The Sportscaster versus the Math Geek

John Hussey and Vickie Kearn both work at Princeton University Press. John is the assistant sales director and national accounts manager and Vickie is the mathematics editor. We thought it would be fun to see how they filled out their March Madness brackets. The conversation that follows took place on March 20 at our PUP offices. To get things started, we asked a single question: How did you fill out your bracket?

Vickie: You may have figured out I am the math geek. After getting my math degree at the University of Richmond, I taught math for 8 years and then ventured into publishing math books. Although I am a huge sports fan, my true love is football. I didn’t watch basketball until we began March Mathness a couple of years ago. Now I will be glued to the TV for the next few weeks. I really don’t know much about the game at all but I love watching the numbers and the great upsets, especially those we have seen so far this year.

Now to my bracket. Because of the many upsets this year, I decided to ignore the seeds.

I looked at four things when I filled in my bracket:

1. Strength of schedule (pulled from RPI). I gave this figure a weight of 1.
2. Winning percentage for the regular season earned a weight of 1.
3. The sum of the posts season wins over the past three years plus the coach’s winning record with their current team also got a weight of 1.
4. Then each team received the following bonus points.

-One point if they were the leader in their conference in the regular season.
-One point if they are a major team and if they are in a tested basketball conference like the ACC, Big East, and Big10.
-One point if they won their conference championship season
-One point for the leaders in points per game/rebounds per game/scoring offense and scoring defense

Bonus points are weighted as 2 because they reflect how the teams were playing at the end of the season.

John: What about style of play?

Vickie: I don’t know that much about basketball, I’m in March Madness for the math. I’m interested in the data and stats.

John: To get an understanding of my approach, here’s my background: I went to Syracuse University for sports broadcasting. I have friends that still work in sports. My picks are based on a personal study of the game; I watch about 20 hours of sports/week and college basketball is my favorite. My picks are similar to Vickie’s, but from a different point of view. I’m not distinguishing between conference tournament and how a team plays through the stretch of the season. I’ve been watching teams play and deciding on style of play. For example, if one team tends to make a lot of 3-pointers and they’re up against a team with a strong zone defense, the zone defense is not going to do well. Where things get tricky is making decisions about Syracuse. Since that’s my team I’m pretty biased. When you watch teams extensively, you have seen them in the good times and bad but the bad times stick in your mind. For example, Kansas’ loss at TCU or Michigan’s loss at Penn State. I also know a lot about upset histories. This year there are no #1 seeds in my final bracket because this year no one team dominated. The possibilities are wider this year…could be a five seed that wins.

Vickie: I only have one #1 seed in my final 4. We both picked #2 seed Duke as the 2013 champion.

John: Player experience is also a big factor. Some game style doesn’t translate into a tournament setting. Duke is a great team, but sometimes flakes out super early. They lost to Lehigh last year but they make lot of deep runs. It’s interesting that Miami is in Vickie’s final 4 but I have them flaming out in the 2nd round. They’re too reliant on 3pt shooting. They’re not an intelligent team and play up and down.

What does the math say the biggest upset will be in the first round?

Vickie: New Mexico State over St. Louis is a 13 over 4 and San Diego State over Michigan is a 13 over 4. California over UNLV is a 12 over 5.

John: Any upsets in your Elite 8? No major upsets but I do have 2, 3, and 4 seeds.

Vickie: No major upsets but I do have 1, 2, 3, and 4 seeds.

John: I don’t have any top seeds in my final four because they have been losing lately, but the math is backing up the top seeds.

Vickie: But here’s the real question: will we beat the president?

John: Obama takes the smart, safe approach to the bracket. Historically he has been very good, because he is conservative in his picks and doesn’t bet on upsets. Generally that’s a good way to go. This year is going to be odd since the tops aren’t doing so well. It really could be a 5, 6,or 7 that wins. Nothing crazy based on the math?

Vickie: No, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to see an upset.

John: Gonzaga has a great RPI, but they’re not ranked high. Their defense metrics must be off . They have a great winning percentage but not necessarily the RPI.

Vickie: But seriously, will we beat the president?

John: He’s playing smart and safe. I want to win, but in an interesting way. It’s a little riskier when you don’t have any #1 seeds in the final 4.

Vickie: Well it’s interesting how similar our brackets are even though we had different strategies! I just got a text from my sister who picked her teams by the color of their uniforms. Blue is her color so she also picks Duke to win this year.

In case you are wondering, the odds of having a perfect bracket are 9.2 Quadrillion to 1. Good luck and have fun.