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Mad men of the hardwood: the mayhem of March Madness figures to be a bit more intense this year with the reformatting of the NCAA Tournament to include even more teams.


IT IS, BY MANY accounts, the most-exciting tournament in the world, but is it mayhem or madness?--perhaps a bit of both if you are a college cage fan. Adding to the craziness, as if that were necessary, the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament arrives with a bit of a twist this year--there will be four "play-in" games (one in each region) instead of the previous single contest. While the eight teams of the "First Four" are unlikely to get anywhere near the "Final Four" ... well, it never hurts to dream.

"This is the first time the last four at-large teams will be revealed publicly," writes Andy Katz of "Traditionally, the at-large teams are scattered throughout the seeding process, rarely going past No. 12, making it relatively easy to identify them. Yet, the tournament selection committee now will formerly announce the last at-large teams by putting them in the first round."

The new-look 68-team NCAA Tournament originally was an eight-squad affair in 1939. It doubled the number of invitees in 1951, before varying between 22 and 25 schools from 195374. In 1975, the novel wrinkle was that more than one team per conference could be invited, with the tourney burgeoning to 32 clubs. That became 40 (in 1979, when squads were seeded for the first time); 48 (1980); 52 (1983); 53 (1984); 64 (1985); and 65 (2001).


Probability matching is tempting, but strategists are better off going by the numbers when choosing winners in the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, as Americans pore over the brackets in their annual attempt at glory--and maybe even a little cash--in winning the ubiquitous, albeit illegal, office pool. Some will pick the team in each matchup with the best ranking or seed. Others use intuition, sports knowledge, favorite colors, mascot preferences--it's not called March Madness for nothing--or other somewhat unscientific methods for selecting victors and, more importantly, picking the upsets.

Research from Indiana University and the University of Wyoming has found that strategists, regardless of their sports expertise, would be better off sticking with the numbers--but what is the fun in that? Bettors often think going with the upsets will give them an edge, and that they know how to pick them.


"Picking the lower seed is a good strategy, but people think, 'I can't win by doing that because everyone else is doing it, too,'" points out Ed Hirt, professor in the IU Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. The study was coauthored by Hirt and Sean M. McCrea, professor of psychology at the University of Wyoming. "The upsets people pick are no better than chance. People have this idea that they know how many upsets will occur, but can they predict the ones that will occur?. They pick upsets, but not the right ones, and end up sabotaging their efforts."

The researchers were surprised by how little expertise or favoring an underdog really explained people's tournament predictions. "Instead," Hirt indicates, "it seems that people who follow basketball are aware of the possibility of upsets and fool themselves into believing that they can figure out which upsets will happen. The problem is that the tournament seedings summarize most of the useful information one could use--win-loss record, strength of schedule, etc.--and so the upsets are much less predictable than one might think."

Other studies have shown that making NCAA bracket predictions based on rankings from other "experts," such as sportswriter polls or gambling bookies, are no more successful than choosing the lower seeds. Hirt and McCrea sought to examine whether bettors use probability matching to pick upsets, if this approach is more successful than picking winning teams based on seeding, and whether people employ probability matching because they view basketball as a skilled, nonrandom activity that can be predicted--essentially, thinking they just know belier.

Probability matching describes a scenario where individuals predict a specific outcome based on an existing rate of occurrence. For example, in the first round of the NCAA tournament, prognosticators often expect an upset in the contests between the No. 5 and No. 12 seeds, so bettors often attempt to pick which of the four games involving a 5-12 matchup will see the upset.

Hirt and McCrea examined bracket strategies as a way to study this common decisionmaking behavior, which frequently is seen when individuals make predictions or judgments in areas involving skill, such as hiring decisions, outcomes of races, or guessing stock prices. Hirt says this behavior relies on a confidence that an individual's insight can trump variability or discern patterns in randomness.

For the study, they examined NCAA tournament results from 1985-2005 and the first-round predictions of more than 3,000,000 entries in an ESPN Tournament Challenge. They also designed a series of studies involving varying degrees of perceived randomness.

Their study provides one of the first demonstrations that probability matching is used more frequently for predictions of social behavior than for those of random events. "We want to deny the fact that there's variability, that there are bad days," Hirt explains. "We want to think we can predict these things. It's human nature to think that things aren't random, serendipitous, that we should be able to predict what someone will do or outcomes of situations that we care about."


