as “March Madness”) is a three-week, 64-team extravaganza of basketball played by college kids. The teams are seeded 1 through 16 within four regions of the country. Over six rounds, the field is whittled to one – the national champ. For any team, just making it to the “Final Four” teams left standing is cause for great celebration, with the more unlikely the progress, the more giddy the celebration. Sometimes the favorite wins the title, as Duke did last year; other times, a “Cinderella” emerges – a team that wins unexpectedly. Along the way, small schools are given the chance to dethrone more prominent teams.

Exciting finishes and stirring upsets keep fans glued to their televisions, particularly during the Tournament’s first two days, which happen during work hours and are the cause of many a “three-hour lunch.” The fans’ biggest tradition is to fill out a “bracket” – beginning with the first round and making decisions all the way through your pick for the champion.
To join in this tradition, find your bracket on any sports Web site, like ESPN.com, and if you feel like you want some help, check out the tips below, developed over many years of hapless predictions. Then find a few friends with whom to compare your predictions, and enjoy the thrill of watching to see how accurate you are as the tournament progresses. The following tips are for recreational use only, of course.

Alma matters?
No. Just because you went to Murray State, it doesn’t mean that they are going to get to the Final Four. Don’t be blinded by your old-school loyalties. Extend this theory to the alma maters of your parents, spouses, etc.

Do your homework.
Check out some of the quality reference material on any reputable sports Web site like ESPN.com. Key factors to look for: The quality of a team’s opponents throughout the regular season, a bevy of experienced starters (juniors or seniors…a rarity these days) and a great point guard, like Gonzaga’s Dan Dickau.

Pay little attention to the team’s record.
It seems like an easy way to predict who will beat whom, but – as we see in so many HBS cases – context matters. Who did they defeat to rack up those wins? Who did they lose to? A tough schedule with a couple extra losses can often trump a gaudy record built through a diet of creampuffs.

Don’t ignore history.
Bank on it: A 12 seed will beat a 5 seed. No one knows why it happens; it just always seems to happen. There are always a couple of No. 1 seeds that make it to the Final Four, but you are kidding yourself if you think all four No. 1 seeds will make it there; they never do. However…

Don’t fear “the chalk.”
You aren’t some kind of unimaginative loser if you predict the higher-seeded team will win each game; after all, this is how the NCAA Tournament Committee (which designs the bracket) itself expected things to pan out. Yes, upsets are what make it “March Madness,” but if you pick too many No. 1 or No. 2 seeds to fall early on, you’re the one who’s crazy.

Work backward.
If you have a strong sense of who is going to end up in the Final Four, work backward from there. That way, you can build in some harmless early-round upsets to impress your friends, knowing that they won’t materially affect the late-round guesses that really evoke your pride.

Don’t pick by team nickname.
I once predicted a team from Coastal Carolina called the Chanticleers would win their first-round game. They got blitzed by Michigan in the first round, and I lost my interest in compelling nicknames.

Don’t pick out of spite.
In the same vein, don’t pick against a perfectly good team just because you carry over some irrational college baggage. Like, say, if you went to UNC and couldn’t deal with the thought of picking Duke…you kind of have to get over it, don’t you?

Go where they ain’t.
It doesn’t take a genius to pick Duke to win it all. Kansas and Maryland are the next most likely to be champ. After that, it’s anyone’s guess. Eighty percent of the people you know will take one of these three teams. The contrarian viewpoint is high-risk, high-reward: If your unlikely champ tanks in the second round, you look and feel like a shmoe, and you lose significant rooting interest. On the other hand, won’t you feel smart when you’re the only one left standing?

March 11, 2002
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