Struggling with your NCAA bracket? Try Monte Carlo simulation, with help from the pros.

Each March, office productivity is greatly impacted by the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Just about everyone—regardless of their passion for college basketball—fills out a bracket in hopes of winning their respective pool (or pools). Some rely strictly on their knowledge of the teams involved, while others choose winners based on uniform color, where they’d rather live or other arbitrary strategies.

Wayne Winston might suggest utilizing Monte Carlo simulation to enhance your chances of racking up bracket points. Winston, who is a Professor of Decision Sciences at Indiana University, spends a great deal of his free time crunching numbers and producing probabilities of how teams will perform. This time of year, he determines the probability that schools in the 68-team field have of losing in the first round, winning the national championship and everything in between, with his use of @RISK. His methods were recently mentioned in a Wall Street Journal article.

Using power rankings from USA Today’s Jeff Sagarin (who just happens to be his best friend) and the tournament seedings, Winston simulates the tournament 10,000 times to get his results. Before the tournament started, he found Louisville to have a 21.6% chance of winning the national title. After winning their first two games against North Carolina A & T and Colorado St. and advancing to the Sweet 16, Louisville’s probability to win it all rose to 26%.

From time-to-time, the most unlikely statistical situations become reality. Before 2013, no 15-seed had ever advanced further than the first round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, so it was no surprise that Florida Gulf Coast University had only a 1.5% chance of making it to the Sweet 16, and virtually no chance of winning the national championship. The Eagles’ statistical defiance changed the face of many brackets when they upset both Georgetown and San Diego St. to advance to the Sweet 16. Despite their two magic moments, Florida Gulf Coast University still has mere a one one-thousandth of a percent chance of cutting down the nets in Atlanta on April 8. It’s a statistical long shot, but one we—and Wayne Winston—will be watching with great anticipation.

To see more of Wayne Winston’s sports probability work, visit his website:

» "Schools You Want to Strangle," in the Wall Street Journal

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