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Jacobson’s BracketOdds Site Adds NCAA Women’s Bracket Generator

3/29/2019 11:58:03 AM By David Mercer, Illinois Computer Science

Professor Sheldon Jacobson’s BracketOdds website changes a little every year, often in response to requests from users. This year the site, which since 2012 has used data to generate brackets for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, turned a request from a few years ago into an entirely new feature: the first-ever bracket generator for the NCAA Women’s Tournament.
Professor Sheldon Jacobson says the new bracket generator grew out of a request from someone who visited the BracketOdds site, but required someone to gather extensive data on women's college basketball teams. (photo by Cary Frye/Illinois Athletics)
Professor Sheldon Jacobson says the new bracket generator grew out of a request from someone who visited the BracketOdds site, but required someone to gather extensive data on women's college basketball teams. (photo by Cary Frye/Illinois Athletics)

Both college basketball tournaments started in late March and run through their championship games in early April, and this is BracketOdds’ busy season, Jacobson says, noting the site will draw hundreds of thousands of hits during March Madness.

The women’s bracket generator uses the same model as the men’s generator, using the seeds given to each team by the tournament selection committees. Teams are divided into regions for the tournaments’ opening rounds, and then seeded 1-16 in each region.

“The underlying models for the two generators are the same. The key difference is the data used as inputs to the model,” Jacobson said. “But getting all the (women’s) data was the challenge. We did it this year.”
Illinois CS Professor Sheldon Jacobson
Illinois CS Professor Sheldon Jacobson

Abhinav Singh, an undergraduate in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, did the heavy lifting, gathering data on all of Division I women’s basketball. PhD student Ian Ludden built the new generator.

BracketOdds is a student-run project, Jacobson says, and has become a STEM learning lab in the department.

The bracket generator in particular uses principles from probability theory and operations research to compare the likelihood that a set of seeds will reach a particular round of the tournament.

Both bracket generators rely heavily on the seeding work of the committees, Jacobson said, and with good reason: Over the years, the selection committees have generally gotten the seeding right.

“That was our first research, and this is going back over 10 years – is there a fundamental performance difference between seeds one, two, or three?” he said. “We discovered in the first three rounds, there is a difference.”

Through the first weekend of the tournaments, the men’s generator is generating more traffic, but the women’s bracket generator was the subject of national media attention.

As far as performance, the two generators are the same, Jacobson said.

“I’ve been able to get brackets that had as many as 31 of the first 32 games correct in the men’s and the women’s tournaments,” he said.