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Bracketology 101: Bringing some reason to your March Madness

It has to be March Madness because March Reason just wouldn’t sound right.

But if you’re taking part in the annual tradition surrounding the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament by filling out a bracket, a quartet of Creighton University researchers say you may want to think about a scientific approach.

Wednesday, March 15, from 4 to 5:30 p.m., in Harper Center Room 3023, the Center for Undergraduate Research and Scholarship (CURAS) will host the latest installment of its series, Research from All Angles, with faculty experts discussing the ballyhooed field of Bracketology.

“Making an NCAA Tournament bracket is a great exercise, and I like to watch the games as well,” said Ken Washer, PhD, a professor of finance in the Heider College of Business who is one of the four featured panelists. “It’s fun to see the upsets, and if you picked one of them you look like a hero — you also likely will not win very often. Still, it is fun to sort of be smarter than everyone else. And who doesn’t like to compete?”

Washer will be joined on the panel by fellow Heider College of Business professor Jeff Milewski, in the Department of Economics, and College of Arts and Sciences faculty William O. Stephens, PhD, of the Department of Philosophy and Corey Guenther, PhD, of the Department of Psychology.

Each faculty member will discuss Bracketology and the crafting of a winning bracket from the vantage of their respective discipline. Following the panel presentation, audience members will be divided into teams, each led by one of the experts, to create competing brackets. Prizes will be awarded to the team whose bracket best predicts the tournament outcome.

The panelists say it’s an inexact science, at best. March’s Cinderellas and goats have come and gone for almost eight decades with precious few prognosticators able to accurately predict their arrival.

“Predictions are, in the end, based on guesses,” said Stephens, who has researched and written extensively on Stoic philosophy, which emphasizes human fallibility and the acceptance of loss in the same vein as victory. “The records of teams and their schedule of opponents offer some insights to the relative strengths of teams. But in the end, the only certain prediction is that there will be some upsets. No one knows which games will be the upsets, but that they will happen is inevitable.”

As far as the picking itself is concerned, the advice the panelists offer up is sound, even for the Bracketologist with limited field experience.

“If you don’t really know what you are doing, go with lots of higher seeds,” Washer said. “Maybe sprinkle in a few lower seeds for fun, but know that that will likely hurt your performance. So if you do your research, you may be able to identify a lower seed that is actually playing really well and thus may be a favorite against a higher seed. That is generally what you want to do in order to have the best bracket, always pick the team with the greater probability of winning. Let’s say I’m a 75 percent free throw shooter and I am going to shoot 20 times from the line. Before each time, you can either bet on me or against me. Your objective is to maximize the number of correct calls. Are you really ever going to say, 'I think he will miss the next one?' Call an upset? It will definitely make things more fun, but it will likely result in subpar performance.”

It’s a tall order not to stay with some of the tourney’s vaunted locks — taking a No. 1 seed over a No. 16 seed has yet to steer anyone wrong — but there’s also much to be said about the thrill of taking risks, both Stephens and Washer said.

Maybe, in the end, if it’s a bracket win you’re seeking, it’s best to divorce yourself from those emotions and look at the wide universe of the bracket lines unfolding just as they inexorably should.

“A Stoic’s attitude would be to remind himself that the outcome of a basketball game is not up to him,” Stephens said. “So, the Stoic would not be strongly emotionally invested in how well his bracket predictions bear out. A Stoic trains himself to not be surprised by anything that could possibly happen. So, the Stoic has no favorites. The Stoic accepts whoever the winners are each round.”

Just remember that when your bracket’s in a shambles in Round Two. Happy picking.

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