The Pseudo-Science of Bracketology

Predicting who will win the NCAA basketball tournament, let alone every game of the tournament, defies existing computer power, but that doesn't stop people from trying every year during March Madness.Bracketology, the process of picking the winners in the NCAA men's and women's national basketball tournaments, has attracted a lot of scientific attention — and a lot of dubious science.

University of Maryland quantum computing students have created a sophisticated, hard-to-fathom bracketology system that boils down to using a ytterbium ion like a coin flip to pick winners. Its ion coin flips predict the University of Pittsburgh, the eighth seed in the Eastern regional, to win the Big Dance. Unfortunately for the Panthers, they lost their first tournament game to ninth-seeded Wichita State.

Nate Silver, the legendary numbers cruncher in the world of politics, predicts Louisville has the highest probability of any of the 68 teams in the tournament to win at 22.7 percent. Indiana is next at 19.6 percent, followed by Florida at 12.7 percent, Kansas 7.5 percent and Number 1-ranked Gonzaga at 6.1 percent.

Silver has street cred because last year he predicted Kentucky would win the Big Dance — along with just about everybody else who follows college basketball and noticed the starting five were likely to be top picks in the NBA draft.

Because March Madness is a major national distraction that saps productivity from America's offices and factories, marketers sniff an opportunity. A number of brands have created their own bracketology to engage consumers. One investment analyst compared picking stocks to picking NCAA tournament winners, which may not have been the best of ideas.

Some bracketology advice has an oddly practical ring. One blogger advised office pool prognosticators to "play the odds, compare the schedules, scout the teams, look for home court advantage and don't go Cinderella nuts." It's a question whether most people, even if they are unemployed, have enough time to do all that for 68 teams, but it probably would be good training to become an NBA scout.

Another favorite pastime this time of year is contemplating the astronomical odds of predicting every tournament game accurately, including the inevitable upsets. One math major from Portland State University said the odds extend out light years. It would be easier, he says, to pick the winning numbers in the lottery.

Against all odds, people — even busy people like President Obama — continue to fill out NCAA tournament brackets with what approaches a religious fervor wrapped in pseudo-science.

Of course we won't know who will be the winner of March Madness until the tournament ends — in April.

It's a lot easier in college football. Just pick the team from the Southeast Conference. Roll Tide Roll.


Tom Eiland is a graduate of the University of Alabama and has a smug smile from January until the new football season starts in September, when he begins to wear a lot of crimson-colored clothes.