There is something inexplicably magical about March Madness -- and it ain't just the basketball. For the uninitiated, March Madness, known fondly as "the Big Dance," is the single-elimination style NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament. 68 teams collide in 67 games over the course of three weeks. It is a dramatic, high-intensity, high-stakes shoot-out between the best men's college basketball teams in the nation. The Big Dance has become such a culturally significant event that it sports its own lingo, including terms like "cinderella" -- a higher seeded team that defeats two or more lower seeded teams, "bracket buster" -- a higher seeded team that defeats a highly ranked opponent, and "cutting down the nets" -- the tradition of cutting down basketball nets after the national championship game. Millions of Americans fill-out bracket predictions each year. Even before Selection Sunday, college basketball fans eagerly attempt to predict which programs will go dancing and in what seed. March Madness is a load of fun for most everyone ... but especially for the math-nerds among us.
Why any number-crunching, data-visualizing, calculator-peddling know-it-all would find the adrenaline-pumping thrill of basketball enticing is a mystery to most, but the numbers speak for themselves. And there sure are a lot of them. Per a Duke mathematics professor, the odds of filling out a perfect bracket are 1 in 9,222,372,036,854,775, 808. 0 percent of No. 16 seeds have defeated a No. 1 seed, and only 6.25 percent of No. 15 seeds have defeated a No. 2 seed. The longest period between a program's March Madness appearances was Harvard at a frustrating 66 years.
Villanova basketball fans could care less about the nuances that distinguish probability and statistics, but their team's 2015 NCAA championship victory over North Carolina serves as an excellent medium to exemplify the difference. Probability determines the likelihood of future events, whereas statistics analyze the frequency of previous events. In other words, probability seeks to predict what has not happened, and statistics seeks to make sense of what has! A March Madness prediction model developed by FiveThirtyEight a week before the game gave North Carolina a 54 percent chance of beating Villanova in 2015; this is probability. Following the championship victory, ESPN reported that Villanova shot 58.3 percent from the field and nailed 57.1 percent of their three-pointers; this is statistics. Though academic scholars continue to debate the nature of probability and statistics, a fundamental understanding is plenty for basketball.
Data visualization is important for making sense of the numbers. Data, defined as collected information, by itself rings hollow. Data requires sense-making to become useful; this is perhaps best accomplished with a table or graph. The art of organizing data so that an audience can connect with it is known as data visualization. Data should tell a story that is rigid enough to make a point, yet flexible enough to interpret uniquely.
At the end of the day, probability, statistics, and data visualization all have limitations. We learn from logic, patterns, and data, but also from our own gut. Additionally, while reason and intuition may guide us to the most likely scenario, what fun is being right if right is Villanova, Duke, UNC, or Kansas in the championship game (again). Go ahead, put Middle Tennessee in your final four, pick only teams that have bird mascots, or predict the championship game based on jerseys with your favorite color- I won't hold it against you. Emotional picks make our decisions meaningful and hype us up for the tournament. After all, as the name suggests, March Madness was never meant to be reasonable.
And go Zags!
Mahdi Al-Husseini is the volunteer organizer of TEDxDouglasville, a senior at Georgia Tech studying biomedical engineering and public policy, and a U.S. Army cadet. TEDxDouglasville 2017 is scheduled for Saturday, March 25, 2017 at Douglas County High School. Tickets are $10 and include a Chick-fil-A lunch. Visit www.tedxdouglasville.com for more information.