students sitting on lawn playing with basketballs
Friday, April 6, 2018
Tom Snee

Like many basketball fans, University of Iowa students Charlie Ruff and James Micheli participated in an NCAA basketball tournament bracket challenge this spring.

But while most such challenges award the winners with a lunch or small cash payoff, Ruff and Micheli won something different: internships.

The two Tippie College of Business students were awarded summer internships with the Maryland-based marketing firm Merkle Inc., after their team beat 45 others to win Merkle’s challenge to build an analytics-driven model that picks the tournament winners.

Their winning model quantified the story of a basketball game and focused on what can happen during each possession by calculating the probability of each occurrence. The model was premised upon what are known as the Four Factors of Basketball, that every possession leads to:

  • a turnover
  • a foul
  • a made shot
  • a missed shot, which leads to either an offensive rebound or a defensive rebound and the other team gets the ball

The model successfully picked Villanova to win it all, and even picked Loyola of Chicago to win a first round game. It missed Loyola’s run to the Final Four, though, and didn’t see Maryland-Baltimore County becoming the first 16 seed to win a game.

Ruff, a junior from Crystal Lake, Illinois, is majoring in business analytics and finance. Micheli, a senior from Libertyville, Illinois, is majoring in business analytics.

Both also regretfully declined the Merkle internship offer, as they had already found employment for the summer. More information about the contest and the winning model is at

Contacts: Tom Snee, Office of Strategic Communication, 319-384-0010 (office), 319-541-8434 (cell)