The Science Of Your NCAA Picks

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The President Announces His Picks

President Obama took his turn to make NCAA men’s picks last week, demonstrating just how pervasive this practice really is. Besides the fact that our president is juggling many different tasks including the fate of the nation, you have to give him credit for finding a lighter moment, a lighthearted break other than his Jay Leno show appearance.

men's basketballThe Wall Street Journal (WSJ) recently introduced a sports page (really, can you believe this?), a section which is not like the one that you’d find in your local newspaper. Perhaps sensing that many of its print media competitors are struggling for survival, the WSJ has decided to try its hand in sports reporting. Judging by their coverage of the NCAA tourney so far, I would say that their timing is spot on.

Sports Forecasting and Bracketology

The crux of WSJ sport reporting has to do with game predictions, something they’ve readily shared thanks to AccuScore a “sports forecasting” firm. We’ve discussed bracketology here previously which is a scientific methodology to determine Field of 65 participants. With sports forecasting (which can be used to bet on teams), projected final scores are developed which try to formulate what the results might be.

The geek within me is much more interested in the odds by percentage of who will win. Bookmarkers like to assign their odds which usually looks something like 2-1, 5-2, 50-1 or some impossibly high number. However, when a percentage is used you get a better understanding of just how good or bad the odds are that a team could win.

Predicting By The Percentages

Take for example Friday’s Marquette-Utah State match up. No chance for a mid-major school such as the Utah State Aggies to beat a very good Big East opponent, right? Well, according to AccuScore, the sixth-seeded Marquette Golden Eagles were given a 55% chance of winning and Utah State 45%, very good odds indeed.

As it turns out, Marquette did win that game 58-57 after blowing a 14-point lead and rallying from six points down. In another close contest, eight-seeded Oklahoma State knocked off ninth-seeded Tennessee by 77-75 with OSU given a 53% chance of winning its contest.

No Top Seeded Team Has Ever Lost

Although in the history of the NCAA tournament (since the field was expanded to include at least 64 teams) a #16 seed has never beaten a #1 seed, AccuScore always gives the underdog a slight chance of winning. Pitt learned on Friday that its #1 seed against E. Tennessee wasn’t going to be an easy win trailing in the first half before going up by three at the break. Sometimes the top seed needs a reality check and ETSU gave that to the Panthers.

How many college mathematicians develop similar schemes to choose tournament winners? Probably plenty but maybe not as concise as what three Georgia Tech professors have come up with, reported to you here earlier this month.

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