SCIENCE

You Might As Well Flip A Coin To Fill In Your NCAA Brackets, Researcher Says

03/14/2015 10:27 am ET | Updated Mar 14, 2015
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Hey, basketball pundits, here's something about March Madness that could make you really mad.

Flipping a coin to fill in your NCAA Tournament brackets may yield better results than making selections based on your personal assessment of the teams, a University of Michigan professor says.

"You have to realize that there's a level of chance that comes into play even though we consider sports betting a skill-based gaming," Dr. Dae Hee Kwak, an assistant professor of sport management, told The Huffington Post.

Now before any fan surrenders all hope ahead of the brackets announcement on Sunday, Kwak is basing his theory on a single instance: the 2011 NCAA Tournament. It happened to be a year in which no top seed made the Final Four. He also assigned more value to picks in the later rounds.

For his informal study, Kwak invited 200 Michigan students and alumni to fill out brackets to the best of their ability while he picked winners for three separate bracket sheets based on coin flips. The coin-flip brackets outperformed the average score of the participants, he found.

What do others make of the theory? One mathematician said sports knowledge can provide an edge.

Dr. Jordan Ellenberg, a math professor at the University of Wisconsin, pointed to a coin-flip statistic for last year's tournament that he said showed "coin-flip brackets do REALLY REALLY BADLY relative to the median ESPN Tournament Challenge player, who is presumably using their basketball knowledge and trying to win."

The bottom line? Knowledgeable or not, players have a tough time achieving a high rate of accuracy. Despite Warren Buffett's $1 billion prize to anyone who could correctly pick all 63 games last year, the best player in the ESPN pools fell 18 games short, according to Michigan News.

But that won't stop millions from coming back for more.

Another study by Kwak, "The Overestimation Phenomenon in a Skill-Based Gaming Context: The Case of March Madness Pools," was recently published in the Journal of Gambling Studies. It explains why we're such gluttons for March Madness punishment.

Gamblers who expressed high confidence in their bracket success performed the same on average as those expressing low confidence, Kwak said, but it was the self-assurance that kept them betting year after year.

"We found confidence to be the strongest predictor of enjoyment," he told HuffPost Science. "This winning confidence brings them back."

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