FanPost

Scoring Your NCAA Tournament Brackets - A New Way

See how quickly you can answer this question: Assuming 64 teams, how many games are played in the NCAA tournament? Go ahead, take a minute. Use paper and pen if you like.

It's something most people don't know off the top of their heads. You might figure there are 32 games in the first round, 16 in the second, and so on. Then you could add those six numbers together.

But there's another way to look at it. Every game produces a loser, right? And when the tournament's over, every team but one will have lost. That's 63 losses, so 63 games. No calculations required.

Finding a different way to look at things can be very satisfying.

Let's try another: How should we score our NCAA tournament brackets? This time, there's no single answer. The simplest approach is to announce that whoever picks the most games right wins. A perfect score would be 63. The winner might score in the mid-40s.

But you're not likely to see this anywhere. Most will object that all games are not equal. The championship game is surely the most important and should be worth the most. The first-round games should be worth the least. Thus, the ubiquitous multiplier scoring system.

The top online tournament challenge sites use these multipliers:

Round 1

Round 2

Round 3

Round 4

Round 5

Round 6

Max

ESPN

10

20

40

80

160

320

1920

Yahoo

1

2

4

8

16

32

192

CBS

1

2

4

8

16

32

192

Source: PrintYourBrackets.com

The scoring progresses geometrically by round. This gives increasingly more weight to games as the tournament unfolds, presumably to reflect the increasing importance of each round.

Such scoring systems place a premium on picking the national champion. You'll notice that picking the last game correctly is worth as much as the entire first round, which is half the tournament. Indeed, the team that claims the title will accumulate one-third of the points possible (63 out of 192), and a significantly higher percentage, approaching half, of the total points awarded.

So rather than pick the most games right, the multiplier system essentially asks you to pick one game right, namely, the last one. It addresses the "all games are not equal" concern with a vengeance.

That's perhaps the real madness in March. The multiplier system loads so much weight on the back end of the tournament that the first round becomes largely meaningless. Likewise the second round, which comprises another quarter of the games played. No need to sweat whether Kentucky the 7 seed will beat the 10 seed, or which of the 12 seeds might advance. What really matters is which team will win it all.

This follows from the system's top-down design. The perspective is a broad tournament perspective. Value is placed at the end of the tournament process. Games can be grouped by round and points assigned accordingly. It's blunt and easy enough to figure. And that's probably why it's so popular.

But there's another way to look at it, and that's from the bottom up, or from the other end of the bracket. Instead of starting at the macro level and working somewhat down, let's look at each of the 63 games and value the effort or risk it takes to choose the winner. Let's go micro.

What's the easiest game to pick in the first round? The one you never have to think about? Sure, the 1 seed beats the 16. It's automatic. You don't care who the teams are, you just quickly advance the 1 seed and move on to more pressing matters. Given the difficulty of that decision, the game should be worth as little as possible.

What's the hardest game to pick? Well, the 8 seed against the 9 is as close to a toss-up as you can get. It's a puzzler. Correctly picking that game is far more difficult than your earlier slam dunk. The points awarded should reflect that difficulty.

But the truth is that picking an upset is harder still. The 9 seed over the 8, not so much. But the 12 seed over the 5? If you're right, you deserve something more for sticking your neck out.

Note that the multiplier system does not distinguish these games. It assigns the same point value to each game in the round. Imagine if you were to correctly predict the biggest upset in tournament history, a 16 over a 1. Bill Raftery would yell, "Onions!" But CBS would give you just the one point. Congratulations.

The seeding of the teams gives us a nice way to rank every possible matchup by theoretical difficulty. At the left of the matrix below, find the seed of the winning team. Run your finger across the row until you reach the losing seed at the top. That's the value of the outcome on a scale from easy to impossible.

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

13

14

15

16

1

16

15

14

13

12

11

10

9

8

7

6

5

4

3

2

1

2

17

16

15

14

13

12

11

10

9

8

7

6

5

4

3

2

3

18

17

16

15

14

13

12

11

10

9

8

7

6

5

4

3

4

19

18

17

16

15

14

13

12

11

10

9

8

7

6

5

4

5

20

19

18

17

16

15

14

13

12

11

10

9

8

7

6

5

6

21

20

19

18

17

16

15

14

13

12

11

10

9

8

7

6

7

22

21

20

19

18

17

16

15

14

13

12

11

10

9

8

7

8

23

22

21

20

19

18

17

16

15

14

13

12

11

10

9

8

9

24

23

22

21

20

19

18

17

16

15

14

13

12

11

10

9

10

25

24

23

22

21

20

19

18

17

16

15

14

13

12

11

10

11

26

25

24

23

22

21

20

19

18

17

16

15

14

13

12

11

12

27

26

25

24

23

22

21

20

19

18

17

16

15

14

13

12

13

28

27

26

25

24

23

22

21

20

19

18

17

16

15

14

13

14

29

28

27

26

25

24

23

22

21

20

19

18

17

16

15

14

15

30

29

28

27

26

25

24

23

22

21

20

19

18

17

16

15

16

31

30

29

28

27

26

25

24

23

22

21

20

19

18

17

16

As you can see, the no-brainer game, 1 over 16, receives the fewest points. The biggest upset ever, 16 over 1, gets the most. All the other games fall in order.

Using this particular matrix, if the favorite wins, the point value is 16 minus the difference of the seeds. If the underdog prevails, the point value is 16 plus the difference of the seeds. All like-seeded matchups in the Final Four and beyond are worth 16, on the theory that a 1 seed versus a 1 seed is just as much a toss-up as a 4 seed against a 4 seed.

And so, the multiplier proponents had it right: All games are not equal. But this also holds true within each round. The bottom-up approach recognizes these differences and values the risk each game presents.

There are no multipliers. The system finds its balance naturally because it respects each game, and by extension the early rounds of the tournament, where most of the games are played.

This means you don't have to pick the national champion to win the pool. In the bottom-up system, the national champion will accumulate roughly one-sixth of your points. It's a healthy amount, but not as decisive as the points assigned in the multiplier system.

This means, in turn, that someone who does extremely well in the early rounds, but who stumbles late, might still have a chance against someone who does only fairly well at first, but who nicely picks some teams that go deep. A more balanced, robust system should allow that.

You'll find, incidentally, that whoever picks the most games right in the bottom-up system will be right there in the mix. This isn't surprising. If you've been paying close attention, you might have noticed what we did here, which was to design a smarter version of the very first system we talked about. We took the simplistic "most games right" approach, and we answered the objection that all games are not equal.

We simply found a different way to do it.

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