The last two years I have looked at the concept of finding value in your NCAA bracket. The idea is to not only pick the teams with the best chance of winning, but also the teams being undervalued in your pool. You can find the 2013 version here and the 2014 version here.
The more people in your bracket pool, the more important finding value becomes. With Kentucky’s dominance this season, two potential strategies emerge. You can take Kentucky to win it all and pick high value teams with them in the Final Four. Or you can bet against the Wildcats and simply take a high value team to win it all.
We already have ESPN’s Tournament Challenge data as a baseline for what teams most people in your bracket pool will pick to make the Final Four. Compare those numbers to Ken Pomeroy’s log5 projections (using his adjusted offensive and defensive efficiencies) and we have a reasonable look at the reality versus perception of Final Four odds.
Remember, you don’t have to worry too much about value (the Diff column) in a small pool. Simply picking the teams most likely to advance is the optimal strategy in that case. However, the larger the pool the more important it is to take some calculated risks. Finding the right mix between risks and favorites is the key, but here are some potential ideas below:
Villanova is the undervalued team to come out of the East in ESPN brackets. While it is pretty rare for a one-seed to be the value pick, the public is picking Virginia as the favorite in the region. Perhaps Villanova still has the perception of a team prone to an early upset after last year’s loss to Connecticut in the Round of 32. However, the Wildcats have very good efficiency numbers on both offense and defense. Teams balanced on both sides of the ball have typically had success in March.
With Kentucky as nearly a 70% favorite to reach the Final Four, there’s no particularly strong value pick to come out of the Midwest. Wichita State has the highest differential in the region, but the Shockers have an absolutely brutal road to the Final Four. If the bottom of the region had one clearly dominant team it might make some sense to gamble on a Kentucky loss, but the chances of Kentucky losing and the team that you pick winning are extremely slim.
Utah and Gonzaga emerge as the value picks in the South with the public loving Duke. Efficiency numbers have loved Utah all season (currently ranked 7th in kenpom), but the Utes were given no favors in their tournament draw. The fact that only 2% of ESPN brackets are picking Utah still make them an interesting pick. Still, Gonzaga is the safer option if you don’t want to risk losing a Final Four team in the opening round (Utah plays the highest ranked 12-seed in Stephen F. Austin). The Zags are loaded with talent and even have the size to guard Jahlil Okafor in a potential Elite Eight game.
Arizona is the value pick in the region that seems destined for an Elite Eight rematch between Arizona and Wisconsin. Those two teams are currently ranked second and third in kenpom respectively. With 43% of the public taking the one-seeded Badgers, Arizona is probably the strongest Final Four pick in any region if you consider both overall team strength and the value you are getting.