The science of ‘March Madness’

If there’s one thing in life that I’m completely hopeless at, it’s science. The lowlight of my storied scientific career came in Grade 10 when my high school teacher, whose name completely escapes me at the moment, agreed to pass me provided I never took a science class again. Since I hated science with a passion, the pact was quickly struck and I avoided all things scientific for the duration of my high school career. I managed to continue to duck science throughout my post-secondary education, choosing instead to stick to the arts. In fact, I’m pretty sure I had a nice 10-year stretch where I didn’t see the need to think about, discuss, or participate in any scientific endeavour. However, that all changed prior to this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament (a.k.a. “March Madness”). For several years now, I’ve made it a habit to fill out a bracket prior to the tournament and then follow the action intently for the duration of the three-week event to see how accurately I’d predicted the winners. Most years it hasn’t been pretty, but last year’s tournament was particularly bad. As the Cinderella teams, including George Mason, Wichita St., Montana, Alabama, Bradley, Northwestern St., and Texas A&M, pulled off first-round upsets, my bracket went up in flames. Mercifully, I was intrigued by the Florida Gators prior to the tournament and chose them to win it all. When the Gators defeated the UCLA Bruins in the title game, I felt a modicum of redemption. Last year’s less-than-ideal results got me to thinking prior to this year’s event. Do you actually need to know anything about men’s college basketball to correctly pick the winners? It seems like everyone has a story about being involved in a “March Madness” pool where the winner knew absolutely nothing about the game. For example, I have a friend who was livid one year because the woman who’d won his pool allowed that she’d chosen her winning bracket based solely on the colours of each teams’ uniforms. He, on the other hand, had spent hours researching both the teams and the match-ups. Intrigued, I decided to set aside my longstanding grudge against science and conduct a simple experiment. First, I needed a test subject or two who knew nothing about college basketball. Luckily, I knew just where to find them. I approached my co-workers, Melanie Béchard and Heather Ogilvie, and asked them if they’d fill out a “March Madness” bracket for me. Both stared blankly at me. We then had the following exchange: Alex: I need you to fill out a ‘March Madness’ bracket. Mel and Heather: What’s that? Alex: It’s a list of all the games for ‘March Madness’ and you have to pick the winners. Mel: Yeah, but what sport is that? Perfect! This was going to work out just as planned. I quickly printed off two empty brackets and handed them to both Heather and Mel. I explained the seeding system the NCAA uses to set the match-ups in the first round and then told them that no 16th seed had ever beaten a number-one seed. That was it. The rest was up to them. I then went home that afternoon and spent several hours pouring over all the records of the teams involved, the strength of the different conferences, and the match-ups before filling out my own bracket. The next day, I came back to work and collected Mel and Heather’s completed brackets. I then asked the question I was most interested in learning the answer to: “How did you guys pick the winners?” Heather’s answer was simple enough: “I picked the pretty names.” Mel’s selection criteria was a little more complicated. She used a combination of places she’d been, places her friends had been, seed comparison (meaning she took the higher seed), and the ever popular criteria—names that she liked. We then all sat back and let the “Madness” unfold. Three weeks later, I’m happy to report it does, indeed, pay to know a little something about men’s college basketball when you are filling out your bracket. Now, before the scientists start sending e-mails about my less-than-complex experiment, remember this—I only have Grade 10 science! With that out of the way, let’s have a look at the results. Heather’s “I like the pretty names” system was accurate a healthy 46 percent of the time. Shocking, I know. Mel’s hodge-podge system was accurate a remarkable 56 percent of the time. (She actually was cruising along at a ridiculous 64 percent through the “Elite 8” portion of the tournament, but she crashed back to Earth when she missed every pick from there on out—which is a good thing because I might have lost my lost mind). Which brings us to my bracket. It was a banner year picking the winners for this guy. I correctly tabbed the winners at a healthy 76 percent clip, including my selection of Florida to repeat as national champs. Apparently it does pay to do your homework. I’d like to thank my newfound friend science for once again giving me faith that there is more to sports betting than pure, blind luck. Maybe I’ll go back and get Grade 11.

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