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Filling out your NCAA bracket: Do you go with your gut or look at the statistics?

First round of March Madness starts Thursday

Filling out your NCAA bracket: Do you go with your gut or look at the statistics?

MADISON, Wis. - Each year, millions of people fill out an NCAA bracket. Some depend on luck but others use math. 

University of Wisconsin professor and industrial and systems engineer Laura Albert uses bracketology to make her predictions. 

"It's really trying to make sense of the patterns that we see in sports, to see who's going to win the next game, who's the best ranked team, who should make it into the tournament. All using math instead of actually watching the game," said Albert. 

UW-Madison graduate student Trent Peters-Clarke goes with his gut when filling out his bracket. 

"I went with some of the favorites and then definitely you gotta do the 12-5 upsets every now and then," Peters-Clarke said. 

One first round pick was a little difficult for him since he got his undergraduate degree at Oregon. 

"That was a tough first-round matchup for sure, but I had to go with the undergrad on that one," he said. 

Like many, Peters-Clarke makes his choice based on a feeling. 

"It's tough to have a good strategy, I think. You just kind of have to be bold with it," he said. 

Albert admits luck does play a big role, but she leans on the numbers to fill out her bracket. She collects data all season, including scores, wins and losses, and re-ranks the teams week to week. 

"It's amazing that the math can tell us with a high degree of accuracy who the best teams are without a lot of data points," she said. 

"We're not just trying to study this data that was collected in the past, we're really forward looking and we're trying to predict the future," said Albert. "As an engineer, at the end of the day, I want to take this all one step further and I want to turn that data and information into a decision. And how would I actually design a system, and engineer a better system and solve a problem in the future?"

This same mathematical model helping Albert rank teams can be applied to applications looking at the performance of the stock market or the spread of disease.

Albert is using similar models to research queueing theory, the mathematical study of waiting lines. She is collecting data on emergency calls for ambulances and patients waiting in line at the hospital, with the goal of improving the system. 

"If you've ever been to the doctor's office, you have to wait in line for the appointment and at the clinic. Why do you have to wait sometimes 30 minutes to be called in?" she said.  

She hopes by teaching her students about bracketology, they will work to find new ways to make a difference using math. 

"Sports analytics is a great preparation for solving all those other data-driven engineering problems," said Albert. 

As for her NCAA bracket, Albert said the numbers point to Duke winning. She also has Michigan State, Gonzaga and Virginia on top. 

But she said if everyone in her bracket pool has Duke winning, she probably won't put them as the champion in her bracket.  

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