Your Last Minute Guide to Picking the Perfect NCAA Bracket*

* Or at least avoiding the teams that will blow it up
Reuters

This probably won't help you win Warren Buffett's $1 billion prize for filling out a perfect bracket. But it might help you fill out a less imperfect one.

That's because I know about imperfection. I'm a Georgetown fan. Ever since 2007, when the basketball gods helped the Hoyas reach the Final Four, it's been one upset after another. In 2008, they lost to 10-seed Davidson as a 2-seed. In 2010, they lost to 14-seed Ohio as a 3-seed. In 2011, they lost to 11-seed V.C.U. as a 6-seed. In 2012, they lost to 11-seed North Carolina State as a 3-seed. And in 2013, they lost to 15-seed Florida Gulf Coast as a 2-seed. Overall, they were expected to win 9.7 tournament games based on their seedings. They won two.

Some of this was just bad luck. Davidson and V.C.U. were, in retrospect, juggernauts. And Florida Gulf Coast was plenty impressive the way it turned alley oops into an art form. But Georgetown struggled to even keep these games close. That's more than some unfavorable matchups. That's something unfavorable about them. In other words, something about the way they play must make them vulnerable come March. The same thing that makes teams like Vanderbilt and Wisconsin, who have also been Make-A-Wish foundations for Cinderellas, vulnerable.

That something is how many shots they take. It's simple math. The team that shoots more is more likely to win. Teams like Louisville are built to do exactly that, trapping all over the court and crashing the offensive glass. But teams like Georgetown aren't. They're more conservative. They just try to stay in front of people on defense, not create turnovers. Keep other teams from getting offensive rebounds, not get them themselves. Beat you with efficiency, not volume. Which gives them no margin of error.

It turns out there are four ways a team can effectively gain—or lose—extra shots. Those are turnovers, offensive rebounds, blocks, and three-pointers. The first two are as straightforward as it gets: a turnover is a possession without a shot, and offensive rebounds are called second shot opportunities for a reason. But the others are a little less obvious. Think about them this way. A blocked shot is a shot that never had a chance of going in—so it shouldn't count as one. And a made-three pointer is, behold the magic of math, like a shot and a half.

Now we just have to put this all together. We can add up all the extra shots a team gains, subtract how many it gives up, and then adjust for their pace to tell us how many percent more—or less—shots it gets a game. But all shots aren't created equal, because all players aren't created equal. We have to account for talent, too. The simplest way to do this is to just count how many NBA first-round picks each team had. 

I calculated both for all the top six seeds going back to 2003, when Ken Pomeroy's tempo-free stats begin, and then regressed them against how many tournament games they had won. Both were statistically significant, and together they explained about 20 percent of wins—not bad. Even better, the extreme best and extreme worst by this measure did a pretty good predicting who would make the Final Four, and who would get upset. The top 10 percent made the Final Four 52 percent of the time (and got upset 8 percent), while the bottom 14 percent got upset 52 percent of the time (and made the Final Four 2.7 percent).

Presented by

Matthew O'Brien

Matthew O'Brien is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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