Millions of Americans, including Pres. Barack Obama, fill out their "brackets" when the NCAA Tournament field is announced each March, but does that really atilt their work? It certainly appears to, at least among a segment of the population who use research libraries, indicates Charles Clofelter, author of Big-Time Sports in American Universities. He used data from research libraries to determine the number of articles viewed from February through April in three different years. The number referenced Monday through Wednesday of those weeks averaged more than 1,000 a day per library.

Clofelter found that the amount viewed through the JSTOR (journal storage) digital repository of academic journals increased an average of five percent a week in the weeks leading up to "Selection Sunday," but fell six percent in the week right after the NCAA field was announced. The following week, library usage resumed its increase, at a rate of three percent.

"I observed similar patterns in each of the three years, and the post-selection dip occurred both in libraries not connected to universities with Division I teams as well as those with them. This drop in research activity in these libraries is quantitative evidence of the NCAA Tournament's power to influence patterns of work."

Clofelter also measured the impact of library usage at universities whose teams won "tossup" games, those with no clear favorite, and compared that to schools that lost such contests. He found that, at winning schools, daily article viewing fell by 10% in the seven days after the game and even more, 14%, through the end of the tournament, compared to schools whose teams lost these games.

"By all appearances, fans of losing teams shook off the disappointment and returned to work in greater numbers or with greater diligence, while the fans of winning teams continued to follow their team into the next round. Such an effect would imply an ironic sort of 'winner's curse,' where students and researchers at universities whose teams win unexpectedly do less work than those whose favorite teams are also-rans."

Almost 40,000,000 workers are estimated to participate in "March Madness" office pools, and CBS, one of the owners of the rights to broadcast the tournament on television and other media outlets, reports that 4,800,000 people use video and audio streaming on their computers to follow games. "Examining the amount of work done in research libraries before, during, and after the tournament can provide a window for assessing whether such a media event effect is real or imagined," posits Clofelter.


In a novel study that used historical tape of a thrilling overtime basketball game between Duke University and the University of North Carolina, brain researchers have found that fans remember the good things their team did much better than the bad. This research is aimed at understanding the links between emotion and memory that might affect post-traumatic stress disorder and how well people recall their personal histories.

Straggling to find a way to measure a person's brain while subjecting them to powerful emotions, scientists hit on the idea of using basketball fans who live and die with each and every three-pointer. Utilizing game film gives researchers a way to see the brain deal with powerful, rapid-fire positive and negative emotions, without creating any ethical concerns.


"You can get much more emotional intensity with a basketball film than you could ethically otherwise," notes study co-author David Rubin, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke. Similar studies, for example, might use pictures of flowers versus those of mutilated bodies.

Two dozen college-aged men from Duke and UNC who had passed a basketball literacy test to determine their true fandom were shown an edited tape of the Feb. 3, 2000, game at UNC won by Duke, 90-86. They watched it three times with a few like-minded friends, and then went into an MRI machine individually to view a series of 12-second clips leading up to a shot. Each of the 64 taped segments ends just as a player releases the ball, and the subjects had to answer whether it went in the basket.

Test subjects were more accurate at remembering a successful shot by their own team than a miss by their team or a successful shot by the other team. Positive emotion improved their memory and "broadened their attention," according to neuroscientist Kevin LaBar, coauthor the study and associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke.

What the researchers saw in the MRI scan is multiple areas of the brain being recruited to assemble a memory. The fan's connection to the game includes emotional and memory components from the amygdala and hippocampus, respectively, and some empathy from the prefrontal cortex as the subject feels some relation to the player or the other fans on his side. Some of the sensory-motor areas light up, too, as if the subject is imagining himself as the shooter. Brain areas that control attention were more active for plays that benefitted the fan's team than for those that did not.

These brain regions function together to improve memory storage, particularly for emotionally intense plays. However, traumatic events can be stored in memory the same way, making them persistent and difficult to handle. "Brain imaging provides details we could not get with earlier technologies, such as studies of brain damage," explains Rubin.

Ongoing studies by the same researchers are monitoring fans in real time as they watch a game to get a glimpse of what brain areas are involved in forming positive and negative memories in the first place. Rubin also would like to see how the brains of emotionally impaired and depressed people might respond differently.
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Title Annotation:Athletic Arena; college basketball
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2011
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