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Math majors dominate NCAA Sweet 16 bracketology

March 25, 2013|By Geoffrey Mohan
  • Davidson forward Jake Cohen wasn't happy to lose to Marquette in the NCAA college basketball tournament, but the Davidson College math majors are doing well in picking the brackets for the Sweet 16.
Davidson forward Jake Cohen wasn't happy to lose to Marquette in the… (James Crisp / Associated…)

Florida Gulf Coast University sent the Hoyas back to Georgetown. Harvard dashed New Mexico's hopes. Wichita State sent Gonzaga back to Spokane.

Is there any hope for a perfect bracket in the NCAA March Madness men's college basketball tournament? Not according to ESPN, which tweeted over the weekend that there were no perfect brackets among more than 8 million submissions this year.

But the math majors at Davidson (whose team was ousted after losing in the first round) are going strong, according to mathematician Tim Chartier, who launched "March Mathness" in 2009 as part of the undergraduate class he teaches at the North Carolina college.

"As of today, I have a student in the 97th percentile and 7 more in the 90th percentile or higher," Chartier wrote in a email Monday. "Right now, the math students are beating the non-math. The students with other majors are struggling -- one at 62% and another at 41%."

Sports commentator Dick Vitale is hanging out with the non-math students, at about the 62nd percentile, Chartier said.

Chances of picking a perfect bracket are one in 9.2 quintillion. Move the decimal 18 spaces if you want to write it out. Or picture plucking one lucky dollar out of the $3.7 trillion U.S. budget this year. It's harder than that.

As you read here before, Chartier is the ringmaster of March Mathness, using complex modeling to handicap the 64-team tournament (not counting the teams that "play in" to qualify for the first round). He uses his undergraduates' bracket submissions to test algorithms for analyzing complex linear systems. If you just searched "NCAA Sweet Sixteen," you just took advantage of Google's version of that modeling.

The only bracket submitted by his students that included Harvard's first-round upset has suffered for the choice. "The bracket that picked Harvard seemed to ONLY have that going for it," Chartier wrote. "It's at the 2.2%!!!! That's what you get for finding the outlier."

There's always room for improvement, Chartier noted. The student who is still in the 97th percentile was down in the single digits last year.

Chartier used to make students submit only one bracket and prove that it was math-based. He's relented a bit, allowing some non-math submissions among the four they hand in, "to allow for that hair-brained idea that could lead to new research."

The bracket that picked Harvard "is a very new research idea that we generated only two weeks ago," Chartier said. "So, we will need to figure out exactly what it did and why."

Harvard, which got its first victory in an NCAA tournament, was dispatched by Arizona the next round.

The games resume Thursday. So if you don't have a team to root for, you can still root for the math majors at Davidson.

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