Math key to March Madness success

Davidson professor Tim Chartier uses the NCAA basketball tournament in teaching his students about mathematical analysis. He spoke at The Citadel on Monday. (Wade Spees/Staff)

College basketball fans seeking to cash in on March Madness need to turn on their calculators and turn off their allegiances.

That was the message Dr. Tim Chartier, a math professor at Davidson and published author, brought to cadets at The Citadel on Monday night.

“The biggest mistake people make in bracketology is they go with their heart no matter what the data says,” said Chartier, who has made studying the mathematics of the NCAA basketball tournament part of his students’ course work at Davidson. “They just can’t let a certain team win or they just have to see their team do well.

“It’s hard not to do that, because that is part of the fun.”

Chartier has made it easier for the average fan to use math in filling out their own brackets at the March Mathness website marchmathness.davidson.edu. The site will get a lot of traffic after the NCAA tournament field is announced on March 15.

“The hard math is done for you at that site,” he said. “Then you are using predictive methods, and we’ve had elementary school kids sit with their parents and do math together for the first time. It’s a lot of fun.”

Chartier’s mathematical interest in the NCAA tournament began in 2009, the year after Stephen Curry led Davidson to the Elite Eight of the tournament. Chartier came up with a mathematical formula, filled out a bracket and beat 97 percent of the entrants in ESPN’s nationwide contest.

Since then, his students have developed formulas to work toward filling out the perfect bracket. Flipping a coin for each game, Chartier said, would give you a one in nine quintillion chance of completing a perfect bracket.

“We hope we can do better than that,” he said.

How hard is it to fill out a perfect bracket? Chartier said that 11 million brackets were entered in ESPN’s contest last year. After the first two days of the tournament, there were no perfect brackets left.

Chartier said he adapted for basketball the analytics used by the BCS to rank football teams to come up with his March Madness formula. He and his students also provide statistical analysis to Davidson coach Bob McKillop for his use with the Wildcats, who this season moved from the Southern Conference to the Atlantic 10.

Even the less mathematically inclined can use data to make their picks, if they use the right data.

“The biggest thing people should watch for is who is hot going into the tournament, but hot against strong teams,” he said. “If you can possibly identify that, that is the biggest predictor of doing well in the tournament.”