Iowa State Cyclones guard Monte Morris (11) drives against the Baylor Bears during the first half of a mens basketball game at The Ferrell Center.
8 mathematically proven tips for picking your bracket
Published on March 17th, 2014 | by USA Today
The one inalienable truth about March Madness is that your bracket – and my bracket, and the overwhelming majority of brackets from coast to coast – will very likely implode by the end of the tournament’s first weekend.
Blame faulty decision-making, like the time you picked with your heart, or by mascot, conference, venue or blindfolded dart-throwing. Maybe blame the fact you didn’t watch college basketball until the week heading into Selection Sunday.
As Americans, we obviously need help. When it comes to the 2014 tournament, assistance may come in the form of Dr. Tim Chartier, a professor of mathematics at Davidson College.
Some might say that Chartier has come as close as anyone to perfecting the factors behind the perfect bracket, identifying the dynamics involved in March Madness and, along with help of a computer program, mapping out the unblemished road through the Final Four.
But even without a high-end computer simulator, Chartier’s tournament tips can help the everyday fan turn years of March ineptitude into a run at perfection – and maybe $1 billion, a prize Quicken Loans and Warren Buffett are offering for a flawless bracket.
Chartier spoke Thursday at Manhattan’s National Museum of Mathematics and shared with USA TODAY Sports his methods to Madness. Here are eight crucial factors Chartier believes you can’t afford to ignore:
1. Strength of schedule
This is the biggest factor of them all, according to Chartier. What road did a team take to get to the tournament – feasting on lesser foes or testing itself against the nation’s best? Teams that are hardened by a tough path to March are best positioned for a successful run, Chartier said.
“Largely, we look at trying to determine factors like who’s winning going into the tournament, who has sustained winning streaks, who wins when they’re away, but above any of that we’re trying to figure out who’s doing that against really good teams,” Chartier said. “That’s where the strength of schedule comes in.”
Second to the strength of schedule is how a team fared in the weeks before Selection Sunday. Did a team wilt in March? That’s a warning sign, Chartier said. On the flip side, it’s wise to circle teams that head into the tournament on a roll.
“It’s how you performed in more recent games,” Chartier said. “I call it the ‘mojo.’ You know… ‘Who has the mojo heading into March Madness?’ It’s the main thing that allows our method to pick up teams who are doing quite well, because you pick up that recency factor.”
3. Extended winning streaks
You need to win six in a row to take the national title. One can only imagine that a team that does so won at least six straight at one point during the regular season, right? But like the recency factor, Chartier believes a team that has shown an ability to stay hot for an extended period can very well do so again in March and April.
4. Winning on the road
Every game’s a road game in March Madness, remember, even if a top seed has the luxury of starting close to home. How a team fared away from home during the regular season is a potentially decisive factor in the tournament, Chartier said. Consider 2011-12 Kentucky, for example, which went 11-2 on the road and won each tournament game by eight or more points.
5. Winning close games
At some point during the tournament, a team is going to have to buckle down and win a close game late in the second half. Teams with a history of doing so – that have the knowledge of what it takes to win a nail-biter – are a big step ahead of those opponents that weren’t tested during the regular season.
“Has a team been tested in close games against hard opponents? If not, those are the teams you might not really know how they’re going to do in March Madness, because somewhere along the line that’s probably going to happen,” Chartier said.
6. Ignore winning percentage
If how a team fared down the stretch is vital, overall winning percentage during the regular season is not a good bracket barometer. Said Chartier, “Winning percentage is really bad because the teams with the highest winning percentage are often not in the tournament because they were in weak divisions and they didn’t win their tournament and get an automatic bid.”
Not all records are created equal, in other words.
“Sometimes, those larger winning percentages are because they played an easier schedule for a portion of the season,” he said.
7. Don’t ignore intuition
Math can do much of the heavy lifting, but there’s always room for a little educated intuition.
“Sometimes I think intuition can pick up some things that for whatever reason you can’t mathematically quantify,” Chartier said. “That’s something we’ve never been able to quite pull out of our data.”
8. Don’t root for the home team(s)
Avoid the temptation of picking the teams you’ve watched closely during the regular season – like an Ohio State fan picking Big Ten teams to cruise based on his or her knowledge of the conference, for example.
“Be very careful of leaning too hard on allegiance,” Chartier said. “If that’s all you’re going to do, then you’re somewhat going with a coin flip on that. It’s just the randomness of what you remember.”