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March Madness wrap-up

Well, I didn’t place in the top two of the March Madness pool I entered this year, but both my brackets did manage to beat all my other family members’ brackets. As I wrote in my previous entry, I also filled out a third bracket, based entirely on a sophisticated ratings scheme. I entered this bracket in the ESPN and Washington Post tourney contests, but not the pool, as it was too boring to fill out. My loss!

Out of 5898 entries in the Washington Post pool, this third bracket placed 52nd; out of what I think were about 3 million ESPN brackets, it finished 33229th. If I had entered it in my brother’s pool, it would have scored 465 points and won.

Let’s have a look at round-by-round performance to answer some bracket questions.

  1st S16 E8 F4 semi champ PTS
My brackets
pundits 24 9 6 3 1 0 385
Statistics 22 10 5 3 1 1 400
PYTHAG 24 12 6 4 1 1 465
Contest winners
ESPN winner 26 13 9 4 2 1 555
WaPost winner 26 8 7 4 2 1 475
CBS pundits
Denis Dodd 23 11 5 3 0 0 360
Michael Freeman 24 9 4 1 0 0 290
Gary Parrish 23 9 6 3 1 0 380
Brian De Los Santos 23 9 6 2 0 0 335
Gregg Doyel 22 11 5 3 0 0 355
Washington Post pundit
Tony Kornheiser 21 9 5 3 1 0 355
CNN/SI pundits
Luke Winn 24 11 6 2 0 0 360
Grant Wahl 23 10 7 2 1 0 385
Stewart Mandel 23 10 7 3 0 0 380
Seth Davis 20 9 6 2 1 0 345
Kelli Anderson 23 11 5 3 0 0 360
  • How did the sports pundits do? Not very well.1 My brackets beat them.
  • How did the individual pundits do compared to their consensus? Only CNN/SI’s Grant Wahl did as well as the consensus of pundits; the rest had lower scores. Sort of a reversal of the conventional wisdom on groupthink
  • How well do you have to do to win the ESPN or Washington Post contests? You need to nail the elite eight and on out. You need a good showing in the first two rounds, but you don’t have to be perfect. A handful of people in my brother’s pool got 26 first-round winners correct, the same number as the winners of the Post and ESPN contests. The Post winner only had 8 of the Sweet 16 correct, and if it had been an entry in my brother’s pool, it would have been mired somewhere in the middle. The ESPN winner picked 13 of the sweet 16–very good, of course, but at this point it still wouldn’t have been the leader in my brother’s pool.

It would be interesting to see how well the PYTHAG ratings would have predicted the tournament winners in previous years, although I doubt I’ll get around to it this year before my interest in bracket-prediction fades. But I think next year I’ll have to enter a bracket based on it, (and hope that nobody else does the same).

  1. At least for cheap-o non-ESPN Insider folks like me, the ESPN pundits’ complete brackets weren’t made available. They did better picking the final four than the CBS or CNN/SI pundits so perhaps they would have done better. []

April 8, 2008   No Comments

Anyone for a meat-judging pool?

Via Ethicurean, a Wall Street Journal article about a shamefully under-appreciated and under-publicized competition… intercollegiate meat judging. I had no opportunity for this at my undergraduate institution, and even though my graduate institution has an Animal Science program, I think it focuses on dairy instead of meat. I do wonder if anyone runs meat-judging competition pools? Or if meat judging is ever televised?

March 22, 2008   No Comments

My March Madness

My graduate school was primarily a hockey school, although this year it has made the NCAA basketball Tournament for the first time in decades. In fact, my graduate institution plays my brother’s graduate institution in the first round (I don’t predict mine to win), and one of my grad school friends has his undergrad, graduate, and (present) faculty schools all in the tournament. (Take a look, though, at Chad Orzel’s bracket based on the strength of physics graduate programs: Cornell would win!)
While in grad school, I didn’t really follow the basketball team, and I don’t think I even went to a single game. But even though I don’t really, nor have I ever really followed college basketball, I will say that March Madness is the greatest sporting event in the world. Sixty-four games and they all matter.

