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Friday, Dec 19, 2014
March Madness

Mathematician: Perfect March Madness bracket a long shot

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TAMPA — Predicting the weather is one thing. Predicting the winners of the next 63 men’s college basketball games is another. But it’s a gambit taken up every March by tens of millions of people, many of whom couldn’t tell you the difference between a Tar Heel and a Golden Gopher.

March Madness is here and bracketology is sweeping through offices and businesses across the nation. The college basketball tournament pits workers against each other, wives and girlfriends against husbands and boyfriends and everyone against that self-appointed know-it-all who works in the mail room.

Each one of them has the same odds of picking a perfect bracket as the next person - 1 out of 9 quintillion. A quintillion is a million times a trillion, or a one with 18 zeros behind it.

That’s where Tim Chartier comes in.

Chartier, a mathematics professor at Davidson College in North Carolina is one of the many, many, many people who are offering advice on picking brackets. He readily acknowledges no one is likely to win Warren Buffett’s $1 billion prize for getting every game right, but, he says, at least he has math on the side of his advice.

Chartier has embarked on a course to predict the unpredictable. Using mathematics, he is trying to make a science out of the art of picking winners of basketball games.

He and his students have come up with computer programs that input just about every statistic and bit of datum that emerges from the sport of basketball, crunch them together and spit out, statistically anyway, what may be the best chances.

Chartier, who has been inputting basketball data in computers since 2009, and who has students creating their own prediction programs, held a recent seminar on bracketology at which people paid $100 a head. The bracket guru said using statistics increases the odds, though he knows maybe people don’t really want to bet that way.

“I had somebody tell me last year their mother won the first round by going on the colors of jerseys,” he said. “She beat us all in the first round.”

But after that, statistics seem to be more reliable, she said.

“I’m really in it for the math,” he said. “We use new methods all the time. Some work, some don’t. If we use a method in which 95 percent of the people beat us, that’s bad. Were trying to be more accurate than you could be without math. It may give us a little edge. Even if we get 1 percent improvement, we get super excited.”

Chartier says crunching the numbers has produced some tips:

♦ Strength of schedule is most important. Did a team’s schedule include a bunch of cream puffs? Teams that play a tougher schedule are more likely to make a run.

♦  Did a team falter at the end of the season? That could be a sign it is about to stumble. Make note of teams that go into the tourney on a roll.

♦ Extended winning streaks should be considered. To win the national title, a team must win six in a row. Teams that have done that during the season have the edge, especially if those streaks came at the end of the year.

♦  Winning on the road is important, because every team playing in the tournament is playing an away game. How a team fared on the road during the regular season could be a factor in the tournament.

♦  Winning close games is something to consider as well. Probably during the tourney, a contender will have to weather a close game. Teams with a history of winning close games during the season could continue the habit during the tournament.

♦  Ignore winning percentages. How how a team fared down the stretch is vital, but overall winning percentages during the regular season is not a good bracket indicator, as teams generally play less talented teams early in the season.

♦  Don’t ignore intuition, as math can’t do it all. There’s something to be said for a gut feeling.

♦  Don’t root for the home team, a common misstep among bracketeers.

No matter the method of picking a bracket, the bracket has never been more popular. The NCAA estimates about 40 million Americans take part in March Madness office pools.

Many of those people wonder if they’re breaking the law. The answer is probably - but they probably won’t get in trouble.

“Placing a bet over $10 is illegal,” said Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy. “However, at TPD, our goal is to keep our citizens safe. I’m not sure that people placing office pool bets qualifies as a real threat to our community.

“Now if there was a complaint of organized gambling, we would respond,” she said. “But we haven’t been plagued with these kinds of calls in March.”

kmorelli@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7760

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