Watch 'The Full Nelson': Exploring March Madness Analytics

full nelson

Is it possible to predict the perfect NCAA Tournament bracket? No. But a Ph.D named Ed Feng is coming up with innovative analytics that could help get us closer. Amy K. Nelson traveled to California to learn more.

It was last week when I was perusing Twitter and saw a tweet from Jeff Ma cross my timeline. Ma, a member of MIT's legendary blackjack team that inspired Ben Mezrich's book Bringing Down The House, is not only a genius when it comes to numbers and math, but he also is a consultant to both the San Francisco 49ers and Portland Trailblazers.

"Jeff Ma is a legend," said Ed Feng, a Stanford Ph.D. who is running his own sports analytics startup website.

Feng is the owner of ThePowerRank.com and Ma had tweeted a link to a graphic from Feng's site of the NCAA tournament bracket unlike any I had seen before. The visualization was so intuitive; the numbers of probability of each team advancing to each round, spread around in a circle in the form of nodules. If you ran your mouse over any team, that team's chances of making each round would be highlighted and presented right in front of you. This was far more interesting and consumable than a simple chart.

And when Jeff Ma tweets something related to sports analytics, I pay attention. Ma wrote a book last year called The House Advantage: Playing the Odds to Win in Big Business -- a great primer in applying analytics to all areas of business. Ma is an expert in this field, so I texted him and asked if Feng and his numbers were worthy of a deeper look. Ma told me he thought Feng might be on to something interesting. He also told me that people like Feng -- those from the world of academia -- rarely get into sports analytics because, quite frankly, if they don't enter the gambling side of the business, there are few opportunities for monetization.

With Ma at least curious about Feng's background and approach (the two are friendly after Feng introduced himself to Ma at MIT's Sloan Sports Analytics Conference last year, and have kept in touch) that was enough for me. So we flew out to San Francisco on the opening weekend of March Madness, and I had Feng fill out a bracket for me.

I wanted to see if this guy had some sort of magic bullet; if what he was doing was so different that it could help me win my pool. What I learned was that while Feng might be onto something when it comes to his college football forecasting, March Madness -- even to those who are the nerdiest of math nerds -- is by far the hardest to project. That doesn't prevent people like Ed from trying.

This was my weekend spent with people who traffic in numbers, betting lines and projections, and whether this was the beginning of the next great sports analytics mind.

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