Now that the NCAA basketball tournament brackets have been announced, it’s worth reminding ourselves not to bet too much money on our (overconfident) predictions. Why not? Because the tournament is impossible to predict. That, at least, was the conclusion of a 2001 paper by the economists Edward Kaplan and Stanley Garstka. They mined every statistical tool they could think of in an attempt to crack the office pool. They searched for secret algorithms in past NCAA tournaments, and used Markov models to see if regular season performance affected post-season performance. They ran endless computer simulations, and plugged in a vast trove of player data.
The end result? They achieved “overall prediction accuracies of about 58 percent, but did not surpass the simple strategy of picking the seeds when the goal is to pick as many game winners as possible.” In other words, all the fancy mathematical equations were utterly useless: the tournament remained a mystery, a stochastic process of indeterminate outcome. So don’t waste too much time and money trying to be an expert, or pretending like you know if Ohio State is better than Kansas and UCLA. The NCAA tournament isn’t a science; it’s a sport.