If you're trying to pick winners for this year's NCAA basketball tournament, ignore a team's seeding, which is statistically insignificant after the Sweet Sixteen, a new Journal of Gambling Business and Economics study reports.

The paper suggests that picking the higher-seeded team to beat a lower-seeded opponent usually works only in the first three rounds of the tournament. Once the tournament enters the Elite Eight round, a team's seed in the tournament is irrelevant.

"In the Sweet Sixteen round, the rankings still hold – but just barely," said Sheldon H. Jacobson, a professor of computer science and the director of the simulation and optimization laboratory at Illinois. "From the Elite Eight round and onward, you might as well pick names out of a hat."

Tournament seedings, which are determined by a ten-member committee of NCAA basketball athletic directors and conference commissioners from across the country, are an easy, convenient predictor for people with little knowledge of the current college basketball scene, but are ultimately ineffective in predicting the final three rounds of the six-round tournament, Jacobson said.

"People often overvalue seedings," he said. "The best advice is, pay attention to them early in the tournament, but as the tournament gets going, remember that their usefulness as a predictive measure fades."

In last year's tournament, the outcomes fell in line with Jacobson's predictions.

"Last year was a classic year when all of our statements about statistics and probability came true, which is that the high seeds were able to get to the Elite Eight very easily, but after that you could flip a coin in terms of who is going to win," Jacobson said.

All four of the number one, two and three seeds made it through to the Sweet Sixteen, "which is exactly what our research says, that seeding does make a difference in the early rounds, and the top three seeds are going to be pretty predictable until the Elite Eight round," Jacobson said.

For a team to make its way into the Elite Eight round, they try to avoid playing a one-seed as much as possible, Jacobson said.

"Eights and nines play ones in the second round, when their ranking still has value," he said. "Fours and fives potentially could play a one in the third round, when one still has value. So if you want to go far in the tournament, I would rather be a 10-seed than an eight or a nine, as paradoxical as that may sound."

When that happens, upsets are more likely to occur.

"If you have a six- or seven-seed playing a one-seed in the Elite Eight, that's a prime upset candidate," Jacobson said. "If all else fails, pick a name out of a hat or flip a coin. Statistically, it won't make a difference."

Other qualitative factors outside of a team's initial seeding such as player match-ups, a team's style of play and its relative "hotness" or "coldness" prior to the game have a greater effect on the outcome of contests in the later rounds of the tournament.

"By the Elite Eight, you have to study the more qualitative aspects of a team," he said. "You have to pay attention to intangibles such as match-ups, injuries, how close they are to their home and how many home fans are going to be there. Those factors make more of a difference than seeding."

Citation: Sheldon H. Jacobson, Douglas M. King 'Seeding In The NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament: When Is A Higher Seed Better?', The Journal of Gambling Business and Economics, 2009 3(2), 63-87