It’s that time of year again.
March Madness is upon us, in all of its basketball, its school spirit, its gambling, its in-game money, its eyes glued to tiny sports apps on the phone screen, its hidden browser tabs at work, legendary-triumph, devastating-loss, earth-shattering upheaval, tears-streaming-down-the-face-of-a-six-foot-tall-college-senior, lunatics-elders, heart-d ‘a-champion, Cinderella story, buzzer-beater glory.
And now, a week after the start of the tournament and with the approach of the Sweet Sixteen, your parenthesis is broken.
I’m not a medium, just data driven. We’ve gone through 48 of the 63 total matches in the tournament, and the likelihood of your group still being in play is incredibly low. It could even be somewhere around 1 in 280,000,000,000,000. (That’s trillions, to save your eyes the decimal that counts).
At least those would be the odds if your bracket was completely random – if you drafted it by tossing a coin to decide which team would win each head-to-head. With this strategy, you have a 50% chance of choosing correctly; multiply that chance by 48, and your odds drop exponentially – to 1 in 1/(0.50)^48, to be exact. The whole tournament? You land this shot once every 1/(0.50)^63 = 9.2 quintillion try.
The number quintillion is so irrelevant in life that it is difficult to understand. According to a report from the NCAA website, if you consider that there are approximately 7.5 quintillion grains of sand on Earth, that means that if you were to guess at what specific grain of any of the world’s beaches I would thought, you would have a 23% better chance than perfect support. Or if you were to guess where a single acorn was hidden in one of the planet’s three trillion trees, your odds would still be three million times better than a perfect parenthesis.
As Tim Chartier, a math and computer science professor at Davidson College (where Golden State Warrior Steph Curry once played), recounts fast businessyou could do a billion parentheses per second, and it would take another 300 years to cover the quintillions of possible versions of events.
But again, the quintillion is mostly irrelevant. No one actually chooses a parenthesis by flipping a coin, and if you try at all to identify the best team, you’re probably over 50%, and the odds of the perfect parenthesis increase exponentially.
Could he reach the realm of the possible? According to Chartier, who has researched “bracketology” for years and even developed a fan-friendly “March Mathness” website that generates weighted brackets, the answer is, not really. There are modeling machines that analyze data from millions of factors to determine each game’s most likely outcome, but Chartier says that, despite years of tinkering, their accuracy tops out at around 70%.
If you picked the correct winner of every game 70% of the time, your perfect odds would be 1 in 1/(0.70)^63 = 5.7 billion. Another blow.
This clearly shows why Warren Buffett, who made his fortune through smart investments, made it a sport to offer riches to anyone who reached a perfect slice: once it was $1 billion, another time it was $1 million per year for life. Being a numbers guy, he knows that will never happen.
Algorithms bring us closer, but no cigar
From the quintillion to the billion is even orders of magnitude greater. Predictive algorithms can achieve this by analyzing a series of statistics. For a game between Duke and Kansas, this could take into account how often Duke wins against Kansas, score difference, number of games Duke has won all season, number of win streaks prior to this game ( a hot streak), whether star players are injured, the coach’s background, how often 2 seeds (Duke) beat 1 seed (Kansas) and millions of other factors of increasing complexity, up to to early game three-point blocks and late game free throw percentages. And each of these factors is adjusted according to its importance.
The feats these models can accomplish have grown dramatically in recent years, said Mark Ward, statistics professor at Purdue and director of the data science-focused Data Mine. fast business. They can now glean information from newspapers, social networks or Wikipedia to glean information better than humans: “He is able to discern things that you and I may think is just qualitative data – not concrete numbers, not quantitative information – but he is able to determine if the written sentences are favorable for a team because of the way they were formed.
To drive the point home, Ward evokes AlphaGo, an AI that has learned to beat humans at the complex game of Goes. It does this by analyzing millions of possible outcomes resulting from a single move and deciding which are the most likely, given data from past matches. AI can do it for sports, like EA Games video game crazy made for the NFL Super Bowl, by simulating countless possible games, each player as a chess piece with custom stats. However, as Chartier notes, the crazy The model isn’t very useful for March Madness, as most of its players only have stats of one, and at most three, tournament appearances.
Ultimately, says Ward, “these are just patterns,” and luck and chance can always thwart.
This is echoed by Chartier, who cites the inevitability of the unknowable – the X-factors he hasn’t figured out how to account for. On the one hand, emotional stress can take its toll: “The superior seeds, when they get into trouble, feel the weight of the shadow of history falling on them, because you don’t want to be the seed. #2 losing to the #15 seed. Not to mention the #15 seed seeing the rays of hope and success shining down on them. It can sometimes shake the level of play. It’s hard to quantify. And sometimes teams gel in the middle of the tournament and start behaving differently. Then there are always the Cinderella stories that come out of left field – this year, the St. Peter’s Day peacocks; and last year, the Oral Roberts Golden Eagles. No Chartier model provided for them.
Even if your choice wins, if it was a buzzer at the edge of your seat, at the last second, “Did you really predict this?” Chartier laughs, “because it could easily have gone the other way. . . . Sometimes people look silver ball and I think it’s possible to get 90% accuracy, but there’s always an element of luck that you can’t predict. (The famous KenPom ranking system does its best with a “luck” offset, calculated as the difference between a team’s actual winning percentage and what you’d expect based on stats.)
What Chartier found matters most: the toughness of a team’s regular season schedule (“it’s not just your record, it’s the strength of the teams you beat”); so-called “math mojo” (if you win against good teams as the season progresses); and not missing home (if you win against good teams on the road). “If you play against all your tough teams at home, at the start of the season, that’s less predictive of how March Madness will perform,” he says.
The NBA, he concedes, is more predictable: while the players are closer in terms of skill, which makes it harder to call, they are also more consistent. (For example, when a player has hot hands at the college level, the variability is far more extreme than in the league.) And the NBA championships are a seven-game NCAA single-elimination series. The longer the playoffs, the more likely the better team is to win.
But in the end, it’s a game of percentages. “Even if you’re only 1% to 2% more predictive,” he says, your chances of getting the perfect slice go up by the billions.
Last year, according to the NCAA – which garners millions of entries each year for its official bracket challenge – no bracket remained perfect beyond game 28. a surprise game canceled by COVID that a team was forced to forfeit.) The record was set in 2019, when an Ohio neuropsychologist correctly predicted 49 games in a row. The odds were 1 in somewhere between 38 million and 560 trillion. That run was cut short two games into the Sweet Sixteen when 3-seeded Purdue beat 2-seeded Tennessee in overtime. (Among tournament stans, the bracket, titled “Center Road”, was briefly famous.)
This year, we may only have lasted until Round 2, but there’s still a week and a half of wild twists to come. And broken hooks be damned, we’re here for the drama. Bring on the madness!