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Data bracket busters: Prediction model makes its NCAA March Madness bets


A model combining computer rankings with “human rankings” has calculated tournament probabilities. How does the model work and which team is projected to take home the ‘ship?


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It’s March and that means spring is right around the corner and the annual NCAA college basketball tournament is set to bring the seasonal “madness” for sports fans. Bracket competitions are a staple at many companies, as employees go head-to-head with their best predictions for the multiweek tournament.

FiveThirtyEight offers round-by-round model projections for the entire tournament via its 2021 March Madness Predictions page. From power ratings to championship probabilities, the model offers a wide range of estimates to help sports fans with a penchant for data make their selections.

So how does the model work and which team is projected to cut down the nets in Indianapolis?

March Madness: Top model projections

On Thursday, the NCAA tournament play-in games kicked off and now the field of 64 is set. Based on FiveThirtyEight’s projections, the top-ranked team in the West region, the Gonzaga Bulldogs, has a 28% chance of winning the tournament; the highest projection in the field of 64.

Among other top seeds, the Baylor Bears have a 13% chance of winning the tournament coming out of the South region, Illinois has a 15% chance of clinching the title in the Midwest region, and in the East, Alabama has a 3% chance of being the last team standing.

It’s important to note that the Michigan Wolverines are actually the top-seeded team in the East region and also have a 3% chance of winning the title but Alabama is a slight projection favorite to make the Final Four, edging out the Wolverines by a single percentage point.

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Interestingly, the model gives both the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Houston Cougars (both No. 2 seeds) a higher chance of winning the title than the top two seeds in the East region (Michigan and Alabama). Iowa has a 6% chance of winning the title and an 11% chance of reaching the championship game and Houston has a 5% chance of winning the tournament and a 12% chance of making the title game.

Upset watch and early model tests

For upset potential, the model gives the No. 9 seed Wisconsin Badgers an 11% chance of making the Elite 8 in the South region. For perspective sake, No. 4 seed  Purdue also competing in the South region has a 15% chance of making the Elite 8. No. 6 seed Texas Tech has a 19% chance of making it to the Elite 8 (South region) and a 7% chance of making the Final Four, according to the model.

The model gives Maryland and Rutgers (both No. 10 seeds) power ratings of 84.4 and 84.1, respectively; the highest such ratings for any double-digit seed in the field. Among No. 11 seeds, the model gives Syracuse, with an 83.1 power rating, a 17% chance of making it to the Sweet 16, and the Michigan State Spartans a 12% chance of making it that far. (The Spartans lost on Thursday night to UCLA Bruins.)

On Thursday, ahead of the day’s play-in games, the projections favored the Appalachian State Mountaineers, Wichita State Shockers, Mount St Mary’s Mountaineers and Michigan State. All of these favored teams lost on Thursday.

How the model works

The projection model used for men’s tournament games is “principally based on a composite of six computer power ratings,” including Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, Sonny Moore’s ratings, Jeff Sagarin’s ratings, Joel Sokol’s LRMC ratings, ESPN’s Basketball Power Index as well as the organization’s Elo ratings, according to a FiveThirtyEight post. FiveThirtyEight said it uses six rating systems rather than one “because each system has different features and bugs, and blending them helps to smooth out any rough edges.”

To determine each team’s “pre-tournament rating,” FiveThirtyEight includes the 68-team S-curve determined by the NCAA selection committee and preseason rankings (the Associated Press and coaches) and incorporates these “human rankings” with the aforementioned computer ratings, according to the post.

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To determine each team’s power ratings, the pre-tournament ratings are adjusted to account for injuries and play suspensions, and FiveThirtyEight “deduct points from teams that have key players out of the lineup,” per the post.

After the tournament begins, the model “gives a bonus to teams’ ratings as they win games, based on the score of each game and the quality of the opponent,” and to forecast head-to-head games, a model adjustment accounts “for travel distance,” according to FiveThirtyEight.

First-round games

The first-round games begin on Friday with the No. 7 seed  Florida Gators taking on the No. 10 seed  Virginia Tech Hokies at 12:15 pm (EST).

Also see


This post was written by and was first posted to TechRepublic

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