Predicting Madness, Yeah Right

Beyond just entertainment, every year the NCAA Tournament does America a great service. It proves that everyone who thinks they know sports is just as hopeless at predicting the sports future as a monkey with a crayon and a bracket. I know there are some people out there who claim they are defending champions of their office pool or have the bracket fill-out process down to a science. But that’s just luck. If you don’t believe me, every March fill out your bracket and then fill out a bracket where you pick the higher seed to win each matchup. Your bracket will do better no more than fifty percent of the time. It’s just too unpredictable. So if you are the person who just spent every second between Selection Sunday and the first tip on last Thursday making an interactive spreadsheet on Excel that compares the next-level stats of every team in the tournament and yet you are still middle-of-the-pack in the eleven bracket pools that you entered into, let’s talk about what went wrong.

The NCAA Tournament reminds us that statistics are a reflection of the past and not always a predictor of the future. For instance, Old Dominion had the best rebound margin in the entire country, yet Butler beat them on a last second offensive rebound. Furthermore, Belmont made on average for the season a tournament best 9.4 three-pointers a game on an above average percentage, while Wisconsin sported the worst three-point defense in the entire tournament allowing 37.5 percent shooting from beyond the arc. The statistical stars were aligned. Wisconsin trounced Belmont and Belmont made just six threes on 27.3 percent shooting. Something isn’t adding up. The NCAA Tournament affirms the importance of the non-statistical side of sports. Teams don’t win before they show up, and every year we relearn that there are no byes in the NCAA Tournament. So what accounts for the error of the numbers? Even if NASA focused all of its brainy resources on predicting the bracket of March Madness, why would not even that be enough to foresee the future?

Welcome to the immeasurables.


For anyone who doubts the merits of coaching when it comes to basketball, I give you Butler’s Brad Stevens. He’s so hot right now. He’s actually probably been the hottest coach in college basketball since March of last year. If you happened to catch Bulter upsetting No. 1 Pittsburgh this weekend, you will understand. Pittsburgh was a far superior team statistically, but the plays Brad Stevens drew up was just indefensible. Plus did you see how Stevens entered the locker room after the game? When a coach is that much a part of the team and still garners respect from his or her players, there is no limit to what impact that coach can have.

Clutch Players

No matter what the stats say, you aren’t going to go far in March without a guy to go to in the clutch. Obviously it’s huge to have someone you can trust when the game is on the line, but I’m not just talking about those situations. You also need a guy you can rely on when the team’s offense slows down. In any team’s tournament run there is going to be a time where the offensive plays aren’t getting it done or some guys just aren’t hitting shots. That’s when a team has to go to a clutch player to grind out some baskets while the team figures things out. That kind of player can destroy the comforting story stats tell us. Just ask anyone who had to face Dwight Hardy and St. Johns this year.

Team Chemistry

This is another underrated non-statistical factor, unless you count up the number of meals eaten together or amount of team building exercises a team does. Every team has some degree of chemistry, but a team that is completely on the same page can shock a less cohesive and more statistically impressive team. This is the Ohio State factor this year. I would believe you if you told me that their starting five grew up in a one-room shack together. They are totally in sync whenever they are on the court together, and could prove to outweigh any statistical disadvantage, namely a somewhat worrisome 42.5 percent opposing field goal percentage.

The truth is, stats just can’t tell it all. We realize that every March, and it is what makes March Madness one of the most fun times of year. Fill out your bracket based on your whims and voodoo, and don’t worry if someone gives you a hard time on a pick because of some obscure stat they pull out. That stat will probably mean nothing when it’s all said and done, because there are so many more factors that go into the NCAA Tournament.

Three rounds are done and already there have been overtime thrillers, heroic buzzer-beating efforts and potential Cinderellas breaking brackets in hopes of making an unexpected run. Most of our brackets are now shreds in the wastebasket, and this is when the best part of the tournament starts: the part where every game isn’t a nerve-racking, never-ending prayer to the basketball gods.