Professor helps out with NCAA upsets

Message to hoops fans: This story could make you look brilliant.

A computer science professor at University of Illinois has created a formula that predicts NCAA tournament upsets at double the success rate of someone picking at random — including, but not limited to, those who throw darts at the bracket, or pick based on their favorite color, the most ferocious mascot or the number of vowels in the coach’s last name.

This year’s upset picks both come out of the South region. They are No. 13 Buffalo over No. 4 Arizona and No. 14 Wright State over No. 3 Tennessee.

But before betting the mortgage, read on:

The computer scientist who spearheads this project , Sheldon Jacobson, says the computer models only analyze potential upsets by 13, 14 and 15 seeds. A 16 seed has never beaten a 1; anything involving 11s or 12s produce “too much noise,” Jacobson says, meaning the relative closeness of the underdogs with their fifth- and sixth-seeded opponents interferes with the statistical model he uses to predict the upsets.

Jacobson and fellow scientists pared down 115 publicly available metrics for every team in college basketball to 15 that have served as the best predictors of upsets in years past.

Some examples include effective possession ratio — essentially the number of points a team scores per possession — along with average scoring margin and opponent’s 3-point shooting percentage.

Now for the science: The framework of these formulas is called “balance optimization subset selection” (BOSS), which is an artificial-intelligence algorithm (Google that if so inclined). The National Science Foundation initially funded Jacobson for a project that used artificial intelligence to explore societal issues.

After the funding ran out, Jacobson sought uses for his creation that could REALLY help people.

March Madness generates more than $10 billion a year in wagering, much of which comes when players chip in $10 or $20 and fill out brackets for their office pools and collect points based on the number of correct picks.

Picking the eventual champion — No. 1 seeds Villanova and Virginia started at 5-1 odds to win it all, with No. 2 Duke at 6-1 — always helps. But sometimes the real difference makers are the correct upset picks in the early rounds. That’s when the Buffalos and Wright States of the world beat Goliath and briefly restore faith in the gumdrops-and-lollipops notion that anything really is possible.

It’s not, Jacobson assures us.

Still, his website, bracketodds.cs.illinois.edu , gets thousands of hits a day this time of year.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *


Starting at $4.39/week.

Subscribe Today