So your chances of selecting a flawless bracket for this month’s NCAA tournament are something like one in 9 quintillion (that’s “quintillion” with 18 zeros). That won’t stop you—and millions of your fellow Americans—from pouring hours into getting your bracket just right this year.
Brackets are due on Sunday, but don’t fret if you’ve waited until the last minute. Here are three ways to make your last-minute selections, from calculated to casual.
If You’re Obsessed with “Moneyball”
We asked our in-house economist Lucas Puente to give us a professional number-cruncher’s read on using data to pick your bracket without getting in over your head. (In his day job, Lucas studies how independent skilled professionals who use Thumbtack are affected by national, state, and local policies.)
Trust prediction markets, not your instincts. The easiest way to start is simply to figure out which team has the best odds of winning the whole tournament and pick them to win.
After picking the team with the best odds of winning, work backwards. Put the second-most likely team to win in the finals, the third and fourth most likely teams in the final four, and so on. Use intermediate rounds as tie-breaks; if two teams have a 2 percent chance of winning it all and are supposed to face off, pick the one more likely to reach the final 16.
Prediction markets aren’t perfect, but they tend to be much more accurate than conventional measures of anticipating outcomes.
Play It Safe or Play Favorites
There’s no shame in picking the higher-seeded team to win every time: you won’t get the basketball-geek bragging rights, but at least this approach will get you safely through the first round.
If this is a little too #basic for you, mix things up with some pure-emotion picks. Data scientists will probably debate forever whether there’s mathematical magic in predicting an upset. Keep your upset picks simple by always opting for your alma mater in any matchup. Or pick a handful of games based on the mascot or team color you prefer.
Keep It Casual
This is for those of you who only watch basketball when your team is playing or during major tournaments like this one (you know who you are). Realistically, you’re not going to turn into a basketball analytics savant overnight, so why not have fun with it instead?
Some friendly bracket pools have special prizes reserved for the person who is most off-base — you definitely have a shot at that. Pick your teams at random (or try to pick less-favored teams on purpose). Turn it into a party game by posting printouts of team jerseys to a bulletin board and throwing darts to pick your favorite in each matchup.
Don’t worry about the details — let the experience be a moment of zen in your day, like taking a break with a coloring book. Then kick back for a breakneck month of keeping up with the tournament.
How are you picking your brackets? Let us know in the comments.