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"Bracketology": the science, or luck of picking the perfect NCAA tournament bracket

By DeWayne Harper
On April 19, 2012

 

People have spent time, effort and money to develop complex algorithms in order to gain an advantage when filling out their NCAA tournament bracket. 

March Madness has come and gone and with the suspense filled month-long tournament, there has been many surprises-chief among them is No. 15 ranked Lehigh's narrow victory over No. 2 Duke. 

With upsets like these taking place, we wondered what is the best strategy for building a NCAA tournament bracket.

During the month long festivities organizations and individuals fill out their brackets hoping to win bragging rights, or even a nifty monetary prize in their office pool.

Everyone from the president, professional athletes and sports pundits, to students, instructors and co-workers participate in their own bracket tournaments. 

"I don't know what it is, I've been in a million of these bracket pools," said Mario Santino. "I've never won one and it sucks because I always make it to the final four and some clueless girl who doesn't watch basketball wins the whole thing."

Santino, a junior at Kean, has heard it all.  "I've heard of people who pick the teams based on the color of the uniforms, or because they've heard of one school and not the other," said Santino.  "The people who I've seen win those pools never have any strategy, or method for how they pick who advances."

Santino's friend Alercio Sanchez plays in a few brackets to cover his upsets. "I had Duke in the elite eight, but they got knocked out in the first round and no one expected Louisville to be in the final four," said Sanchez.  "You try and cover your cover your bets, but some things just aren't supposed to happen."

Dr. Joel Sokol and Dr. Paul Kvam, created the LRMC ranking system.  The LRMC is a college basketball ranking system designed to use basic scoreboard data.  Key data includes: which two teams played each other, whose court did they play on and what was the margin of victory.

The ranking system was originally developed a research paper done by Sokol and Kvam, both of whom are professors at Goergia Tech's H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems engineering.

According to Carolyn O'Hara of PBS NewsHour, in 2010 the LRMC ranking system was able to accurately predict No. 6 ranked Notre Dame's one-point loss to No. 11 Old Dominion. 

So what is the best way to pick your tournament bracket? Well, although it seems like a lot of winners experience some beginner's luck the odds of that are actually quite slim. 

According to Ask Dr. Math, the math forum at Drexel University located at mathforum.org, There are more than nine quintillion possibilities for the possible winners in a 64 team NCAA bracket.  That makes the odds of randomly picking a perfect bracket 9.2 quintillion to 1.

To put that into perspective the odds of winning that recording breaking MegaMillions jackpot a couple of weeks ago was almost 176 million to one. 

So how accurate is the LRMC ranking system?

Sokol and his team point out that the LRMC ranking system is right more often than other NCAA ranking methods.  When the LRMC and those other methods disagree the team that the LRMC system ranks higher wins far more than the other methods. 

They also note that the LRMC system is particularly accurate when sorting out the top teams; Specifically, as measured by the last three rounds of the tournament. They also do well picking "surprise" Final Four teams. 


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