You only have a few hours left to fill out your NCAA Tournament brackets. Microsoft thinks it can help.
Whether you depend on your own knowledge, the endless television analysis or the wisdom of fellow fans, picking the perfect bracket is nerve racking. So many things -- as when No. 14 seed University of Alabama-Birmingham upset No. 3 seed Iowa State -- can go wrong.
Microsoft says its Bing search engine's Predict tool can help even the savviest bracket pickers. The tool includes millions of data points, including the frequency of related search terms and social media mentions, that make sense of the 9 quintillion possible tourney outcomes.Want an idea of how complicated that is? 9 quintillion looks like this: 9,000,000,000,000,000,000.
The Redmond, Washington, software giant says it's already learned a lot from its experience with last year's NCAA Tournament, when Bing performed better than 70 percent of the brackets in ESPN.com's competition. Now Microsoft is NCAA.com's official "bracketologist," a fancy term for a predictor the field of 68 teams in the tournament.
"We try to provide a little extra knowledge," said Walter Sun, a top data scientist for Bing Predicts.
Microsoft's role in the tournament is the latest example of computing power being directed at the art and science of bracketology. Michigan-based iDashboard has created a simple interface that lines up stats of the tournament's teams to help fans pick a winner. The projected bracket from Whatifsports.com includes results from more than 1,000 simulations of the entire tourney.
The reason for all the analytics: March Madness is one of the most widely followed sporting events in the country. Nearly 51 million workers will likely participate in an office pool, according to outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
The stakes can be high. Two years ago, investor Warren Buffett offered $1 billion to anybody who picked all the winners. No one did. This year, he's offering employees of his Berkshire Hathaway investment company $1 million a year for life if they pick a perfect bracket up to the quarterfinals, known as the Sweet 16.
Last year, someone picked all 32 winners of the first round in sports network ESPN's tournament, the largest in the country. This year, a record 13 million people entered the network's Tournament Challenge online, shattering the 11.6 million mark set just last year.
"The bracket is a social phenomenon," said Kevin Ota, an ESPN spokesman. "Anybody has just as much of a chance to win as anybody else."
This year, roughly 20 teams stand a chance to win it all, according to Jay Rood, vice president of race and sports books at MGM Resorts International in Las Vegas. He estimates $150 million will be gambled on the tournament in Nevada, more than the $132 million bet on last month's Super Bowl.
"The fact that we have so many teams with a legitimate shot, the more fans will be passionate about their team having a chance," he said. "This tournament is wide open."
That's where big data could come in.
Microsoft dumped 10 seasons of data into its computers when it became the NCAA's official bracketologist. That data includes not only statistics about teams and its players, but intangibles including their coaches, mascots and crowd sentiment about them on Facebook and Twitter.
"We've learned that with 'the wisdom of the crowd,' there's a 5 percent increase in accuracy over some traditional statistical models with some sports," Sun said. "If a key player is injured, the crowd will talk about the loss and its impact. We have a sentiment analyzer that feeds this into the prediction."
Certain statistics have more importance than others. Some teams that are skilled at shooting 3-pointers are regarded as "bracket-busters," potential winners, Sun said. Teams that struggle shooting free throws, especially down the stretch, are ripe for an upset, Sun added.
"The average fan knows about five teams really well. This is a 68-team tournament," Sun said. "We all need a little help knowing something about the other 63 teams playing."
For what it's worth, Bing sees Kansas, North Carolina, Duke and Michigan State making the Final Four. The search engine gives Kansas, the overall top seed, a 55 percent chance of beating Carolina for the national championship.
But take that with a grain of salt. Last year, Bing picked Kentucky to win. The trophy went to Duke instead.