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A Mathematician's Tips for the Perfect March Madness Bracket

Warren Buffet is offering $1 billion to anyone who correctly assembles the winning men's NCAA March Madness bracket. Here's how you can improve your odds.
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As if March Madness couldn't get any madder, billionaire Warren Buffett has stepped forward with an offer of $1 billion to anyone who can pick the perfect bracket for the NCAA men's college basketball tournament. He's teamed up with Quicken Loans (run by fellow billionaire and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert) to present the Quicken Loans Billion Dollar Bracket, which dangles the ultimate carrot for anyone who thinks they can sort the winners from the losers in all 63 of the men's hoops contests.

Entering is easy enough, if you can get your act and your bracket together by March 19 at QuickenLoansBracket.com. The more difficult part, of course, is coming up with that magical combination of winners. And it might as well be magic, as the odds have been estimated anywhere from more than 1 in 4 billion to 1 in 9,223,372,036,854,775,808, as estimated by the contest sponsors themselves, which also include Yahoo! Sports.

Still it doesn't hurt to try, especially since the 20 most accurate brackets earn a hefty runner-up prize of $100,000 a piece. To help increase your chances of winning, DealNews has enlisted the expertise of Dr. Tim Chartier, a Davidson College professor and bracketology expert. He'll also be leading March Mathness, a workshop at the National Museum of Mathematics in New York City that will teach participants how to use simple numerical methods in their quest for hoops supremacy.

Pre-Game Warmup: Neutralize the Fan Factor

Because so many people interested in the NCAA tournament are basketball nuts, they tend to pick their brackets with a certain amount of bias. "The people who do well, they're not the sports fanatics," Chartier says. "The fans tend to overthink it and have attachments to who they think should do well." His advice: Make like a mathlete and use statistics to your advantage.

Stacking Your Bracket: Recency Factor

Chartier says that to make your bracket really hum, you have to go beyond a simple win-loss schedule. He cites recency as a major factor: that is, how well a team does late in the season, just before the tournament. "When we first started, that was all we did: weight with recency," he says. "We had a student who did that in 2009, and he beat 97% of the more than 4 million brackets submitted to ESPN. In 2010, we had a student who beat 99% of 5 million brackets. And last year we had a cheerleader, and she beat 96% of the 8 million brackets."

Away Games & Winning Streaks Matter

Chartier identifies two other factors you can "upweight" to get your bracket more accurate. He has his students take a close look at a team's road record. "That's important because the whole tournament is away, if you think about it," he says. "But you can have an advantage based on where you play if it's close to your home court." The second involves winning streaks; you'll want to favor teams who've proven they can string those wins together. "The way you win the tournament is that you have to have a five- or six-game winning streak. Obviously if you can't do that you can't win it all."

Dean Oliver's 4 Factors

Just as baseball has the "Moneyball" phenomenon, basketball has its own version of statistical analysis, called APBRmetrics. And when it comes to basketball stats, Chartier gives his due to Dean Oliver, who identified four factors that contribute to a basketball team's success: shooting (40%), turnovers (25%), rebounding (20%), and free throws (15%).

Take It to the Hoop: Strength of Schedule

The exact method Chartier uses for putting together 350 linear equations and 350 unknowns that help him form the ultimate bracket is complex. But we believe him when he tells us that these linear systems, when you break them down, "are based on what you learn in middle school. There's a lot of math software that does it for you so you don't even have to know how to do it."

The equations can include variables such as the weighted factors mentioned above, and perhaps more importantly, the strength (or weakness) of a team's schedule over the season. "The teams with the highest winning percentages aren't always in the tournament, so you have to be really careful in thinking winning percentage is the most impotent thing," Chartier adds. "It isn't the fact that you can go in and win, but whether you can win against hard teams. That's what gives you the huge bump."

As for his own bracket and who will win the tourney, Chartier admits he hasn't gotten around to that bit of number-crunching just yet. But his pre-teen son, who's heard all about "The Buffet Brackets," has been urging him to get his game face on. "He likes math, so my bracket will be him and me going through the numbers," he says. AAnd if we win a billion, it'll be because my 11-year-old son got his Ph.D. father to sit down and do it."

Readers, are any of you basketball fans? Will you submit a bracket this year?

Contributing Writer

Lou Carlozo is a DealNews contributing writer. He covers personal finance for Reuters Wealth. Prior to that he was the Managing Editor of WalletPop.com, and a veteran columnist at the Chicago Tribune.
Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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4 comments
dealnews-Lindsay
@hulten333 Good question! We'll have to followup with him!
hulten333
Update? How'd your resident genius do?
bamd94
Oh, hell yeah I will! I do it every year anyway, ... never close to perfection, but (best 1st rd. was 28/32 correct) .... have won some "pools" in the past! Now that my son is in HS, the real battle will be which one of us has a better bracket and who can properly pick those early-upsets, especially the 8-9, and 7-10 seeds!! Now, this year I may pay a little more "attention to detail" being I may be rubbing elbows with Messrs. Buffet and Gilbert soon!! Being a math major, I might even break out my old college textbooks (online now) and try some statistical regression --- Nah, ... just going with Chartier states above "what have you done for me lately!!!!!!" Good Luck everyone!!
Greg the Gruesome
Why is Warren Buffett risking his money for this when he doesn't own Quicken Loans?

By the way, "Only the first 15,000,000 Entrants who complete the registration process (as determined by Yahoo) are eligible for the challenge."
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