Math editor, Vickie Kearn, interviews John Brenkus, host of ESPN’s Emmy Award–winning show Sport Science. You can follow John and his commentary throughout the tournament at http://twitter.com/sport_science
VK: We have 9 high school and college math classes across the US completing brackets for our March Mathness group on ESPN. They are all using different algorithms to predict their winner. However, we all know that statistics aren’t everything. What are some of the factors that are important to a team’s performance in the tournament from a sport science perspective? What are some of the key things that will make the difference between moving forward and going home?
JB: It is important to also consider where the team is playing. Through research we have found domes are louder than regular arenas because the parabolic curve of the ceiling directs sound waves toward center court. So teams with fans that travel well may have an advantage, particularly in a dome. We’ve also found that arena height affects shooting percentage. Because players rely on peripheral cues, a higher arena will usually result in a lower field goal percentage. Experience, talent and coaching are also important factors between moving forward and going home.
VK: Each year it seems a surprising team makes the NCAA tournament and actually performs really well. Last year it was VCU which lost to Butler in the semifinals. Do you have any thoughts on who might exceed expectations this year?
JB: VCU just won its conference tournament, and because of the team’s experience from last year, they have a shot at making another run. I think whichever team wins the opening round matchup between VCU and Wichita State is very capable of making a deep run. Also, Belmont is going to be a tough out for anyone. Offensively, the Bruins are great. They are in the top five in points per game and assists. They will give Georgetown all it can handle.
VK: Are there any teams that you think might under perform?
JB: Number one overall seed Kentucky has a tremendous amount of talent, but the Wildcat’s youth may present a problem in the tournament. Winning the tournament requires a blend of talent and mental toughness, and it will be interesting to see how Kentucky’s youthful talent handles the pressure.
VK: For many of the mid-major schools, the only way to make the tournament is to win a conference tournament. Davidson is in this year because they won the SoCon tournament. Duke knew they were going to the dance before the ACC tournament. Did they have anything to gain by winning the tournament?
JB: Of course, they have a banner to gain by winning the conference tournament. College kids usually want to leave their mark, and one way to do that is to win their conference tournament.
VK: Players will get hurt as the tournament progresses. Although I am sure it depends on the type of injury and its severity, how important is the decision to put in an injured player? Suppose you are in the championship game and you are in double overtime?
JB: That is really case-dependent. Injuries to the head (like a concussion) are obviously more serious and a doctor should determine playing time. Other injuries, however, require a consensus decision between player, coach and medical staff. Another factor to consider is that, when a player gets injured in a big game, their epinephrine, or adrenaline, kicks in. This may cause the player to have a fight-or-flight response and play through the pain unfazed.
VK: During the tournament a lower seed team could do really well and have to play a lot of games in a short period of time. What can they do to pace themselves?
JB: In the NCAA tournament, it is all about preparation. Teams that are well trained for endurance will be much better conditioned for the grind of the tournament.
VK: Schools with major basketball programs like UNC and Kentucky have little trouble recruiting. But for a mid-major school, doing well in the NCAA tournament can really help in recruiting the following year. Since this fame may be short-lived, what should a coach look for when recruiting the next season’s team?
JB: I think the most important aspect when recruiting for any team is getting a guy with a good work ethic. All of these kids are extremely athletic and filled with talent, but it’s usually the players who take the time to prepare that end up becoming great.
VK: Although we are encouraging people to use math to select their brackets, there is always that special something that is tossed in, whether it is asking your dog to help you pick or selecting schools that have the most red-headed players, or just all the schools you wish you had attended. I know you must have heard of some crazy ways to select brackets. What are some of your favorites?
JB: On Sport Science we had a chicken fill out a bracket. It didn’t do so well, guessing only 30 percent of the winners. We also brought in 100 people to our lab and had them fill out an empty bracket. Guessing based only on seed numbers, they did better than the chicken, and guessed 60 percent of the winners over the last 25 years…without even knowing the names of any of the teams!
VK: Will you fill out a bracket? Do you have a special method you use?
JB: Through testing, we have discovered that every method has flaws. When picking based on a team’s color, we found teams with blue jerseys have won 68 percent of the national titles in the last 25 years. The mascot with the highest championship winning percentage is a mammal, which has won 48 percent of the national titles over the last 25 years. Our consensus crowd bracket has fared pretty well, guessing 60 percent of the winners over the last 25 years, and in 2007 specifically, our crowd of 100 random people picked 75 percent of all winners even though they filled out blank brackets with only the seed numbers listed.
About John Brenkus
John Brenkus has spent the last decade studying and popularizing the unique characteristics of the world’s greatest athletes. A co-founder of BASE Productions, he co-created the groundbreaking series Fight Science for the National Geographic Channel and serves as the on-air host, co-creator, and executive producer of ESPN’s Emmy Award–winning show Sport Science.