The Men’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship tournament is underway, and along with March Madness brackets comes our collective annual reminder that we don’t know as much about basketball as we think we do. I like to consider myself a fairly knowledgeable basketball fan. Growing up 30 minutes east of Lawrence, a campus with arguably the richest college basketball tradition in the world, it was easy for me to fall in love with the game early on. I watch multiple games in their entirety each year. I can name the mascot of Western Kentucky – congrats on your shoutout Hilltoppers! I know at least one 12 seed has beaten a five seed in 10 of the last 11 first rounds. I know the Big East is good – at least until yesterday. I may even dare to say that I am a borderline basketball expert.
After round one, this pseudo-expertise translated to a respectable 25 out of 32 correct picks. My correct March Madness bracket upsets included such gems as (11) Marquette over (6) Xavier, (12) Richmond over (5) Vanderbilt, and (11) VCU over (6) Georgetown. My March Madness bracket was good enough for a spot alone in second place in my office pool, and ranked in the 93rd percentile among players in Yahoo!’s Tourney Pick ‘em game. What I find interesting though, and the inspiration for this article, is that the player in first place of my office pool chose every…. single…. favorite. That’s right – go look at the bracket again. If you simply picked every single favorite with no thought or effort whatsoever, you would have picked 26 out of 32 games correctly after round one, and be among the top players in the entire world.
After talking to a friend this morning whose pool is led by a four-year old girl, my suspicions that March Madness brackets are a total crapshoot were confirmed. At least, that is what I will continue to think to make myself feel better about my basketball knowledge. This time of year reminds me of Burton Malkiel’s A Random Walk Down Wall Street. In the book, the author states:
Taken to its logical extreme [the efficient market hypothesis] means that a blindfolded monkey throwing darts at a newspaper’s financial pages could select a portfolio that would do just as well as one carefully selected by the experts.
To see if this theory would hold true for March Madness brackets, I set up a nonscientific experiment – do not site this in your term papers, kids. I did not have any blindfolded monkeys on hand, so I used a quarter. Here’s how the experiment worked:
- I analyzed only the first round of this year’s tournament
- I automatically advanced every seed that has a historical winning percentage of at least .800 in round one. These seeds include the ones, who have never lost to a 16, the twos, who have only lost four times to 15’s, and the threes, who have won just over four out of every five games over 14’s.
- For the remaining 20 games, I literally flipped a coin to determine the pick. If it landed on heads, the coin picked the top line. If it landed on tails, the coin picked the bottom line.
To my dismay, THE COIN TIED ME. Of the remaining 20 games, the coin correctly selected 13 winners. Adding the coin’s selections with the 12 automatic advances, the coin ends up with a total of 25 correct picks in round one. Ironically, the coin picked the VCU and Richmond upsets. Disturbingly, after the coin’s selections, it screamed, “Suck it, Joe Lunardi!”
I am not trying to claim that a coin toss is always as good as anything for making March Madness Bracket selections, but an argument can definitely be made for the randomness of the tournament. Even if a coin toss only picks 50% winners, it would still end up with a score of 22 this year– better than several people in my office pool. So if you are feeling down about your selections after round one (or to make you feel worse depending on your level of optimism), remember that a four year old and/or a quarter could probably do better.