Operations researchers correctly deduce 97% of NCAA 'big dance' teams chosen in secret

July 26, 2001

LINTHICUM, MD, July 26 - Using a math model to penetrate the secret deliberations of the NCAA Tournament Committee, two operations researchers say they can predict the college basketball teams to be chosen for the NCAA "big dance" with up to 97% accuracy, according to a study published in a journal of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS®).

Addressing the annual debate among sports fans about which of the approximately 310 NCAA Division I teams should be included among 64 - 65 teams playing in the post-season, the authors say, "The accuracy of our 'dance card' suggests that the committee is fairly predictable in its decisions, despite barbs from fans, teams, and the media."

The study focuses on the at-large selections of teams that do not receive automatic bids to the tournament. The model correctly predicted nearly 94% of the 205 available at-large tournament slots during the study period of 1994 1999. After applying their model retroactively to the six-year data, they made actual predictions for the 2000 and 2001 tournaments that were 91% and 97% accurate, respectively.

Of the 35 available at-large tournament slots in 2000, the authors were only wrong in three predictions. The committee chose Seton Hall, Indiana State, and Pepperdine. The authors chose Kent, SW Missouri State, and Bowling Green. In 2001, the authors missed only one: the committee chose Missouri, while the authors' model went with Richmond.

The study, "Identifying the NCAA Tournament 'Dance Card,'" by B. Jay Coleman, University of North Florida, and Allen K. Lynch, Mercer University, appears in the current issue of INTERFACES: An International Journal of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences, an INFORMS publication. Private Deliberations, Public Standards Although writing as fans, the operations researchers explain that their model can be used as a decision aid by future NCAA committees that want to compare their picks to earlier choices. The sports media, fans, and handicappers can use the model to project at-large bids.

The NCAA Basketball Tournament selection committee annually selects the Division I men's team that should receive at-large bids to the national championship tournament, known popularly as March Madness. Although its deliberations are shrouded in secrecy, the committee is required to consider a litany of team-performance statistics, many of which outsiders can reasonably estimate. The general process by which the committee reaches its conclusions is public and appears on the NCAA website.

Every year an NCAA 'nitty gritty' report summarizes relevant information for all teams combined. The report represents the largely objective inputs into the otherwise subjective process of team selection.

The authors used the available objective information in the nitty gritty reports of the six college basketball seasons from 1994 - 1996, along with ex-post knowledge of which teams made the tournament in those years, to quantitatively model the selection criteria of the committee. The most important statistic to the committee is the ratings percentage index (RPI) of each team, a metric that the NCAA devised to aid in the evaluation of teams. Although the RPI that the committee considers is confidential, many approximate it.

The authors relied on the RPI developed for CBS Sportsline by Jerry P. Palm, and Palm's website http://www.CollegeRPI.com , as a reliable source for the data used in their analysis. They also collected information from various media regarding which of the available at-large selections the committee actually picked to participate in the tournament during the six seasons studied.

Using an operations research tool known as probit analysis on objective team data from 1994 through 1999, the authors developed an equation that accurately predicted up to 97% of the at-large selections during that time frame, and the two tournaments since.

Earlier this year, INFORMS published a related study, "March Madness and the Office Pool," by Edward H. Kaplan and Stanley J. Garstka of the Yale School of Management.
The Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS®) is an international scientific society with over 10,000 members, including Nobel Prize laureates, dedicated to applying scientific methods to help improve decision-making, management, and operations. Members of INFORMS work in business, government, and academia. They are represented in fields as diverse as airlines, health care, law enforcement, the military, the stock market, and telecommunications. The INFORMS website is at http://www.informs.org.

Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences

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