Hank Stichter is a junior at Myers Park High. For an International Baccalaureate (IB) project last year he developed a formula for filling out his NCAA tournament bracket. Other projects included creating a gluten-free cookbook and distributing gluten-free food to homeless shelters.
But to suggest that Stichter’s project is unworthy would be erroneous. He entered his bracket in ESPN’s Tournament Challenge and finished in the 98.9th percentile.
If he had entered his bracket in your NCAA pool, two things would have happened. The first is that he would have won. The second is that when he came to collect, doors would have opened and competitors would have dropped to one knee.
“I do feel a little pressure to live up to last year,” Stichter says in the sunshine at a table outside Starbucks. “I’d like to finish somewhere above 75 percent, but I’d love to get more. Because with so many people picking Kentucky to go all the way there won’t be a whole lot of variations.”
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He hands me two pieces of white paper. If I owned a briefcase I would put the papers inside the briefcase. If I owned a safe, I would put the briefcase inside the safe.
In the column on the far left are the names of the schools in the 2015 tournament. Next to each school are 19 rows of black numbers.
Anybody can print statistics. What distinguishes a formula is the import those statistics receive.
Three categories Stichter emphasizes: margin of victory, turnover margin and rebounding margin.
Do the numbers dictate every pick, or does instinct play a role?
“It’s probably 70 percent numbers and 30 percent instinct,” Stichter says. “But a lot of time instinct is fueled by the numbers.”
This year he de-emphasized strength of schedule. That number undermined teams such as Wichita State and rewarded teams such as Kansas.
“I originally had Kansas in the Elite 8,” Stichter says. “But are they good enough to be a real Elite 8 team? They benefited from having the top-ranked schedule. But with Cliff Alexander out for the tournament, they can’t quite make the run.”
We talk on St. Patrick’s Day and he wears a shirt with the message “THIS IS MY ONLY GREEN SHIRT.” He also wears a UNC cap.
“I wanted to keep the sun out of my eyes,” Stichter says.
But can you keep the Tar Heels out of the Final Four? He can. He has them beating Harvard, beating Arkansas but losing to Wisconsin.
Last year he spent about 20 hours putting in data, creating the formula and writing a paper that explained the methodology behind the numbers. He examined results from NCAA tournaments past and experimented with what he found.
“There was just a lot of trial and error,” Stichter says.
Imagine a scientist in a lab, a benevolent scientist who uses science to further mankind. And if you don’t think he furthers mankind, how’d your brackets do last year?
Yet instead of tubes with a chemical reaction leaking out he uses paper. Last year he used lots of paper. Because no matter what your formula tells you to do, some brackets are so unappealing they have to be destroyed.
How many pieces of paper did you throw away last year?
“Probably around 50,” Stichter says. “Some were totally absurd. I don’t know how they got there.”
How about this year?
“One,” he says.
When he’s not in the lab, Stichter might be watching college basketball. He’s a fan, and he knows the sport. He and a friend, Daniel Zimmerman, started a website called the International Sports Hub. The title is legitimate; Zimmerman moved from Charlotte to England.
Whether you’re abroad or at home, however, the question is the same. Can anybody beat Kentucky?
“Their starting five is so good and their next five is just as good as any other starting team in America,” says Stichter. “I feel like there are several factors you would need to beat Kentucky. I feel like many teams have one of the factors but nobody has every factor you need.”
Those factors include height. He says Arizona, Wisconsin and even 11th-seeded Texas have height.
Those factors include the rare player who can take over a game. He nominates Jahlil Okafor (Duke), Jerian Grant (Notre Dame) and Frank Kaminsky (Wisconsin).
Stichter can’t pick against Kentucky, but I’m pulling for him anyway. He’s a nice guy.
And our Elite Eight, and our Final Four (and I made my picks three days before I saw his) are the same.
Sorensen: 704-358-5119; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @tomsorensen