Behind The Scenes

Sports analytics: The odds against Liam’s mum’s incredible NCAA pick

ESPN's Michael Wilbon is one of the featured speakers at the 2012 Sloan Sports Conference.

Editor’s Note: Author Albert Larcada is a part of ESPN’s Stats & Information group’s Production Analytics Team. He’s attending the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference taking place today and Saturday in Boston. Front Row asked Larcada, an analytics specialist, to give us a glimpse into how he and his team help add depth to all sorts of ESPN content. In the post below, he recalls an example from college basketball.

As last year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship Game between Butler and UConn was about to tip off, I settled in to watch and come up analytics-based storylines that could be used by any and all ESPN platforms to tell the story of the game. It was frankly a pretty ugly game, and there were no good storylines coming to me.

As I was getting ready to call in a complete failure of a shift, I received an e-mail from co-worker letting me know about this crazy bracket that someone had filled out three weeks prior.

Apparently someone not only had picked Butler and UConn to meet in the final (a No. 3 seed versus a No. 8 seed), but had picked the score of the final to be UConn 53-Butler 39 (actual final score was 53-41).

Even more incredible, this person was Mike & Mike producer Liam Chapman‘s mom Shirley, a native of England, who knows next to nothing about American sports.

She filled her bracket out live on Mike & Mike at her son’s behest.

I set about quantifying exactly how improbable this bracket was, knowing it would be a unique and differentiating topic for our shows the next morning.

First, I found the probability of correctly predicting UConn and Butler to make the final game.

This could be done a number of different ways, but I chose to use Ken Pomeroy’s (http://kenpom.com/) offensive ratings, defensive ratings and the difficulty of each team’s path before the tournament started to find an objective probability of this matchup taking place.

Using his pre-tournament ratings, I found the chance of each team making the title game was 2.30 percent and 0.19 percent, respectively. The probability of picking both teams to make the championship game was a little better than 1 in 25,000.

As if that wasn’t rare enough, using AccuScore (http://accuscore.com/) simulations of the matchup, I then determined the probability that UConn would score between 51-55 points was 8.8 percent.

The probability Butler would score between 39-43 points was only 4 percent.

The chance of both things happening in the same game was 0.39 percent.

From there I calculated the chance of anyone predicting all of these variables, 0.000000174. Liam’s mother’s bracket was statistically one in nearly 10 million!

This simple probability theory exercise became its own Mike & Mike segment, was cited in numerous other studio shows throughout the day, and was featured prominently on ESPN.com.

Note: Lacarda blogged about this originally on April 5, 2011. Click here for more information and to hear the Mike & Mike interview with Shirley Chapman about her incredible forecasting.

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