Bracket Talk with Crashing the Dance’s Andy Cox

Dylan Burkhardt


It’s become a bit of an annual tradition for Andy Cox (@crashthedance) to answer questions about the NCAA tournament bracketing process. Cox runs Crashing the Dance, a website and artificial intelligence model designed to predict and seed the NCAA tournament field. In recent years, those questions have generally surrounded Michigan’s chances to make the NCAA tournament as a bubble team. This year, the conversation is a bit different as we discuss the intricacies of seeding and bracketing and how they could effect who and where Michigan will play next week.

As a refresher, tell us about your site, your project and statistical model. How successful has it been in predicting the NCAA field?

Crashing the Dance grew out of a grad school project I did at Georgia Tech. We know about a lot of the profile attributes the committee uses, but we know very little about which attributes are more important than others. (That’s actually changing a bit this year with the release of the full 1-68 seed list during an hour-long discussion show following the selection show. I’m not too optimistic about learning many specifics though.)

The selection and seeding models on the site compare each team this year to a database of past teams (up to 12 years of data now) to estimate (1) how well its profile matches that of a typical at-large selection and (2) what seed is most likely.

Both the selection and seeding models have done well in recent years. They have outperformed the average web bracketologist (according to the Bracket Project) in each of the last three years, and have also outperformed some of the big names over the last three years combined. Part of that is my having a better understanding of what kinds of profiles give the models trouble, and part is each year providing more data to learn from. Some of it may well be luck too.

Michigan is a 3-seed in your most recent model. How confident are you in that prediction and what do you think would have to happen for the Wolverines to move up to No. 2 or down to No. 4?

The 2 seed line may be hard to crack, though with three other Big Ten teams ahead of them and the co-regular season title on their resume, a tournament championship that runs through Ohio State and Michigan might do the trick in the committee’s eyes.

The tricky thing about hypothetical seed questions based on “if the season ended today” projections is that it depends on what the teams ahead and behind do. We have them as the last 3 seed right now, and there is little separation between the other 3s and some of the 4s. A loss to someone other than their two co-champs would probably knock them down, depending on how bad a loss, but if they make it to the weekend it’s hard to see too much downward movement.

Talk to me about geography. You have this nifty chart detailing distances from all of the sites to representative schools. Break down the basic pod geography rules and how they might affect Michigan. Any early projection where Michigan ends up?

I’m working on a hypothetical bracketing of the top 4 seed lines based on my latest seed list, but the basic process at the top of the bracket goes like this:

  1. After the committee ranks all teams in the field from 1-68 (they call this each team’s “true seed”), they place each of the top 4 seed lines in a region in order of their true seed.
  2. Then, each team on the top 4 lines is assigned, again in order of their true seed, to one of the eight pod sites.

Obviously, the higher you are on the seed list, the more likely you’ll get a preferred pod site. There are no conference restrictions on pod sites as there are on region sites, and the two pods at each site don’t have to feed into the same regional. For example, Duke and North Carolina won’t be in the same region, but will most likely be together in the Greensboro pod as they were last year in Charlotte.

From the distance chart you mentioned, Michigan’s preferred pod sites (considering geography only) are roughly in the order: Columbus, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Nashville, Greensboro, Omaha, Albuquerque, and Portland. Michigan is 12th on my latest seed list, and when I got to them to assign their pod, the first three were already filled and they ended up in Nashville.

One helpful site restriction from Michigan’s perspective is that Ohio State cannot play in the Columbus pod because they are the host institution. If the Buckeyes end up ahead of Michigan on the seed list, that might result in a better pod for Michigan depending on the rest of the seed list ahead of them.

Nationwide Arena in Columbus, OH is the closest second/third round site to Ann Arbor

As a follow up, could Michigan play in Columbus? Could a 3 seed be sent to Nashville to face a No. 6 seeded Vanderbilt? Where is the line drawn?

The three teams most likely to steal a Columbus spot from Michigan are Michigan State, Marquette, and Indiana. Passing the Spartans on the seed list is unlikely, so it could come down to Marquette and finishing ahead of Indiana.

