The whole thing is sitting on a vast pool of data assembled by HuffPo's deputy data editor, Jay Boice, and his team. "I'm not a huge basketball fan," Boice told me. "I'm a data fan."
The project actually began during last year's tournament, when Boice noticed so many people doing modeling and projections to help people make their picks. "But there was nothing that let you play with the different factors yourself," he said. So, over six weeks, the HuffPo data team created this (frankly) amazing app.
It does what we've all been doing, but faster and more rigorously. It is what happens when you take the logic of March Madness to its conclusion: automagic, knowledge-independent fun.
You might say that what's going on with The Predict-o-Tron is nothing new in sports fandom. You could point to rotisserie baseball leagues or fantasy football's explosive growth to show that some fans have always loved sports through data analysis. And that's a fair point.
But communications scholar Thomas Patrick Oates has argued that fantasy sports offer the thrill of "vicarious management" (which, he adds, encourages fans to "identify with the institutional regimes of the NFL (and the authorities who conduct them) rather than with the athletes.")
But March Madness's statistical fans don't dream of controlling players. They are, instead, enacting what it's like to be a coder, an engineer who tunes an algorithm that figures out the world for him.
A perfectly predictable, understandable world.
Which makes it, the traditional fan in me proclaims, directly opposed to the spirit of sport.
* * *
Let me step back for a minute. I am a UCLA fan by birth and experience. My father was enrolled at UCLA during the Wooden years, the greatest sporting run in American history. I grew up going to and watching games. When we moved away from LA, I came to love walking through the enemy arenas of the Pacific Northwest, after a long car ride with my dad. The pressure of all those opposing fans and colors drove us closer together, and though we both knew the circumstances were artificial, what it did for our relationship was not. UCLA fandom, for me, is the ground on which it is easiest for my dad and I to demonstrate that we love each other as deeply as we do.
The blue and gold runs deep is all I'm saying. And I know I'm not alone. The experience is common to the point of cliche.
After our 1995 championship run, I hacked out a UCLA basketball website (a blog in today's parlance, I'd say) from the HTML 2.0 wilds. For a couple of years, if you searched Yahoo for UCLA sports, my site would have been a top result. Running it taught me about the Internet and digital media, which you may have noticed, became my career.
A year or so after the site began, at 14, living in rural Washington State, I was invited to join a semi-secret group of UCLA boosters called the Dead Bruins Society. This is the only reference to it on the Internet, so I won't say much more. But I got to participate in conversations with people who were actually close to the basketball program.