(Illustrations by Tom Tian, AB’10)

How to fill out a March Madness bracket

Struggling with your picks for this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament? UChicago scholars share uncommon strategies for making selections.

What should you do if you’ve been invited to join a March Madness pool but don’t know anything about the teams—or about college basketball? First, some basics. From mid March through the first week of April, 68 men’s college basketball teams from conferences across the country compete in the annual NCAA Division I* tournament, commonly referred to as March Madness. Yesterday was Selection Sunday, when NCAA officials release an official bracket (pdf) that shows which teams will compete in the tournament, along with their rankings and initial matchups. Fans form betting pools, filling out brackets by guessing which team will win of each of the 67 total games. [[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"3905","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"350","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"500"}}]] As statistician Nate Silver, AB’00, has shown, there are data-driven ways of picking sports winners that can be fairly successful. Or you could pick the team with the superior astronomy (or physics) department, as Rocky Kolb, dean of the Division of Physical Sciences, likes to do: “It hasn’t worked yet, but I am hopeful this year.” We chatted with University of Chicago experts about other ways to apply rigorous inquiry to tournament brackets. Their suggestions below have been condensed and edited. *UChicago basketball plays in NCAA Division III. [[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"3904","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"350","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"500"}}]]

Vineet Arora, MD, AM’03

Associate Professor, Medicine Faculty Affiliate, Sleep Research Center Assistant Dean, Scholarship and Discovery, Pritzker School of Medicine
One study shows that with more sleep, college basketball players have 9 percent higher free throw percentages, and 9 percent higher 3-point field goal percentages. Given this evidence plus the grueling schedule of these athletes, in my medical opinion, I would definitely recommend not picking the team that travels across the most time zones and is at risk for jet lag. Based on this, a team from the central time zone is best.

Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer

Helen A. Regenstein Distinguished Service Professor Director, Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge
In ancient Greece, the temple of Apollo at Delphi bore the inscription Meden Agan (μηδὲν ἄγαν) — “Nothing in excess.” Similarly, the doctrine of the Golden Mean was viewed as the key to success in personal life, health, career, and everything else.
Therefore, each team’s collective
  • weight
  • amount of alcohol consumed annually
  • $ per year spent on steak annually
must be measured, and the teams that fall in the middle range selected.
Avoid the skinny teetotalers and the bulging beer-swiggers.

Austan Goolsbee

Robert P. Gwinn Professor of Economics
  1. Efficient markets push you toward index funds and higher seeds.  
  2. Don't pick UChicago.

Jack Gilbert

Faculty Director, Microbiome Center Professor, Department of Surgery at the University of Chicago Medicine Senior Scientist (Adjunct), Marine Biological Laboratory Group Leader, Microbial Ecology at Argonne National Laboratory
I would look into how the teams’ players interact. The teams with more physical interaction will increase the number of bacteria that they share, and this in turn could create a stronger sense of empathy and teamwork between them (we see this in animals). Therefore, I would say do some background on the teams and check out how often they physically interact with each other.

Brenda L. Johnson

Library Director and University Librarian
Do a keyword search for the last name of each of the coaches in the Library catalog, and the one with the most hits wins the round. Alternatively, find out which coach can throw a chair the farthest.

Geoffrey R. Stone, JD’71

Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law
As anyone versed in the law knows, nothing in the law is arbitrary. It is all about logic and reason. Therefore, a lawyer who wants a random way of make choices would have to move beyond the law and consult an economist.

Sarah Ziesler

Senior Lecturer, Mathematics
I know nothing about college basketball, so March Madness really isn't on my radar. However, a little digging on the web led me to some work done at Davidson College, which seems to have the potential to give great results. A few simple mathematical choices will generate a ranking that you can use to create your bracket.