A basketball on court

ISyE students win at MinneAnalytics March Madness competition

Student model predicts winners in the annual basketball tournament

Gonzaga University was by far the most picked team to win March Madness, the annual NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. In the official NCAA bracket pool, nearly 40 percent of people picked them to win. College of Science and Engineering students Connor Fell, Isaac McCarney, Sam Casey, and Will Titus had a different idea.

As part of the MinneAnalytics MinneMUDAC data science challenge, the four industrial and systems engineering (ISyE) students developed a statistical model to forecast the winners of the tournament. Their model predicted Baylor University—the team that actually took home the championship on April 5. The students won first place in the Sweet Sixteen Challenge portion of the competition and also received second place overall, beating 37 other undergraduate teams from the University of Minnesota and other institutions.

“It was kind of a surprise to see Baylor win, who wasn't undefeated [like Gonzaga] but had all these metrics that supported them winning,” said Fell, a senior in ISyE and recipient of the CSE Student Affairs Scholarship.

“I think most of us expected Gonzaga to win when we were filling out the bracket, and once we got to that final game, it was definitely a surprise to see that flipped [in our model],” he said.

Fell initially heard about the MinneAnalytics competition from ISyE Professor Lisa Miller. He then recruited McCarney, Casey, and Titus, who all knew each other from classes and their involvement in the Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineering student club on the Twin Cities campus.

The group considered several options for constructing their tournament bracket, such as using a machine learning algorithm or surveying people to get their opinions. They settled on the statistical approach of using weighted averages, a concept they learned about in their ISyE classes.

With data obtained from the NCAA and sports data website Team Rankings, the students created an algorithm and used an Excel spreadsheet to calculate a “strength rating” for each team based on teams’ defensive ratings, three-point shooting metrics, and overall ranking.

The students credit their love of basketball and knowledge of the sport for creating an effective model. For example, Fell said, knowing that college basketball has shifted in recent years to focus more on three-point shots.

“We’ve watched thousands of basketball games, not necessarily for this purpose, but we have,” said McCarney, who has been interested in sports analytics since he was young. “Because we did that, we were able to directly impact the results of our competition.

That sort of thinking can go into the real world,“ he said. By watching what people do and watching the process, you can make sure that you are confident and competent in knowing what people are doing and where the issues are.”

Casey, a junior in ISyE, admits he wasn’t as much of a basketball fan before this competition. But, he enjoyed the freedom of the project—and learning that sometimes a simpler solution is the best.

“It’s definitely interesting doing this sort of thing outside of school,” he said. “You're not solving a problem or trying to get to a certain answer. It was fun being able to approach it how we wanted to. It was a very dependable method that we chose, and it gave us a good solution.”

For Titus, a sophomore in ISyE, it was the abundance of public information that amazed him. 

“One of the things I like a lot is that there's so much data open to the public in sports,” he said. “A lot of companies don't share their data openly to everyone. Here, you can access all that data and then you can actually see it with your own eyes.”

Although none of the students plan on going into sports analytics as a career, they are working on submitting an academic paper about their methodology to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan Sports Analytics Conference next year. Fell and McCarney are graduating this spring, but they hope that Casey and Titus can defend their MinneMUDAC title next year.

Story by Olivia Hultgren

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