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March Madness bracket tips

During the NCAA tourney, a gambler turns to his economist father for advice.

My old man has a basketball jones. When I was growing up, we spent every winter Saturday in Jenison Fieldhouse, Michigan State University’s Art Deco barn of an arena.

For 14 years, my dad published an annual called College Basketball Guide, ranking every Division I team, from Duke to U.S. International. As an economist, he believes physical competitions can be reduced to numbers. Gamblers believe the same thing. The book was a big seller at the Gambler’s Book Club in Las Vegas.

The guide ended in the late 1990s, but Dad still loves college basketball, so I ask him for tips on winning an NCAA pool.

The first tip: Root for Goliath. In the last 45 years, all but one winner has come from the Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC, Big 12, Big East or ACC.
Once you’ve gotten over your notion that Butler will finally cut down the net, look for teams with two or three future NBA players.

Then figure out which one has the best point guard. “It used to be the center was the most important guy,” Dad says. “Now, with the shot clock and the three-point line, you need a guy who can get the ball down the court and set up outside shots.” This year’s best, he says, are Syracuse’s Scoop Jardine and Ohio State’s Aaron Craft. “But I’m not sure if there’s any superstar point guards this year, which means it may be wide open.”

As I said, Dad’s an economist. Economists have many theories but few opinions. Because of that, and because writing a story in which you quote one family member is really lazy, I call Shawn Siegel of CollegeHoops.net. Siegel lives in New York City, runs his own website and enters 20 March Madness pools a year. He’s got to have an opinion on who’s going to win.

Siegel agreed the champion will be a big school with future NBA stars but says “you might want to pick one of the random teams to go to the Elite Eight.” Dark horses Butler, George Mason and Xavier have made it recently. Look for a good road record—no home games take place in the tournament—and a good defense.

“Butler had a suffocating defense,” Siegel tells me. “Slowing the tempo hurts the athletic teams.”

To find a sleeper, Siegel also looks for teams seeded lower than their RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) rankings, and checks the Las Vegas line for first-round games with “odds favorable to the underdog.” For example, if Michigan is giving only three points to Harvard in a first-round game, take a flyer on the Crimson.

Siegel’s underdogs: Long Beach State, Iona, Davidson, Wichita State and Creighton.

His big dog? Kentucky. “Anthony Davis is the best defensive player in a decade,” he says. “Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is a big-time small forward. Their entire starting five is NBA prospects.”

“Didn’t you once say,” I ask my dad, who is sometimes the only fan at Spartan basketball practices, “‘Always pick Michigan State to go one round further than they look on paper’?”

“I don’t know if I said it,” he says. Dad never lets homerism mess up his NCAA pool, but as a Spartan fan, he rarely has that quandary. “They have been to the Final Four six times since 1999.”

To find a local pool, see our list of March Madness bars and food and drink specials.

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