Emily Maher has more riding on her predictions for this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament than years past.

“Before, I would have been like, oh, I really like Duke’s uniforms, maybe I’ll pick them to win it,” said the Hokie senior majoring in multimedia journalism. “But now, this is for a grade, so I have to do my research.”

Maher is one of close to 100 Virginia Tech students wagering their grades on this year’s tournament in what has become an annual tradition of combining hoops and data in Bill Roth’s Introduction to Sports Media course.

“These students have to figure out that some of these upsets can be predicted,” said Roth, a Virginia Sports Hall of Fame broadcaster and a Virginia Tech professor of practice. “Math can be fun, and data analytics is really growing nationally as a science. This project gives them a taste of that.”

The Introduction to Sports Media course is one of a growing number offered as part of the Department of Communication’s concentration in sports media and analytics, which is housed in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. And the bracketology project is just one of the benefits that stem from Roth’s wealth of experience reporting sports.

“It’s not what the athlete looks like,” said Roth. “It’s what the numbers show us about the players and the teams.”

Roth joined the communication department in 2016 after having provided radio play-by-play for the Hokies football and men’s basketball teams for 27 years. During that time, the National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association named him the state’s Sportscaster of the Year an unprecedented 11 times.

“Our multimedia journalism program has long been sought after, and Bill continues to expand its popularity,” said Robert Denton, head of the department. “We’re lucky to have his expertise and enthusiasm as he helps mentor the next generation of sports communicators.”

Inspired by his experience and the success of some Virginia Tech alumni successfully working in the field of sports analytics, Roth created the bracketology project with an aim of developing the university’s reputation for correctly projecting the Final Four each season.

Each student receives a packet of in-depth statistics and analysis of the teams. Students are graded on the success of their individual bracket selections, and the entire class’ brackets are combined to produce a joint prediction.

“That was a little daunting,” Maher said. “I was a little scared at first, but it’s really cool to look at all this and make an informed decision.”

Freshman Jared Grinde said the increased information made picking this year’s bracket a far more intense process than in previous years.

“When I make a bracket, I usually have one computer tab open, but now I have all kinds of different stats and figures pulled up,” Grinde said. “This is definitely more than I’ve ever done for a bracket before.”

For many students, their homework resulted in them picking one of the Las Vegas favorites to win, but one lone Hokie predicted the championship trophy would reside in Blacksburg at the tournament’s end.

“I feel like everybody in the class is just going with what everybody else picks,” said Jeremy Webb, a junior studying multimedia journalism, of picking the Hokies to win. “I just like their chemistry and how they’re playing together this year.”

The Virginia Tech men, a fourth seed in the East Region, begin their tournament journey by squaring off with St. Louis in San Jose, California, on Friday night at 9:57 p.m.

With Webb’s pick as the outlier, the class eventually came to a Final Four consensus of Duke, Gonzaga, North Carolina, and Tennessee. That means despite their professor’s warning of the frequency of lower seeded teams’ success in recent history, the class’ Final Four is made up of three No. 1 seeds and a No. 2, respectively.

“Sometimes the numbers just don’t lie,” said freshman Sarah Smith.

Written by Travis Williams and photographed by David Hungate