Math and March Madness might not seem to go together, but they do – at least when it comes to how four math students picked the Top 10 shots of all time in the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship. 

Sports prediction website Pickwise asked sports analyst Tim Chartier of Davidson College and former college basketball star-turned-CofC mathematics professor Amy Langville to come up with the list based on the Top 12 shots from 1982 to 2021 that nine experts chose.

The pair worked with CofC students Kristen Looney, Orel Robino, Jenna Snead and Zack White, who ranked the shots based on pressure and probability, along with the rankings from the experts, which they aggregated using the Borda count method (consensus based rather than majoritarian). The students weighted the shots in order of pressure, shot probability and expert rankings with a ratio of 3-1.5-2, respectively. 

“We ended up doing a shot probability based on the location of the shot, and a pressure ranking that was an aggregate of three factors: the timing, the result of the shot – did they tie or win? – and the pressure on the player at the time of the shot,” says graduate student Looney, a big sports fan. “What was interesting to me was how different the expert rankings were. Just among the four of us, I think all of us would pick a different No. 1, honestly. It was fun to get to do a math project on something that I already like.” 

White, another graduate student, enjoyed applying concepts he learned in class to the real world. 

“I didn’t anticipate the project would be as math-heavy as it was,” he says. “But it was nice to see these two different arenas come together.” 

The big difference: Math is predictable; sports are not. 

The big takeaway for me,” says Snead, a rising senior and astrophysics major who plays on the women’s soccer team, “is that you can do all this math and still be completely wrong. March Madness is such a wild, unpredictable event. At the end of the day, sports are so random, but that’s kind of the cool part.” 

Up next, the math team is devising a data asset formula to help Chartier make bracket selections and predict which team could win it all based on their play coming into the tournament. No more broken brackets! 

Now that’s a game winner if there ever was one.

The Top 10: 

1. Kris Jenkins – Villanova vs. North Carolina, 2016 

2. Jalen Suggs – Gonzaga vs. UCLA, 2021 

3. Christian Laettner – Duke vs. Kentucky, 1992 

4. Michael Jordan – North Carolina vs. Georgetown, 1982 

5. Chris Chiozza – Florida vs. Wisconsin, 2017 

6. Mamadi Diakite – Virginia vs. Purdue, 2019 

7. Paul Jesperson – Northern Iowa vs. Texas, 2016 

8. Jordan Poole – Michigan vs. Houston, 2018 

9. Trey Burke – Michigan vs. Kansas, 2013 

10. Tremont Waters – Louisiana vs. Maryland, 2019