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Jonathan Erickson

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March Madness or Statistical Madness? You Pick 'Em

March 18, 2010

For college basketball fans, today is a special day -- the tip-off of the 64-team NCAA basketball tournament, or "March Madness" as it's called. For everyone else, it's just "madness."

The sports site espn.com will likely be overloaded today, with last minute fans picking their best-guess at winners and posting them on the online tournament brackets. For bragging rights only, of course. Nooo... there's no betting going on. No way.

If you haven't picked your winners, here's a tip from Sheldon Jacobson, a professor of computer science and the director of the simulation and optimization lab at the University of Illinois, and noted expert in statistics and data analysis has some advice on how to pick winners: After the Sweet Sixteen round of play, ignore a team's seeding, which is a statistically insignificant predictor of a team's chances of winning.

According to Jacobson, picking the higher-seeded team to beat a lower-seeded opponent usually works only in the first three rounds of the tournament. Once the tournament enters the Elite Eight round, a team's seed in the tournament is irrelevant.

"In the Sweet Sixteen round, the rankings still hold -- but just barely," Jacobson said. "From the Elite Eight round and onward, you might as well pick names out of a hat."

Jacobson explains all this in Seeding in the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament: When is a Higher Seed Better?, a paper he co-authored with Douglas King.

He adds that "People often overvalue seedings. The best advice is, pay attention to them early in the tournament, but as the tournament gets going, remember that their usefulness as a predictive measure fades."

Jacobson was spot on in last year's tournament,when all four of the number one, two and three seeds made it through to the Sweet Sixteen, "which is exactly what our research says, that seeding does make a difference in the early rounds, and the top three seeds are going to be pretty predictable until the Elite Eight round," Jacobson said.

So what does all mean? How about "Rock Chalk, Jayhawk!" Have fun.

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