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Is Grant Wahl Smarter Than a Monkey?

Grant Wahl doesn't think UNC will win the NCAA's.

And, well, I can't really argue with that[*]. The eight teams he does list could win it. So could UNC, for that matter. What caught my attention was this:

But the Magic Eight, which has successfully tabbed the eventual national champion in January every year since 2000 except one (2003: Syracuse), isn't about simply listing the eight best teams in the country. That would be lame and boring.

Three thoughts popped into my head:

  1. That seems impressive.
  2. I wonder if I could have done that?
  3. I wonder if a monkey could have done that?
With that last thought, I'm not referring to your standard, feces-flinging simian; I'm thinking of the Shakespeare-plagarizing type. In other words, could we at random replicate Wahl's success?

Well, not completely at random. There are 341 D1 teams; to pick the champion in seven times out of eight given 64 chances is what, 1 in 255,652,912,063? Wahl could mop the floor with your garden variety theoretical monkery. Of course, when picking a potential national champion, you don't really consider all 341 teams. (Well, maybe you do but if so, I have some bad news about the New Jersey Institute of Technology's chances come March.) We'll have to make the challenge a little fairer on the monkey.

Now the easiest thing to do would be just pick the Top 8 teams the week Wahl writes his column. It would indeed be "lame and boring," but as more than one of my ex-girlfriends will be more than happy to tell you, that fits me to a T. So I'm more than happy to take that little algorithm. How would I have done this decade?

Year      Team        Rank
2000   Michigan St.    11
2001   Duke             8
2002   Maryland         3
2003   Syracuse        --
2004   Connecticut      4
2005   North Carolina   3
2006   Florida          2
2007   Florida          2
Pretty damn well, actually. I'd be 6 for 8, and Wahl would have only had Michigan State in 2000 to lord over me. Hell, I could have only picked the Top 3 each year and pull down the same score. That's almost magazine-column worthy, right there.

But again, Wahl isn't just picking the Top 8. He typically picks 5 of the Top 8: 43 out of 72, between 4 and 6 each year. It's also worth noting he's failed to pick one of the Top 3 teams exactly three times:

Year      Team        Rank   Finish
2003   Connecticut      3   Sweet 16
2004   St. Joseph's     3   Elite 8 
2008   North Carolina   1           
Most of his remaining picks (23) come from the next 8: 4 teams ranked 9th, another 6 from 10th to 12th, 4 at 13th or 14th, 4 ranked 15th, and 5 at 16th. (Of these, only Michigan State at 11th in 2000 ever won.) Of the remaining six teams, four were ranked from 20th to 22nd and two weren't in the Top 25. Syracuse, the one champion Wahl missed, also wasn't in the Top 25 when he wrote his column in 2003.

So let's let our monkey cheat a bit. He'll pick the top three teams, another two from the top eight, and three more from 9th to 20th. That'll give us a reasonable approximation of our SI columnist, at least. Our monkey's got a 21% chance of being as smart as Grant Wahl. Wahl's in the top quintile of monkeys, which has got to be at least a couple of quintiles better than Gregg Easterbrook, for instance.

I might as well take it one step further - how would our intelligently designed monkey have done since 1949? (You know, to pick a year at random and all.) We'll use the closest poll to the tenth of January, since that's typically when Wahl's column is written. The results?

Grant Wahl             --  (87.5%)
Me (Lame and Boring)   45  (76.2%)
Our Monkey             38  (64.4%)
So yes, Grant Wahl is smarter than a monkey, as well as my lame and boring self. But it's a closer race than folks might think.