Why you shouldn’t pick Alabama and other favorites to win March Madness

Why you shouldn't pick Alabama and other favorites to win March Madness


The key to a successful March Madness bracket is getting the national champion right. In one frequently used scoring system, that final selection is worth 32 points — the same amount of points awarded for a perfect first round. It makes sense that many people thus want to select the best team to win it all — because the best team presumably has the best chance of winning.

However, you also want a distinctive bracket, one that’s a contender to be the last one standing — and that usually means avoiding the most popular national title choice in favor of a pick that offers more value vs. your competitors. And right now, that means fading No. 1 seed Alabama.

Sounds silly, right? The Crimson Tide are the top overall seed in the tournament after a 29-5 campaign that ended with Alabama being the consensus choice for best team in the nation among the average of 46 different ranking systems. The Tide is so good that, as of Monday night, it had been chosen as the championship winner on 21.2 percent of brackets submitted to ESPN, significantly higher than the next choice, Houston (13.1 percent). And that’s the biggest reason to fade Alabama: It is too popular relative to its chance of winning.

The perfect bracket to win your March Madness men’s pool

Let’s look at the betting markets. Circa Sports, one of the sharpest sportsbooks in the country, has been offering a price of +700 for Alabama to win the national title and a price of -1040 for Alabama not to win it all. (In other words, a $100 wager on Alabama to claim the title would win $700, while a $1,040 wager on Alabama not to triumph would win the same $100.) That translates to a 12 percent chance Alabama cuts down the nets at the end of the tournament.

And so a team given a 12 percent chance to win it all in a betting market backed by money is being selected on 21 percent of brackets, a huge underlay — a situation in which the odds to win are too low and thus aren’t favorable. Even if you take Alabama and the Crimson Tide wins, you will need to excel in other rounds to have a chance at the top prize. The less popular your title pick, the less pressure on the rest of your bracket, although the goal isn’t just to find an unusual national champion pick, but one that’s undervalued relative to its talent level.

But it isn’t just that basic logic. Teams with profiles similar to Alabama in recent tournaments have also faltered. The most similar team to this year’s Alabama squad over the last 14 tournaments, according to efficiency metrics — last year’s Arizona team, which was also a No. 1 seed — lost in the Sweet 16. The next most-similar team to Alabama — 2019 Duke, another No. 1 seed — lost in the Elite Eight. Only one of the 10 most-similar teams in that span, 2008 Memphis, made it even to the finals, while four others lost in the round of 32.

Fellow No. 1 seed Houston, by comparison, is being offered odds of +550 to win it all and -765 to not, which suggests roughly a 15 percent chance of the Cougars becoming the national champion. As mentioned, they are being selected on about 13 percent of brackets, which indicates they do have some value. However, Houston also comes with some question marks — especially the health of star guard Marcus Sasser, who sustained a groin injury during the AAC tournament.

The other No. 1 seeds also suggest little value. The odds for Kansas equate to a nine percent chance of winning the national title, yet the Jayhawks are selected as the champion on almost 12 percent of brackets. Purdue’s chances of winning based on the odds market (eight percent) are closely in line with the number of brackets on which they’re the title choice (nine percent).

That’s one of the reasons The Washington Post’s Perfect Bracket went with No. 2 seed Texas as its eventual champion. Just six percent of brackets have the Longhorns, which is slightly less than their implied odds of winning (seven percent). Plus, similar teams to Texas win, on average, 3.4 games in the tournament, with three of the 10 teams most similar to this year’s Texas group (over those last 14 tournaments) having reached the finals.

UCLA, Gonzaga and Arizona have similar odds at Circa — and are being chosen on even fewer ESPN brackets.

Texas may not be the most likely winner, and the Longhorns might not be the best team in the field. But if they are successful, I can rest assured knowing that I will likely only be competing with about six percent of the people in my pool. If I take Alabama, on the other hand, I could be competing with more than a fifth of the pool — for a team with an implied chance of just 12 percent to win the title.

(See also: our best bets to win the title, some tasty first-round upsets, and our all-purpose cheat sheet.)

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