My brother has, for a number of years, run the only March Madness pool that I participate in. Compared to the rest of my family at least (and sometimes his other friends as well) I tend to do rather well: I’ve never won but I have placed second twice. My general strategy is to pay as little attention to college basketball as possible during the regular season. This works: in our family, at least, there does seem to be an inverse correlation between the number of games watched and performance in the pool. Once, in graduate school, I tried to pick a bracket by flipping a coin, and it was absolutely dismal. I turn to two strategies, then, to fill out my brackets.


There are two strategies with statistical bracket-picking methods. The first is to try find the characteristics (such as average winning margin or number of times the coach has been to the tourney) that historically have led to success in tournaments, and to see which of the current teams best meet the characteristics of historically successful teams. Pete Tiernan is the highest-profile guru of this sort of work and he’s put together a set of phenomenological models that predict success at all levels of the tournament, from choosing a final four to picking the 6-11 upsets. Of course, I’m too cheap to actually pay the $20 to buy full access to his research, nor do I want to buy ESPN insider to read his in-depth articles there. And the big question here is whether the methods actually work: compared with all the brackets on ESPN’s tourney challenge, a model (he has about a dozen) that hits the high 90’s pecentiles one year very often hits the 30 percentiles the next. So it may like picking winning lotto numbers: the winners don’t win because of the strength of the model, but because if there are enough entrants, one will be the best.

The second statistical approach is to construct models of team skill, and either rank the teams or put them head-to-head. An amazing amount of free analysis is available from Ken Pomeroy and I’m sure there are other sources as well.

For bracket construction, it’s actually pretty boring to just use somebody else’s ranking list to fill out a bracket. I’ve put together one bracket that’s a sort of half-hearted attempt to use Tiernan’s guidelines (at least the ones you can read for free) combined with Pomeroy’s Pythag numbers. What I discovered is that, more often than not, the simple guidelines don’t give clear-cut results, so doing this thoroughly requires sifting through an awful lot of data, which itself requires a good deal of effort to find. And although I’m a numerically-minded person, my interest does wane after a while.


The method I like the most for bracket-picking is to see what all the sports pundits have to say. This year, at least, 5 writers for CNNSI and 5 writers for CBS Sports put their entire brackets up soon after Selection Sunday, and ESPN had 5 pundits with their Elite Eight picks. (CBS Sports has added two more brackets that I didn’t look at.) Sports pundits watch an awful lot of college basketball. To be a national-level sports pundit, you have to pay attention to all the conferences and a wide swath of teams. (This is where I think basketball enthusiasts stumble: they generally have their favorite teams and conferences upon which they focus their attention, and as a result overlook and underestimate the rest of the teams.)

What was interesting to me is the variation in pundit picks. All 5 of the CNNSI writers picked UCLA to win the tournament and none of the ESPN pundits did. All of the CNN pundits pick 13-seed Siena to upset Vanderbilt, while only 1 CBS pundit did. Four of five CNNSI pick 11th-seed St. Joseph’s to beat Oklahoma, while only one CBS did, while 3 CBS writers picked 11th-seeded Marquette to beat Kentucky, while only 1 CNNSI writer did. Out of all ten full brackets, there was only one prediction of a 14-over-3-seed upset: CBS writer Brian De Los Santos picked Georgia over Xavier.

In addition to sending them to my brother, I posted my brackets to the Washington Post Tourney Tracker: Search for thm_A_exp for the pundit-derived bracket, thm_C_stats for the statistics-derived bracket, and thm_B_pyth for the (boring to construct) bracket filled out strictly based on Pomeroy’s pythag statistic. I’m curious how each of these strategies fares in a wider pool of competition.

March 20, 2008   4 Comments