Texas Tech University

Expert: Statistics Hold Clues to Winning March Madness Brackets

Heidi Toth

March 18, 2015

Texas Tech professor Alan Reifman is author of "Hot Hand: The statistics Behind Sports' Greatest Streaks."

Alan Reifman

It's that time of year again – when March Madness brackets, odds and the likelihood of picking the correct No. 5-vs.- No. 12 upset dominate social media, the news and water cooler conversation. With bragging rights and, in some cases, money on the line, Americans are increasingly turning to statistics and equations to predict the outcomes of games. Baseball has long led the way in the use of analytics, as shown in the book and movie "Moneyball." But basketball is catching up, no matter what former NBA star and TV analyst Charles Barkley says.

Texas Tech University professor Alan Reifman, author of the 2012 book "Hot Hand: The Statistics Behind Sports' Greatest Streaks," is available to discuss which basketball statistics to consider while filling out brackets. He is available at alan.reifman@ttu.edu or (806) 834-5174 (setting up phone interview via email is best).

Talking Points
• Offensive and defensive efficiency. Although different authors define the terms slightly differently, offensive efficiency is basically how many points a team averages per 100 possessions. Defensive efficiency is how many points a team allows opponents per 100 opponent possessions. Because teams play at different paces (some shooting quickly and others running down the shot clock), pegging the statistic to the rate of "per 100 possessions" evens out the numbers. According to the 2013 book "Basketball Analytics" (Stephen M. Shea & Christopher E. Baker), there is a strong correlation between scoring efficiency and winning.

Former meteorologist Ken Pomeroy has taken the analysis a step further, providing offensive and defensive efficiency statistics on his website, which accounts for quality of the opponents. Not surprisingly, undefeated and heavy favorite Kentucky is the only team in the top five for offensive (fifth) and defensive (second) efficiency. Other top teams are unbalanced, such as Notre Dame (second in offensive efficiency, but 112th in defensive efficiency). When in doubt about which team to pick in a particular game, look to efficiency.

• Shot location. It is commonly accepted that teams should try to shoot primarily from two locations on the floor: near the basket (because of the relative ease of the shot) and three-point shots from the corner (because of the increased point value and the corners being most conducive to making threes). Mid-range jump shots are the worst option, being relatively difficult to make and only worth two points. This strategy is credited to Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, lending itself to the play on words "Morey-ball."

The March 15 New York Times had a feature on how a math professor at Davidson College and his students developed a working relationship with men's coach Bob McKillop. One item in the mathematicians' report is "'heat maps' that show a player's shooting efficiency from certain areas on the floor," while CBS Sports has a website that shows shot charts for several leading college teams.

• 13 positions? A basketball team can put only five players on the court at a time, giving rise to the traditional positions of center, guard (point and shooting) and forward (small and power). According to analyst Muthu Alagappan in Wired, however, there are really 13 "positions" in terms of combinations of skill-sets. For example, the "three-point rebounder" combines the skills of the traditional shooting guard and forward. As an illustration, ESPN shows Duke's Justise Winslow is one of the top rebounders on the team and a nearly .400 three-point shooter. The study of hybrid positions is still new and it will be exciting to see if particular lineups of skill sets lead to greater success.