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How to win a massive NCAA tournament bracket pool like ESPN’s Tournament Challenge

The Post’s Neil Greenberg analyzed NCAA statistics from the past seven March Madness tournaments to give you pointers on how to make a winning bracket. (Monica Akhtar,John Parks,Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

If you want to win a big, online pool with millions of entrants, a perfect bracket helps, but it isn’t necessary.

According to data from the past seven years of the official bracket game of the NCAA tournament, no winner had a perfect bracket heading into the Sweet 16. However, every one of the last seven winners had the Final Four exactly right, including the participants in the championship game. The last four winners were perfect starting in the Elite Eight.

But being right is only half the equation — you also have to differentiate yourself, and that means making value picks that may go against conventional wisdom. By comparing other picks in ESPN’s Tournament Challenge — a terrific proxy of how the general public is evaluating teams — with our tournament projections, we can find the best value picks for each region.

For example, 16 percent of people have selected No. 1 Villanova to win the national title, but our model gives them a 16 percent chance to do the same, so there is no real value there in picking the Wildcats to cut down the net.

Value picks are important for differentiating your bracket, and in a pool that features hundreds, thousands or millions of other pick combinations, that differentiation needs to run deeper into the bracket — like the Final Four and national title game. But you need to be smart about those selections too. You want to pick a team that isn’t being selected by many other entrants, but that team still needs to be strong enough to win it all. And that’s where this article comes in, providing the smartest values to emerge from each of the four regions based on which favorites the public is backing.

South

The injury to DeAndre Hunter has turned some people off No. 1 Virginia’s title chances, but it shouldn’t. The Cavaliers have the easiest road to the Final Four among the top seeds and were the Perfect Bracket’s choice to win it all. But if you are still squeamish, or simply want to have a more contrarian pick, then No. 2 Cincinnati is a good choice.

The Bearcats were the fourth-best team in the nation this season, per Pomeroy, with the second-best defense after Virginia, allowing 86.2 points per 100 possessions after adjusting for opponent. They are only being selected in 12 percent of brackets to make the Final Four despite having a 28 percent chance per our model. Plus, they would be expected to win the NCAA title 8 percent of the time, four times higher than they’re being selected in ESPN’s bracket pool (2 percent).

No. 3 Tennessee, the team with the 11th best Pomeroy ranking in 2017-18, has a 14 percent chance of making it through to the Final Four, yet only 5 percent of people currently believe in them.

Midwest

This region has a bunch of heavyweights, including No. 1 Kansas, No. 2 Duke and No. 3 Michigan State, and is the only region in which every team has a positive adjusted net rating according to Pomeroy’s advanced stats. All three of those teams will be picked on a number of brackets though. Combined with the fact that the Jayhawks are a weak No. 1 seed, it could make sense to enter a bracket with No. 5 Clemson, a defensive stalwart, in the Final Four.

The Tigers had the eighth-best defense in the country during the regular season after allowing a mere 49-percent field goal rate around the basket, putting them in the top 5 percent of college programs. Coach Brad Brownell’s squad can also put the brakes on the ballhandler during the pick-and-roll (0.64 points allowed per possession, 95th percentile) and on big men down low in the post (42 percent shooting, 88th percentile).

Clemson’s chances of reaching the Final Four are 9 percent, but only 2 percent of brackets have them going that far.

East

If you want to bet against No. 1 Villanova, you have two good choices: No. 2 Purdue and No. 3 Texas Tech.

The Boilermakers can shoot the lights out (58 effective field goal rate, fifth best this season) and are deadly from three-point range (42 percent, second-best). Two of their sharpshooters, Carsen Edwards and Dakota Mathias, take at least five three-point attempts per game with success rates of 41 and 46 percent, respectively. Their chances of making the Final Four (28 percent) and winning the championship (7 percent) are both favorable compared to the amount of brackets that have them penciled in for the same outcomes (18 and 3 percent, respectively).

No. 3 Texas Tech doesn’t have a high championship likelihood (2 percent by my model) but their chances to make the Final Four are robust compared to their exposure (12 vs. 5 percent). Look for the Red Raiders to create extra possessions via tenacious defense, which produced a 22-percent turnover rate (16th best) leading up to the tournament.

West

Like Kansas, Xavier is a historically weak No. 1 seed, and, as a result, is given a 2-percent chance at winning this year’s NCAA title, just slightly less than the 3.3 percent backers of the Musketeers are giving them in public pools. You could go with No. 2 North Carolina as the region’s representatives in the Final Four, but a truly contrarian approach would be to push No. 5 Ohio State to that round.

The Buckeyes have a 10 percent chance at making the Final Four, a very high mark relative to the 3 percent of people thinking they will go that far, and have a solid blend of offense (26th in nation) and defense (17th) that could give any number of teams fits in the tournament. That’s also a better bet than Gonzaga, who the model gives a 17-percent chance to reach the Final Four, but is selected in 14 percent of brackets.

Here’s a breakdown of the top five seeds in each region. Any team seeded lower than this has no better than a 1-percent chance at winning it all and a 6-percent chance at reaching the Final Four (Houston).

How to win a massive NCAA tournament bracket pool like ESPN's Tournament Challenge

Read more on the tournament:

NCAA tournament cheat sheet: Everything you need to dominate your pool

Want to pick a March Madness upset? Target No. 10 and No. 11 seeds.

Forget Kentucky and Arizona, Virginia has easiest road to the Final Four

Five Cinderellas who can reach the Sweet 16, including a No. 16 seed

The most vulnerable top seeds in the NCAA tournament

The three best bets to win the 2018 NCAA tournament

Kansas, Xavier make No. 1 seeds the weakest since 2002. Will upsets follow?

Oklahoma may have snuck in the March Madness bracket, but it could stick around

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