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Sports >  NCAA basketball

Illinois professor creates women’s NCAA Tournament simulator

UPDATED: Wed., March 20, 2019

Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale  gestures after making a 3-pointer against North Carolina during the second half of an Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament game in Greensboro, N.C., on March 8. (Chuck Burton / AP)
Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale gestures after making a 3-pointer against North Carolina during the second half of an Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament game in Greensboro, N.C., on March 8. (Chuck Burton / AP)
By Doug Feinberg Associated Press

NEW YORK – University of Illinois computer science professor Sheldon Jacobson has always loved data.

For the past seven years, he’s had a men’s NCAA Tournament bracket simulator. After getting many requests, Jacobson decided to put together one for the women’s tournament. It’s believed to be the first of its kind for the women’s tournament to predict all 63 games.

“People would send me emails, saying, ‘Great data,’ and they would start saying, ‘What about the women’s game?’ ” Jacobson said in a phone interview. “We didn’t have the bandwidth support to develop it right away.”

This year, though, he put one together using data from the past 25 years.

“We’re using advanced analytics to drive selection of each of the games,” he said. “There’s a lot of attention on the men’s game, obviously, but there is the ESPN bracket challenge for the women’s game. It gives people a chance to appreciate the women’s game more.”

Jacobson said the women’s game has been easier for the simulator to predict because there have been historically less upsets on the women’s side. Only once has a top-three seed lost in the first round.

The computer model doesn’t have any bias for a fan’s favorite team, mascot or any other thing someone might use to choose winners. Jacobson said there are more than 9 quintillion combinations that the program uses.

“It’s purely data-driven here, there’s no emotion in it,” Jacobson said. “The data that’s most important is how the seeds have performed over last 25 years. That has enough for us to create this simulator. We bring all that together and run it through a power model.”

Jacobson first started the men’s simulator in 2012 and had more than 500,000 visitors. That number has grown over the years. His website is used by interested sports fans as well as high school and elementary school teachers around the country.

“It’s a great teaching tool for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and stats classes at schools,” he said.

The Associated Press ran 64 simulations – in honor of each team in the field. A No. 1 seed won 33 of the 64 times, with Baylor having 12 of those victories. Notre Dame and Louisville were next with nine each. Second-seeded UConn was champion seven times. All four No. 1 seeds advanced to the Final Four five times and Louisville was the winner in each of those instances.

There were some upsets in the results. No. 6 UCLA won the title twice. That would be a first, as no team lower than a No. 3 seed has won the title in the 37-year history of the tournament. Also, twice out of the 64 simulations a double-digit seed made the Final Four, with No. 12 Rice and 10th-seeded Drake doing it once each. While no 14 or 15 seed has won an NCAA women’s tournament game, in the 64 simulations it happened twice. So there is hope for the Fordham Rams.

Maybe that shouldn’t be a total shock this season, with all the upsets that occurred during the regular season and the fact that this is the most wide-open the women’s NCAA Tournament has been in quite some time.

Count ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo as a fan of what professor Jacobson is doing, as well as other groups such as , which provides tremendous stats for women’s basketball teams and players.

“All that stuff is great,” she said. “You know, 10 years ago you really had to search for stuff on the women’s game. Whether it was stories or blogs or podcasts or whatever you had. You had to work really hard to find things on women’s basketball. Now, there’s more information and it’s great for the game and the fans.”

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