March Madness – Beyond the Brackets


With the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament starting this week, people all across the country are filling out their brackets, picking upsets, and trying to predict the Final Four.

Filling out brackets has become a rite of spring.  Pools are formed in offices, schools, in families, and online amongst complete strangers.

But a traditional bracket pool isn’t for everyone.  Some like to show off their hoops knowledge, and some are looking for a way to stay engaged after the tournament’s first weekend.  Others may be bored with brackets and are looking different challenges.

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to have some fun and exciting competition* against your friends, relatives, and co-workers without having to antagonize over which 7 – 10 upset to pick.

*This is where I should insert a friendly (yet legally binding) disclaimer about how the suggestions in this post are solely for entertainment purposes, and are not condoned or endorsed as a form of gambling (unless, of course, your employer, state, or country allows such things). 

Any reference to “entries”, “pay-out”, “win” or the like obviously refers to non-monetary items of limited value, which will not draw the attention of state and federal agents. 

In other words, if your participation in one of the following pools gets you arrested, fired, divorced, beaten up, sued, or bankrupted, that is your problem, not mine.  Thank you.

For each alternative, I’ll list the effort required by the lifeguard (i.e. the person running the pool) as well as for those who will be diving in.  From easiest to most complex:

Team Lottery

10 second pitch:  You draw team(s) at random.  If your team wins it all (or makes the Final Four) you win too.

Number of participants:  Anywhere from four to 68, although multiples of four works best.

Detailed explanation:  You have 16 people in the pool, each person gets four teams at random.  For example, I draw St. Louis, Florida, Belmont, and UNLV.  When those teams advance, I advance.  Payouts are typically for the champion team, the runner-up and the other two Final Four squads.  If I have one of those teams, I win.

Basketball knowledge needed:  Absolutely zero.  This is all about luck of the draw.

Great for:  Novices, people who have no alliances, but want to root for a team during the tournament.

Lifeguard workload:  Minimal.  Keep a list of who has which team(s).

Variations:  Depending on number of people you have in, drop out the lowest seeds, so nobody gets stuck with 15s and 16s.  You can also allow people who have multiple entries:  I only take one team, but Tony goes for five teams.

Team Auction

10 second pitch:  Just like the Team Lottery, except instead of drawing at random, you bid on the team(s) you get.

Number of participants needed:  Anywhere from four to 16.

Detailed explanation:  Everybody starts with $20 (of fake money, of course).  Begin by auctioning off the 1 seeds, then the 2 seeds, and so on until everybody is out of money.  Want to spend all $20 on Indiana?  Go for it.  Want to try to pick up a bunch of potential Cinderellas for cents on the dollar?  It could pay off.  Payouts are similar to the lottery.

Basketball knowledge needed:  Minimal.  While it would certainly help to know which teams are worth the extra dollar (and more importantly, which are not), the main strategy is in how you spend your money.

Great for:  Participants in fantasy sports auction leagues, fans of the stock market.

Lifeguard workload:  Keeping a list of who has which teams is the bare minimum.  Knowing how much your buddy spent on the team that just lost to 15 seed is the stuff great trash talk is made of.

Variations:  To speed up the auction, set a minimum bid for each seed level ($5 for 1 seeds, etc).  Instead of auctioning off all of the 12’s individually, package them together.

Covers Keepers, Losers Weepers

10 second pitch:  If your team wins, but does not cover the point spread, you lose them to your opponent.

Number of participants:  2 – 16, but multiples of four work best.

Detailed explanation: Begin by dividing the teams amongst the participants (either a draft, random draw, or other assignment).  Determine a standard source for your point spreads.  During each game, you not only want your team to win the game, but you need them to cover the point spread.  Why?  Because if they don’t cover, your opponent gets your team for the next round.  For example, I have Georgetown and you have Florida Gulf Coast.  Georgetown wins the game, but does not cover the point spread.  You now have Georgetown for the next round.  All of a sudden those 1 vs 16 games aren’t so boring anymore.

Basketball knowledge needed:  Minimal.  Certainly, knowing which teams are better at covering the spread can be helpful, but there is likely to be as much blind luck involved.  If anything, knowing which “teen” seeds are likely to play close can be a good way to steal some top seeds.

Great for:  Degenerate gamblers, close-knit groups who will thrive on the trash talk and hurt feelings that will ensue when somebody loses a 1 seed because they gave up a half court three at the buzzer.

Lifeguard workload:  This is likely the toughest one to administer.  Being the final word on point spreads, and tracking who has which teams could be rather involved in the first weekend.

Variations:  Most of the variations would be around how the teams are distributed – draft, lottery, auction, etc.

Alternate Brackets

10 second pitch:  The bracket format everybody knows and loves, but with teams you know nothing about.

Number of participants:  Unlimited

Detailed explanation:   Fire up the printer or copy machine, we’re filling out brackets!  One big difference:  instead of the NCAA tournament, these brackets are for some of the lesser known tournaments, such as the NIT, CBI, and CIT, or the women’s tournament.  Heck, go way off the beaten path and run a pool for the hundreds of pop culture brackets that appear this time of year.  Once the brackets are printed (or if you can track down a site that has an online entry, even better), the participants fill them out like always.

Basketball knowledge needed:  To make educated picks, you’d need to follow college hoops pretty seriously.  But for the rest of us, you should be able to employ your standard bracket rules (picking the higher seed, going with the tougher mascot, etc.)

Great for:  Bracket addicts.  Fans of the women’s game.  Hipsters who think the NCAA men’s bracket is too mainstream.

Lifeguard workload:  It all depends on if you can find a site that will do the work for you.  If so, this is a piece of cake.  If not, keeping tabs on the results from a third-rate post season tournament could be a pain in the ass.

Variations:  Dude, you’re doing a bracket on the CBI tournament.  How many variables are you looking for?

Rotisserie Bracketology

10 second pitch:  Fantasy Basketball with the players in the tournament.  Draft players who will score points.

Number of participants:  2 – 8

Detailed explanation:  Prior to the first games, hold a draft.  Each participant drafts five players from any of the teams in the tournament.  That is your starting lineup.  Then, keep track of how many points they score.  The lineup that scores the most points wins.

Basketball knowledge needed:  Moderate.  The key to winning Rotisserie Bracketology is to a) find guys who can score a lot of points who b) play for teams that will make it to at least the Elite 8.  That said, there is value in the guy on the #1 seed who averages 10 points a game.  In lieu of extensive basketball knowledge, an internet connection is vital.

Great for:  Basketball junkies, guys needing a fantasy football fix in March, anybody who needs a reason to root for Duke.

Lifeguard workload:  Potentially heavy.  Organize the draft, keep track of players, and most importantly tally up their points.  The first weekend will be a pain, but after that it should get easier.

Variations:  Draft a full 12-man roster, and submit lineups before each round.  You can’t draft players from 1 and 2 seeds.

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