Sports Nut

The Picks of the Press

Can sportswriters forecast the NCAA Tournament?

Click graphic to see enlarged bracket
Click graphic to see enlarged bracket

Last year, “Sports Nut”broadcast its own picks for the men’s NCAA basketball tournament. Like most self-anointed experts, we flopped. Worse, everybody found out about it. So this year we won’t post our own bracket—we’ll merely publish someone else’s, so that we may all leer and chuckle at their ineptitude together.

Actually, our MO is a bit more complicated than that. During last year’s tourney, as part of its pick-the-winners contest, unwittingly conducted an experiment. For each round, the site let its readers pick the winners by voting and then posted the results—a kind of hard-data peek at sports fans’ conventional wisdom. Guess what? If you had penciled in your bracket in accordance with majority opinion, you would have aced your office pool.

Sports Nut wanted to know if the sports media, if measured as a group, could forecast the tournament as well as sports fans did. So this year we melted the brackets of 15 prominent sportswriters into one, producing a superbracket that more or less reflects the media consensus.

Our methodology was simple. In a given game, whichever team drew more votes from our media consortium moved on to the next round. We broke ties by advancing the higher seed. (You can view the sportswriters’ bracket by clicking the graphic at the top of the page.) During the tourney, we’ll track the writers’ performance and match it against the public’s. If any single pundit performs much better or much worse than the pack, we’ll note that, too.

What’s striking about our media bracket? Well, don’t look for any huge upsets: No writer in our survey dared to pick a No. 15 or No. 16 seed to advance past the first round. No. 1 Kansas, the writers’ national champion, is joined in the Final Four by two other No. 1 seeds, Duke and Maryland, and a No. 2, Oklahoma. The lowest seed to advance to the Sweet 16 is No. 5 Marquette, who, incidentally, failed to get out of the first round.

When they did pick upsets, the writers often picked the same ones. Experienced bracketeers know that No. 10 upsets No. 7 slightly more than half the time. Taking this trend to the extreme, our sportswriters picked all four No. 10 seeds to advance past the first round, two of them by margins of 14 votes to one. (At this writing, they’re batting .500. Kent State won but Pepperdine lost.) An overwhelming majority of the writers also picked No. 11 Pennsylvania to upset No. 6 California, bowing to the conventional wisdom that well-coached Ivy Leaguers tend to upset overrated big conference squads (Penn blew away Cal in our survey, 12 votes to three).

Boy, this makes it sound like sportswriters are falling prey to the same kinds of institutional bias that supposedly plagues political writers. Get me Bernie Goldberg!