MACLEAN: Analyze your gut; drawing back a foolhardy strategy

Duncan MacLean • Mar 14, 2018 at 6:30 AM

It is that time of year again — March Madness. Truly an unparalleled phenomenon in sports from youth through professionals. A single elimination, 68-team tournament for all the marbles, crammed into three heart-stopping weeks.

More often than not, however, the madness is replaced with anger, as your meticulously crafted bracket sinks to the bottom of the office pool, while the one based on mascot strength and color coordination floats away with your cash.

Choreographing the perfect big dance is impossible. Luck often plays a larger role for both the teams on the court and your bracket against your friends’. The nice thing is, you don’t have to compete with the entire country, you just have to win your pool.

Last year, I preached heart over analytics in selecting your picks, coaching throwing caution to the wind and buying into your gut feelings, while ignoring confusing, often misleading stats like RPI, BPI and TPA.

Through opening weekend, I had a fantastic run going. I picked a few solid upsets, got the no-brainers right and was off to a good start. The madness of narrowing down a field of 64 teams to just 16 in a three-day span lends itself to nonsensical decision making and picking the hot hand.

The problem with emotional picking is eventually the tournament slows down, and teams are given the chance to cool off, reset their energy and rehydrate. Here, in the sweet-16, my bracket derailed.

You can’t beat a great team with 40 points, even in the tournament. Virginia fell. Even the hottest shooting teams cool off. Villanova fell. And fandom failed me as Michigan dropped to a jump-shooty, fast-paced Oregon team.

Balance is required. Wade through the madness with some zany picks that give you a chance to separate from the pack. Upsets happen, you just have to guess right. The best part of the opening weekend is picking that 5-12, or 7-10 upset usually doesn’t hurt you that much. If you guess wrong — they run into the two-seed real quick and right that wrong. If you guess right — you are a genius, and suddenly are a few points up on Carol from accounting. Ride your favorite team into the Sweet 16, pick the fun mascot, take the play-in winner into the second round.

After making sure your bracket is individual, get your act together in the Sweet-16. Five or even six days off for teams, along with a venue change, reset everything. After surviving the madness, teams get a chance to return to their tried-and-true game plan, and often greater resemble their regular-season identities.

If Purdue makes it through, Isaac Hass will go back to dominating. Virginia will lock down on defense, and Michigan will start hitting three-pointers. Here, a little analytics and knowledge are necessary.

Don’t get lost in strength of schedule, total points added, or any other advanced metrics. Start with some layups like three-point percentage and free-throw percentage. Later rounds in the tournament often come down to late shooting and foul shots.

Check out average points scored — more is better. Defense, as I learned the hard way last year, is easily fatigued in non-stop tournament action. If you really like a stop-heavy team, make sure they can run with a hot shooter if the press breaks down.

Finally, star-power is big in March (and April), from Steph Curry leading Davidson vs. Goliath to Cardiac Kemba and his buzzer-beaters, limited time to game plan makes it easy for killers to take over a game.

Long story short — balance. Winning the office pool takes some work, but don’t take it too seriously. No one gets it right, you just have to be the least wrong.

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