Magazine article USA TODAY

Mad Men of the Hardwood: The Mayhem of March Madness Figures to Be a Bit More Intense This Year with the Reformatting of the NCAA Tournament to Include Even More Teams

Magazine article USA TODAY

Mad Men of the Hardwood: The Mayhem of March Madness Figures to Be a Bit More Intense This Year with the Reformatting of the NCAA Tournament to Include Even More Teams

Article excerpt

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IT IS, BY MANY accounts, the most-exciting tournament in the world, but is it mayhem or madness?--perhaps a bit of both if you are a college cage fan. Adding to the craziness, as if that were necessary, the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament arrives with a bit of a twist this year--there will be four "play-in" games (one in each region) instead of the previous single contest. While the eight teams of the "First Four" are unlikely to get anywhere near the "Final Four" ... well, it never hurts to dream.

"This is the first time the last four at-large teams will be revealed publicly," writes Andy Katz of ESPN.com. "Traditionally, the at-large teams are scattered throughout the seeding process, rarely going past No. 12, making it relatively easy to identify them. Yet, the tournament selection committee now will formerly announce the last at-large teams by putting them in the first round."

The new-look 68-team NCAA Tournament originally was an eight-squad affair in 1939. It doubled the number of invitees in 1951, before varying between 22 and 25 schools from 195374. In 1975, the novel wrinkle was that more than one team per conference could be invited, with the tourney burgeoning to 32 clubs. That became 40 (in 1979, when squads were seeded for the first time); 48 (1980); 52 (1983); 53 (1984); 64 (1985); and 65 (2001).

"MATCH" MADHESS: PICKING UPSETS A LOSING STRATEGY

Probability matching is tempting, but strategists are better off going by the numbers when choosing winners in the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, as Americans pore over the brackets in their annual attempt at glory--and maybe even a little cash--in winning the ubiquitous, albeit illegal, office pool. Some will pick the team in each matchup with the best ranking or seed. Others use intuition, sports knowledge, favorite colors, mascot preferences--it's not called March Madness for nothing--or other somewhat unscientific methods for selecting victors and, more importantly, picking the upsets.

Research from Indiana University and the University of Wyoming has found that strategists, regardless of their sports expertise, would be better off sticking with the numbers--but what is the fun in that? Bettors often think going with the upsets will give them an edge, and that they know how to pick them.

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"Picking the lower seed is a good strategy, but people think, 'I can't win by doing that because everyone else is doing it, too,'" points out Ed Hirt, professor in the IU Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. The study was coauthored by Hirt and Sean M. McCrea, professor of psychology at the University of Wyoming. "The upsets people pick are no better than chance. People have this idea that they know how many upsets will occur, but can they predict the ones that will occur?. They pick upsets, but not the right ones, and end up sabotaging their efforts."

The researchers were surprised by how little expertise or favoring an underdog really explained people's tournament predictions. "Instead," Hirt indicates, "it seems that people who follow basketball are aware of the possibility of upsets and fool themselves into believing that they can figure out which upsets will happen. The problem is that the tournament seedings summarize most of the useful information one could use--win-loss record, strength of schedule, etc.--and so the upsets are much less predictable than one might think."

Other studies have shown that making NCAA bracket predictions based on rankings from other "experts," such as sportswriter polls or gambling bookies, are no more successful than choosing the lower seeds. Hirt and McCrea sought to examine whether bettors use probability matching to pick upsets, if this approach is more successful than picking winning teams based on seeding, and whether people employ probability matching because they view basketball as a skilled, nonrandom activity that can be predicted--essentially, thinking they just know belier. …

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