A perfect NCAA bracket?

By , Guest blogger

Loyal reader Tom Church is also a blogger, and has an interesting post on the NCAA brackets. He uses stats to calculate the odds of selecting a perfect bracket as ...

... roughly 1 in 9 quintillion, or 1 in 9 million trillions. I don’t care how many brackets you fill out. We’re not going to see that one anytime soon.

But surely that’s not right. Every year, someone gets decently close to filling out a perfect bracket. Is there a better way to predict winners? Sure. How about using the seeding system? After all, a number one team is almost unequivocally better than a number sixteen team. How much better? I went and found out. Over a surprisingly short few hours, I was able to record every match-up between ranked teams in NCAA Tournaments since 1985. 20 years of data, 63 games per year, 1260 total games. What resulted is a table of the probabilities of each rank beating every other rank, so long as such match ups occurred.

As you might imagine, the loss by top-seed Kansas to Northern Iowa (Northern Iowa?!? Panthers?) hit brackets here in KC pretty hard. I actually went against the grain and selected Kentucky to win it all, so maybe the Kansas loss will help. You know that Bob Litan loves immigrants (Ali's father is an immigrant from Iran), but after this Ali Farokhmanesh kid netted the ultimate 3-pointer and iced his beloved Jayhalks ... I dunno. Still, you have to love this story:

[Ali's] parents, Mashallah Farokhmanesh and Cindy Fredrick, quit their volleyball coaching jobs two years ago to follow their only child's basketball career. They traveled the Midwest in their Honda CR-V, driving 16 hours round-trip at times -- with no hotel stay -- to games as distant as Evansville, Ind., and Carbondale, Ill., and Wichita, Kan.

When Mashallah came to this country in 1978 to learn English, he didn't know that he'd end up earning a master's and a Ph.D. and staying for the rest of his life. And he didn't know much about basketball. But both parents did their best to coach Ali, taping a broom to a yardstick and holding it up to help him learn how to arch his shot over taller players.

Come to think of it, wouldn't it be neat to open up our immigration policy to anyone from Iran with a PhD? Talk about competitive advantage! But let's pivot here (without travelling) and think about the equivalent of a Kansas loss in college football. Should NCAA bowls transition to a playoff? Kansas losing to Northern Iowain basketball is the football equivalent of Tim Tebow's Florida Gators losing to Central Michigan. Funny, but not fun. Believe me, I'm not knocking Mount Pleasant -- I have many ancestors buried there.

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I wouldn't want to lose "March Madness" because it's a cultural treasure. But so is the Bowl Season. I think each sport already has an optimal championship structure. A playoff will not translate well to football, especially with the much higher level of uncertainty that what Tom Church highlights in his spreadsheets. Fairness is the rationale for forcing a playoff on NCAA football, but as I explain with Mike Davis with our fairness index here, that's a value that cuts both ways. Our bottom line is not a defense of the BCS (it can be so much better), but a rejection of playoffs.

Or think of it this way: if you like what quants have done for Wall Street, just think if we could work our magic on college football....

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