Let us inspect the damage, which, at this point, is already considerable.
My bracket, one day into the full blown schedule of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s men’s basketball tournament, is seriously–if not fatally–damaged, and I have no one to blame but myself for the choices I’ve made.
But I will try to palm off some of the blame on the gurus of statistics, notably Nate Silver and his FiveThirtySix website.
You see, I’ve entered a tournament pool that rewards risk, much like the stock market. As in that financial market, the rewards only come to those whose bets actually pan out. So far, mine mostly have not.
Given the structure of the tournament–both actual, on-the-court, and virtual, pick the likely winners of the pool I’ve entered–the odds are stacked in favor of the top teams, who get to face off in this early round with the lowest seeded teams.
The pool, in order to simulate things like the equity markets (and to stimulate non-rational risk-taking) has affixed values to each team’s chance of winning its game and advancing to the next round, until only one team–the national champion–is left standing.
So, for example, if a top seeded team faces off with a bottom seeded team, each is given a value based not only on its seed but also on what the “market” expects to be the result. Pick a top seeded team, and if it and you win that game, your point total creeps up a notch. Pick a lowly seeded team, and if it and you win, your point total soars. This makes it very tempting to pick long-shots and watch your point total jump.
With that in mind, I went to the bracket contest’s website to look at the matches in the first round and begin to pick my winners, all the way up to the championship.
It’s a daunting task, and one I decided I was unqualified to make alone given that there are 64 college teams from across the country to start things off. There was no way I would be knowledgeable about most of them (not to mention that I’d been out of the country all of February and hadn’t even seen one game during that time).
I needed advice, so I decided to go to that renowned master of statistical analysis, Nate Silver. As the man who in 2012 had out-analyzed all his competitors and correctly predicted the Obama landslide reelection win, Silver parlayed his success into what was reported to be a lucrative deal with ESPN to head a news analytical service called FiveThirtyEight.
FiveThirtyEight lives well beyond the sports confines of its parent company, turning all sorts of political, social and other topics into subjects of analysis through the lens of statistics, hopefully providing greater insight and understanding of these things to the numerically challenged, of which I am a charter member.
So, what better source to give me the statistical edge I needed than Nate Silver? I’d get the scoop on which teams were primed to upset which favorites, informing my risk taking and allowing me to watch my actual upside risk reward soar as the tournament progressed.
And FiveThirtyEight not only had the statistics. It also had a story line, summed up neatly in its headline, which read something like, “The Party’s Over.” In short, Silver was predicting that there would be a minimum of big upsets in the tournament, that the era of early round surprises was over, and that safe was a better bet than rolling the dice.
Armed with that advice, I made my picks, minimizing those choosing long-shots (say, for example, a Number 14 seed defeating a Number 3 seed), and picking upsets where the teams seemed more evenly matched. Judicious risk, I figured.
What happened? Yesterday, on the very first day of the tourney, two–not one, but two–Number 14 seeds defeated their Number 3 seed opponents. Of course, I’d selected both those Number 3 seeded teams since the party was over.
The one high-risk pick I’d made (a Number 13 seed to defeat a Number 4 seed) didn’t pan out. I lost another game when the eventual winning team (not my choice) tied the game with one-tenth of a second left in regulation time; I lost another game when a referee made a seriously bad call that allowed a three-point basket by the other team with less than a minute to play; and I lost another when my lower seeded team blew a 16-point lead in the second half. That latter loss will continue to hurt, as I have it playing deep into the tournament. Its players, no doubt, are already back on campus and skipping class.
Out of my potential upside risk total of 676 points before the tournament’s initial tipoff, I’ve garnered an underwhelming 9.9 points.
So, what did I learn? That sports is more like the messy uncertainty of everyday life than organizationally driven, statistically managed political campaigns. That statistics in one-and-out tournaments is only worth so much–and not very much at that–when emotion, momentum and youth are also part of the mix. And that it probably would have been a lot more enjoyable to have never even filled out my bracket form, instead just sitting back and enjoying the games.