Why You Shouldn’t Pick Kentucky to Win Your NCAA Bracket

Kentucky is probably going to win the NCAA Basketball Tournament. The odds say they are six times more likely to win than any other team (as I write this, Kentucky is 1/1, Duke and Wisconsin are the next closest teams at 13/2). The eyeball test also probably suggests Kentucky is as close to unbeatable as we’ve seen in a long time. They’ve already won 34 games in a row, another 6 shouldn’t be too much, right?

When you sit down to fill out your bracket this year, it makes sense to just start by picking Kentucky to win everything and then work your way to who will get the furthest before losing (embarrassingly) to them. It’s as close to a sure thing as we’ve had in the NCAA tournament in decades.

You should always fill out the bracket in the way that will get you the most points, right? If there are easy points to get, then by all means, get them, right? If you’re trying to be the first person ever to predict every game in the tournament, then yes. Cutting down the field of games from 63 to 57 by assuming Kentucky wins all six of their games give you significantly better odds. It’s still impossible, but slightly less so. You’re not going to do it, but you might get closer. You’re never going to be able to jump and touch the sun, but you’ll get a lot closer if you just aim for the moon.

40 wins? Maybe. But something crazy always happens.

40 wins? Maybe. But something crazy always happens.

Competing in an NCAA Tournament bracket contest is not an absolute thing, it’s a relative thing. It doesn’t matter how many games you get right if everyone else picks the same games too. Everyone is going to pick Kentucky this year. So many people will pick the Wildcats that, if they win everything, the winner of the bracket will be the person who correctly predicted everything else.

OR Kentucky will lose. Some other team will win everything and the one person who picked that team will automatically win the pool. The way most brackets work, you get one point (or 10 or 100, or whatever the base number is) for correctly predicting each of the 32 first-round games, two for each of the 16 second-round games, four for each of the 8 third-round games and so on. Look at the math. There are six rounds, each worth 32 points. That makes the best possible total 192 points, 63 of them coming from six rounds of correctly predicting the Championship team.

Unless you do some downright Nostrodomean picking, it’s basically impossible to win without correctly predicting the correct champion team (assuming the field to be large/diverse enough that one entry actually does correctly pick the champion). It’s equally difficult to be the only team to predict the winner and still lose.

However, if everyone picks the same winner, and that team does actually win, no one is at an advantage. Instead, the person to accumulate the most points in the first five rounds wins. If another team that was an actual good team that you think has a legit shot at winning it all, say Notre Dame or Gonzaga, were to win and you were the only person to pick them, it doesn’t matter how many other games you lose, you still win everything. It’s a silver bullet.

Picking Kentucky as your champion will definitely guarantee that you finish right around a bunch of other people. You might still beat them by a point or two. You might lose by a point or two. But no matter what happens, you will finish in a pack. Picking any other team basically guarantees you either come in first or last. It won’t be a 50/50 first/last split, it’s probably closer to 10/90. Or worse, you get the idea.

In most pools, first place takes either all the money or something like 90+% of it. Fifth place doesn’t get anything. Last place doesn’t get anything. If you pick Kentucky, and they really do win it all, you could still get fifth and nothing. If you pick West Virginia and they lose and you get last, the dollars and cents are the same. But if the clouds part and the sun shines on the Mountaineers, the dance is all yours.

For the mathematically inclined, think of it this way: In a pool of 50 entries, where all entries pay $10, there is a total of $500 available. If 30 of those entries (including you) select Kentucky as the overall champion, you have about a 3.33% chance of scoring the most points even if you get it right. A 3.33% share of the $500 is only $16.67. Even if you get the winner right, your expected return isn’t enough for a decent meal out.

Logically, any team you think has a better than 3.33% chance to win would be an improvement, assuming you’re the only person to pick that team. If one other person picks that team, then you’ll need a team with a 6.67% shot. You get it.

As the pool gets bigger, that 3.33% bar gets even lower. In a pool of 100 entires where 60 pick Kentucky, now you can pick any unique winner that you think has a 1.67% chance.

Do yourself a favor. Pick Gonzaga to win everything. Think about it.

Do yourself a favor. Pick Gonzaga to win everything. Think about it.

There is one super, world-beating, monster of a team this year. There are at least 10 other teams that are good enough to actually win the tournament at least once if you played it 100 times. My advice is to take a look at all those teams that are good enough, pick one you like to win it all, fill out a bunch of other chalk and start praying.

Do you want to convince yourself you have a shot at perfection? Pick Kentucky. Do you want to actually win money in a pool? Pick Iowa State.

Even if you throw all the math and probability out, do you want a chance to to be part of the 75% of the nation that correctly picks Kentucky or a chance to be the only person anyone knows who correctly picked Northern Iowa? This tournament is all about upset bragging rights, so pick an upset and hold on, there’s a chance you can start bragging.