Biostatistician Bradley Carlin, who co-authored a 2005 paper (PDF) on contrarian strategies in NCAA brackets, suggests a "champion-only" technique. While most people spend a lot of time puzzling over potential first-round upsets, the mathematical reality is that it's difficult to win a pool without securing those boffo championship game points. The payoff for risk-taking also increases in later rounds. Consider the first round game between 14-seed Davidson and three-seed Marquette. Just more than 12 percent of ESPN players predict that Davidson will pull off the big upset, while Pomeroy gives Stephen Curry’s school a 34.2 percent chance of knocking off Marquette. On paper, that differential looks like a great bargain. But consider that this upset will reward the lucky Davidson backer with a mere one extra point in a standard office pool. If Marquette wins, you're suddenly missing an important player in the bracket.
Whom should you pick as your champion? You want to look for teams with a respectable chance of winning that don't come in with high expectations. As the size of the pool balloons, so must your audacity. You may skate to victory with traditional choices in a group of 12 people, but in a pool of 100, you'll have to get fancy and prepare to lose miserably if the cards don't fall your way. (A miserable loss is a good way to describe our pick of the Texas Longhorns in 2011—and our suggestion to avoid Connecticut. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.)
Other than Florida, there aren’t too many great bargains in this year's field. The next best bet is Gonzaga, which has been picked to win the title by 5.6 percent of ESPN.com competitors but has a 7.5 percent title chance according to Ken Pomeroy. And if you’re looking to back a real long shot, take a look at Pittsburgh (0.1 percent on ESPN.com; 2.3 percent Pomeroy) and Wisconsin (0.9 percent on ESPN.com; 2.3 percent Pomeroy). Who are the worst bets in the field? You’ll get the crummiest value by backing the third-favorite pick of ESPN.com users: Miami (11.4 percent on ESPN.com; 2.0 percent Pomeroy) and Kansas (8.5 percent ESPN.com; 4.2 percent Pomeroy). Duke is a bad bet as well: The Blue Devils are the choice of 8.5 percent of ESPN.com users and have a 4.4 percent chance to win according to Pomeroy.
Of course, the trouble with picking an off-the-radar champ is that the benefits of such a strategy materialize only in the long term. Another author of that 2005 paper on bracket strategies, Jarad Niemi, told me that he has won back three to four times his investment in entry fees over the years, but a great deal of that came from a good year in 2008. (Considering how good they are at calculating risk, it's no surprise that guys like Niemi and Carlin excel in pools that award bonus points for upsets. Carlin said he won one such pool three out of five years.) A strategy that wins you a lot of money a small amount of the time may work well in sports with long seasons, but it can be tough to keep the faith when you finish in the cellar for six straight Marches. But look at it this way: Did you ever win with your old strategy?
Read more from Slate’s coverage of the NCAA tournament.