Bracket Buster: Part 1

Round of 64: who predicts winners better?

Warren Buffett’s challenge of filling out a perfect bracket captivated America, but why? Who wouldn’t take a shot at winning $1 billion even if the odds are beyond farfetched? Historically, the highest payout for the lottery in the United States was $656 million in 2012 by the mega millions. Buffett’s prize is significantly higher and $1 billion certainly carries some shock factor. However, Buffets’ bracket challenge only lasted into the 25th game before the entire field of brackets were eliminated. After Memphis’s win over George Washington, all of the brackets were officially “busted”.

Did anyone really have a chance at winning the $1 billion bracket? There is a perception that choosing a bracket is less random than the lottery in most people’s eyes, but is it? Let’s put this is in perspective. The odds of winning the mega millions are 1 in 258,890,850 or roughly 1 in 258 million. The odds of picking a perfect bracket, assuming each team has an equal shot to win each game is 1 in 9,223,372,036,854,775,808. That’s 1 in 9 quintillion. The chances of winning the lottery are about 35.6 billion times greater. The lottery however has no skill or smarts involved.

If choosing the perfect bracket is not random, what criteria are used to predict winning teams? Some people choose based off of gut feelings, others are based on head to head matchups, some teams are chosen out of school loyalty, or teams that have been strong historically. But what if we looked at statistics having to do with the schools as predictors?

We looked at six different indicators relating to the colleges and universities participating in the tournament. These indicators include: admission rate, 2012 endowment, tuition (both in and out of state), and graduation rate (at both 4 and 6 years).

The indicators were chosen for various reasons. Endowment and tuition reflect the amount of money received by the school which helps fund sports programs and draw in potential players. Admission and graduation rates are also important factors in deciding on a school for student athletes. Very few college basketball players make it into the NBA and prospective players want to have their degrees mean something after basketball ends. We believe that better schools often draw in better quality players.

We used the same first round matchups as the original bracket and compared the real results to using one of the indicators as picking the winner. We only looked at the first round of the tournament.

Table 1 compares each of our indicators with the national average bracket, the top and bottom three performing analysts in the country, the president and the “chalk” bracket which always picks the higher seed.

Table 1

As seen in the table, our indicators didn’t fare all that well. The top three analysts and President Obama scored over 80% while our best indicator only scored 66%. The national bracket, or the most popular picks of each bracket in America (via ESPN) had 75% correct as did the “chalk” bracket which simply takes the highest seed.

In our next post, we’ll continue our analysis, and achieve better success after some adjustments to the methodology.