I have a confession to make: I don't follow basketball. At all. So when I was asked if I wanted to join in on the March Madness fun and compete against some friends with my own tourney bracket this year, I hesitated. Am I supposed to just pick based on mascots and where my buddies went to school, seeing as I don't know enough about the teams' standings?
As it turns out, there are tons of resources to help both NCAA noobs and extreme aficionados make their picks. Sure, many of them recommend something time consuming called "following the sport," but it really all comes down to stats and some very educated guesses. And there's a lot on the line depending on the pool you join--one billion freaking dollars, to be precise--so you'd better hustle and submit your brackets before Thursday's fast approaching deadline.
The recently relaunched FiveThirtyEight site offers a bevvy of articles and resources for you to peruse before penciling in your picks, with the most handy being the site's interactive bracket, shown in the main image at the top of this article. Hover over each team's spot to reveal which one is most likely to advance to the next round, complete with the percentage of likely advancement through each game and how likely that team will make it all the way to the championship.
FiveThirtyEight's forecasting model looks at power rankings, pre-season rankings, NCAA S-curve placement, player injuries, and geography. I like this model because it incorporates computer rankings, human rankings, and extra tidbits, like how far each team has to travel for that game.
ESPN's Basketball Power Index
If you prefer to look at raw stats, ESPN's Basketball Power Index is just about as thorough as it can get. This is a team-rating system that looks at final score, pace of play, location, strength of opposing team, and absence of key players in every single game of the season. Each team is given an overall power number out of 100--Arizona tops the list at 91.1 as of this writing--but you can also view the team's wins to losses, net points versus average, strength of schedule, conference rank, and other relevant data.
There are several other power ranking systems if you'd like to compare:
- Ken Pomeroy's ratings
- Jeff Sagarin's predictor ratings
- Sonny Moore's ratings
- Joel Sokol's Logistic Regression/Markove Chain ratings
- Joe Lunardi's Ratings Percentage Index
In fact, FiveThirtyEight takes five of these power rankings into consideration in its own bracket model.
Go for the billions
Warren Buffett and Quicken Loans have teamed up to offer what could be the best prize in NCAA tourney-picking history: Pick a 100-percent winning bracket, and you'll win $1 billion. One. Billion. Dollars. However, all of the pessimists out there will have you believe that this is a nearly impossible feat: A 9.2 quintillion-to-1 chance (or 128 billion-to-1 depending on who's doing the math). Still, the top 20 finishers will win $100,000, which is not a bad consolation prize in the slightest. (Note that while the contest is free to enter, you will have to sign up with Yahoo and hand over some data about whether you're a home owner to Quicken Loans--all the better to ping you with information about home mortgages long after the winning team cuts down the nets.)
So, you might as well try, and math professor Dr. Tim Chartier of Davidson College in North Carolina wants to help. He recently taught a lecture at the National Museum of Mathematics in New York on how to pick the perfect March Madness bracket, and shared some of his tips with the rest of us. Check out his tips in The Atlantic, USA Today, and New York Times Magazine.
You know, just picking a bracket for the hell of it isn't the worst thing in the world, either. Bleacher Report's Scott Harris suggests ten alternatives to the educated guess. Want to pick based on which mascot would win in a fight? Go for it. Famous fans or alums? Sure! Or the old standby: Turn to a dartboard. My personal favorite is picking teams based on the awesomeness of the players' hair, but really, it's up to you.
Sam Laird at Mashable suggests that ditching the bracket all together puts the focus back on the gameplay itself. Or, at the very least, you can fill your bracket out, tuck it away somewhere, then look at it again once Final Four time rolls around.
Huffington Post's March Madness Predict-o-Tron is a fun tool: Use the sliders to indicate which player and team attributes you find important, and the bracket will update with the outcome probability based on your preferences. Attributes range from expert power rankings to offensive rebound to height of the players, so you have a good number of qualities to work with.
Celebrities are people too, you guys, and some of them have filled out brackets this year. President Obama revealed his entire bracket during an ESPN Sports Center segment on Wednesday morning. There's no shame in taking the POTUS's picks into consideration, especially since he is a big basketball fan.