Vanderbilt is not the host of the Nashville pod (the Ohio Valley Conference is doing the honors), nor did they play any games at the Bridgestone Arena, so there is no restriction on them staying in town. However, the committee will assign them to a region, and the pod will follow indirectly from that. For example, if Vanderbilt is the number 6 seed in the West, they will be in the same pod as the number 3 seed in the West, which would already be assigned as described above.

The committee will not put teams on the top five seed lines – the so-called “protected seeds” – at a home-court disadvantage in the round of 64. After that, they’re on their own.

The Big Ten has five teams that could be on the top four seed lines, what sort of interesting twists does that add to the bracketing process?

The main rules that will come into play are (1) the first three teams from a conference, as ranked by the seed list, must be placed in different regions, (2) no more than one team from a conference may be seeded in the same grouping of four in lines 1-4, and (3) conference teams shall not meet prior to the regional final, unless a ninth team is selected from a conference.

It’s relatively straightforward to put teams into regions based on geographic preference and the bracketing rules. Much of the trickiness comes when they need to move teams around to maintain competitive balance. Five teams in the top four lines leads to fewer options for moving teams around, especially if most of those teams are on the 2 and 3 lines based on their true seeds. The 2 and 3 lines would meet in the regional semifinals, which is normally prohibited without more than eight teams from a conference. However, the committee can waive this if necessary “after exhausting all reasonable options.” They can move teams up or down a seed line if necessary, even in the top four lines.

  • Fvsdevin

    I’m not sure how other Michigan fans feel, but I’m rooting for Northwestern today.  And if we happen to lose to them tomorrow, then I’d say Northwestern making the NCAA tournament would be an alright conciliation after a Michigan loss. 

    • longhorn_wolverine

      I agree…am rooting for Northwestern to make the tournament.  Will see if it pans out.

    • MGoTweeter

      I am definitely rooting for NW to make the tournament, but I am rooting for Minny to win this game tonight.  I want Michigan to have the easiest road possible and if that means NW does not make the tournament, then oh well.  I will feel bad for Shurna and their fans but I would feel worse if Michigan lost to them. 

      • UM Hoops Fan

        That’s basically how I feel.  I’d feel bad for NU but I want what’s best for UM.  Getting at least one win in the B1G tourney will make me feel more comfortable getting a 3 seed, and it would be nice too for this team to make a run in the B1G tourney.  Probably easier vs Minny, and they’re less likely to have a blow-out shooting day.

        • Mattski

          That’s my sense–better to play Minny. Let NW make the tourney another year. Other than feeling badly for them never making it, I don’t quite understand all the sentiment for them. 

      • So you want Northwestern to make the tournament you just don’t want them to beat Minnesota or us… The two games they have to win to make the tournament :-)

        • MGoTweeter

          In a perfect world they win today and lose to Michigan but still make it.

          • AG

            That’s not going to happen.  If you think they can still hope for other bubble teams to suffer embarassing losses that isn’t going to work.  If all the bubble teams lose that just means Iona and MTSU will work their way back in.  Or the committee will give affirmative action to west coast teams again like they did in 2006 when they took Air Force and Utah State over Michigan.

  • UM Hoops Fan

    You know what I don’t want?  UM as a 3 seed in the same region as an 11-seeded UConn.  I think they’ll be seeded 10 (or higher), and I don’t quite buy the hype, but they would be a supremely talented 10 or 11 seed with a tourney-proven coach.  And with some size that could pose problems for us.  No thanks.

  • rlcBlue

    So Georgetown (immediately ahead of us on CtD’s S-curve) lost today; Baylor (immediately behind us) won. Any change in our seeding, or is it still pending our tournament results?

    • rlcBlue

      And now Marquette goes down, too.

  • MGoTweeter

    OT. That can’t hurt

  • Rkw

    Minn pg looks alot like cam newton

  • rlcBlue

    How agonizing to be a Northwestern fan. I guess they really are Cub fans staying in practice during the winter…

  • q-sac

    glad the gophers won for the match-up tmrw. i think it was going to be a battle either way but i dont know if i could take another game against the cats.

  • jemblue

    Wait, there are *three* Big Ten teams ahead of us in the bracketology?  Who’s the third?