March madness, and how to choose your favorite team

A UNC basketball player attempts to move the ball against Florida State. (credit: Courtesy of Wayne Ellington via Flickr) A UNC basketball player attempts to move the ball against Florida State. (credit: Courtesy of Wayne Ellington via Flickr)

March is coming to an end, and late March means later March Madness. But what’s important about late March Madness? Well, it generally depends on your perspective.

Maybe you’ve gone through the drill. Every March, 68 teams battle for the NCAA DI Championship in a single elimination tournament. A huge number of people fill out brackets, where they try to guess all of the tournament results. No one successfully guesses the result, because there is a one in sextillion chance of doing that, and basketball games tend to be influenced by luck.

So where does that leave things as March wraps up? Is it over? Well, not quite. The final four teams, “The Final Four” in sport lingo, are still around. Two more games are left for this week, and one more game after will decide the national champion in early April.

At press time, Villanova and Oklahoma have locked up their spots in the Final Four, but two more spots need to be decided. North Carolina (UNC) has a showdown with Notre Dame, and Virginia (UVA) faces off with Syracuse for the last two slots. So that leaves the biggest question: what’s your stake in all of this? Let’s start at the top:

You’ll need some teams to root for, and there’s no easy choice, given that these are the best remaining teams in the country. So here are a few metrics to help you rank the teams, and help you with your decisions if you happen to be watching a game this week. If you’re simple and don’t know much about the game, color ranking may be for you.

There are two basic groups to the color rankings, the orange hues and the blue hues. That leaves Notre Dame, with a not quite matching green and yellow uniform that leaves this category wanting.

If you’re more of a red/orange fan, you’re going to want Syracuse first. The slick orange uniform is probably the only one of its kind left in the dance, and UVA’s blocky design sets it a little back here. Oklahoma’s flat red leaves the most to be desired in the group, with a somewhat simple design.

On the other hand, if you’re a blue person, things seem to point in Villanova’s direction. UNC and Villanova might seem pretty similar if you’re looking at their white alternate uniforms, but as soon as you see that UNC baby blue, you’ll know what team is playing.
Just to keep things simple in case you aren’t sure whether you prefer blue or orange, I think a solid ordering would be Syracuse, Villanova, UVA, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, and finally UNC.

Alternatively, maybe a statistical approach is more up the Carnegie Mellon alley. Real rankings need to proportionally combine location bias with actual statistical evidence. For this, there are probably two things that will come in handy. A scoring index, ranking the teams based on their average margin of victory (because points win games), and a proximity index, which will rank the teams based on how close their campuses are to Carnegie Mellon.

For scoring, we have Villanova on top with an average win of 13.9. UNC (13.1), UVA (11.4), Oklahoma (10.1), Syracuse (5.5), and Notre Dame (5.1) follow. There seem to be two clear echelons, with four teams averaging a comfy 10 point lead per game, for a lot of easy wins, where Syracuse and Notre Dame have lived a bit closer to the struggle. Distance data gives a very different ordering. In distance, we have UVA on top, only 184 miles away. We then have Villanova (244), Syracuse (267), UNC (329), Notre Dame (339), and far away Oklahoma (1018). The straight approach would be to combine the rankings, just by adding the places to get a final ordering. If you like this idea, you’re left with Villanova as your top pick, followed by UVA, UNC, Syracuse, Oklahoma, and Notre Dame. But the underdog approach is so much more exciting! In this approach distance will be multiplied by score differential to proportionally bias towards teams with closer proximity, and tighter score differentials. Lowest scores are the best. Final Ranks: Syracuse 1469, Notre Dame 1729, UVA 2098, Villanova 3392, UNC 4304, and last but not least Oklahoma 10282.

So if you’re looking for a team to root for in the final games of the NCAA tournament, there’s plenty of things to consider in choosing your favorite. Be sure to catch the madness over the next couple weeks, and see if your predictions come true.