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Filling out a March Madness Bracket – A Delicate Science or Just Dumb Luck?

Austin Meadows

Austin Meadows

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Before beginning, I feel you deserve to know one thing – I am in the 28th percentile among all ESPN registered March Madness brackets. Feel free to assess that as you may, but I believe it to be my obligation as a sports writer to admit my failures, however rare I may think them to be, to my audience. For the record, I finished in the 85th percentile last year, so hooray for the law of averages, right?

In all seriousness, as a fan of sports, March Madness is one of my favorite times of the year. It’s got the craziness and hype of an NBA playoff game. It gets basketball fans and casual observers alike emotionally investing themselves in teams they’ve never heard of. And, of course, it’s rich with riveting storylines, monumental choke jobs, and “Cinderella” runs.

That brings us to the hallmark of the NCAA tournament – the upset. That one game in which the lower seeded team, with all odds stacked against them, shocks the world by ousting a supposedly superior team. At least, in theory.

After all, one’s success in filling out a bracket is measured by their success rate in predicting the tournament’s upsets. Over the years, the act of deciding which teams are primed to pull off upsets has become such a vital component of the business that, for certain lower seeded teams, Vegas is actually starting to label them as favorites to win their games! This year, No. 12 Middle Tennessee State was favored to beat No. 5 Minnesota. Last year, No. 11 Gonzaga was favored to beat No. 6 Seton Hall. And the year before that, No. 13 Eastern Washington was favored to beat No. 4 Georgetown.

With so much now riding on each of these games, featuring schools most of us are only just now learning about, let alone have watched (I myself was raised a hardcore basketball fan, and last year was the first time I had heard of Middle Tennessee State), the true question becomes – is there a true science to identifying a potential upset, or is ignorance truly bliss here?

The answer, as frustrating as it may be, is probably a little bit of both. While most of those who find success in this venue need luck on their side for elite teams like Villanova and Duke to fall on the second day of the tournament, it is possible, however difficult, to play a bit of a numbers game here.

The numbers game I refer to lies in the seeding process itself. It’s really the only practical way to use logic to anticipate the teams that had favorable draws on Selection Sunday. The disclaimer – researching stats and trends on obscure teams you’ve never seen play doesn’t work. March Madness is a totally different animal. So trying to compare teams that played in different conferences and that travelled in different paths to get to the tournament is futile in predicting postseason success in a single-game-elimination setting.

Analyzing seeding requires a little bit of background on the process itself. The tournament is field is determined by a selection committee, consisting of athletic directors and commissioners representing all of the major Division I conferences. Thirty-two teams get automatic bids to the tourney, by virtue of winning their respective conference titles. The other thirty-six teams must receive an “at-large bid”, at the discretion of the selection committee. These teams are selected and placed in the pool by assessing a number of factors including basketball rating index, strength of schedule against conference and non-conference opponents, and the “eye-test”.

Naturally, the selection of the field can prove to be highly subjective. That subjectivity increases even further once the committee begins to decide how to seed all sixty-eight teams. Based on statistics, national perception, and poll ratings, the teams in the field are placed on an S-curve. From there, they are divided equally among the four regions of the bracket – South, East, West, and Midwest. The top four teams are selected as the four regions’ No. 1 seeds, the next four are the No. 2 seeds, and so on. The committee tries to even out the balance of power among the regions by ensuring the seed values are equal (i.e. the region with the best No. 1 seed will have the worst No. 2 seed). Additionally, better teams will be put in regions where they won’t have as much distance to travel from their home court (i.e. Pennsylvania-located Villanova was placed in the East region and Washington-located Gonzaga was placed in the West region).

The payoff from this subjective process is that there will be good teams seeded lower than expected and other teams seeded higher than anticipated. Therefore, certain middle or lower seeded teams may actually have a clearer path out of the first couple rounds than they would have otherwise.

Take No. 11 Xavier, for example. A deep, veteran team with plenty of postseason experience, they had a moderately underwhelming and unexciting regular season. Being in the same conference as Villanova, they settled for an at-large bid and were awarded the eleventh seed in the West. The result – a first round matchup with a No. 6 Maryland team that was reeling after losing its star point guard and a second round matchup with a highly undisciplined, sloppy No. 3 FSU. Just like that, Xavier is in the Sweet Sixteen.

No. 7 Michigan in the Midwest is another example of a team that greatly benefitted from the selection process. Thanks to a thrilling victory in the Big 10 championship game, Michigan was awarded the No. 7 seed. They were able to use their momentum to take down an inferior Oklahoma State team in the first round, and then, in the second, topple No. 2 Louisville, a flawed team that was just coming off a self-imposed tournament ban the year prior. Had Michigan lost the Big 10 Championship game, they would have been awarded an at-large bid. From there, they possibly could have ended up as a No. 8 or No. 9 seed and been forced to play a stacked No. 1 Kansas team in the second round instead.

It’s not a perfect method of filling out a bracket by any means. Let my 28th percentile do the telling on that. But, if you are someone who’s uncomfortable leaving something as important as a March Madness bracket up to dumb luck, then I offer you at least this minor relief.

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Filling out a March Madness Bracket – A Delicate Science or Just Dumb Luck?