Thursday, March 19, 2015

We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad.

As that most furiously-paced few weekends of the sports calendar descend upon us, there is one immutable truth about the NCAA Tournament that I am reminded of time and again:

We know absolutely nothing about college basketball.

Really. We don't. The NCAA Tournament, which tips off today, is a mind-boggling cataclysm of assumed hoops knowledge, intensive well-intention research and the massive heap of garbage that gets dumped all over it the moment Cinderella crashes your bracket. No one has any idea what will happen, beyond Kentucky probably winning, when the Big Dance starts off today, least of all me.

That, of course, doesn't stop us from trying, and to that end this year, like every year, I have filled out my bracket and made picks in my survivor pool, a pool from which I was eliminated at the end of the very first game of the tournament last year. This year I actually feel pretty good about my choices, a largely chalky Final Four with a reasonable seasoning of upsets in the first two rounds. That's generally how the tournament goes, after all, but it's the matter of which upsets you will (or more likely) won't get. This year I'm feeling reasonably confident about my faith in Buffalo and UC Irvine for no rational reasons at all, but lately I've been getting anxious as they each become trendier picks. Again, this is not in any way rational, but what, exactly, is rational about boiling a 34-game season of more than 200 teams to a 68-team single-elimination tournament?

Probably nothing.

And so, because I can't rationally think of a better way to solve and understand an irrational idea, I've decided to become one of those nerds that undertakes a totally ludicrous mathematical experiment when March rolls around, in order to determine if I'm better off using my own intuition, picking based on historical matchup probabilities, or if I'm better off flipping a coin. After going through the process, I won't lie, there's a very good chance the Coin Flip bracket, in which Arizona and Oklahoma somehow faced off in the title game despite universal even odds, ends up being the most accurate. Then again the bracket ended up with University of Alabama-Birmingham, a 14-seed that is almost certainly going to get bounced by Iowa State this afternoon, reaching the Final Four.

To perform all this experimental magic, I relied on two very helpful tools my friend Chris found through Googling after I informed him of the idea. For the bracket based on weighted historic probabilities, I used this site, which has the winning percentages for each seed vs. seed matchup since the tournament expanded to a 64-team format back in 1985. To actually perform the simulations, whether they be weighted or 50/50, I used this handy site that allows you to create a percentage weighted spinning wheel and then spin away. This, of course, isn't without its flaws. After all, as we reach the later rounds of the tournaments, certain seeds will have only played a handful of times over the past 30 tournaments, or perhaps not at all. This left me with not nearly a large enough sample size of past matchups on which to base my calculated predictions, but with nothing else to work with, I went with the past, small sample size or not. The one time I had a matchup of seeds that had never met before in the NCAA Tournament (for example, a No. 5 seed and a No. 11 seed have never, ever played one another in the current tournament setup), I just flipped a coin.

Are these trustworthy methods? Well, not really. But what else am I going to do? Just watch for fun? Please.

Here's what we wound up with.