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A Mathematician's 5 Tips for the Perfect March Madness Bracket

Look at a team's recent, difficult wins over general winning percentage — and make sure to leave sentimental attachments out of it.
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Whether it's for bragging rights or maybe a cash prize at your office (we won't tell the IRS), everyone wants to win with their NCAA March Madness bracket. You can probably select a good percentage of winners; maybe you'll even get the Final Four correct, or the overall champion at least.

But could you correctly predict the outcome of all 67 contests? 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. To help increase your chances of achieving this feat (or just winning), DealNews has enlisted the expertise of Dr. Tim Chartier, a Davidson College professor and bracketology expert.

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 statistician and father of APBRmetrics 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 important 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."

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.
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1 comment
Scroogus Maximus
I'm practicing the chimp-weather-prediction version of "Throw Darts at a spinning list of teams" this year. Can't be any worse than the usual "I like their mascot" picks done by most....