Picking the Perfect March Madness Bracket is Mathematically Ridiculous

By Dan Peterson, TeamSnap's Sports Science Expert


It’s that time of year again. The snow is melting (in some places), the days are getting longer and thoughts turn to the arrival of...March Madness. Picking your college basketball tournament brackets right may win you the office pool or maybe even $1 billion of Warren Buffett’s money. While the Omaha billionaire hasn’t announced yet if he will be repeating his challenge to pick a perfect bracket from last year, he might as well. A mathematics professor has calculated the odds of getting all 63 games right is astronomically unlikely.

Last year, Buffett and one of his owned companies, Quicken Loans, offered a cool $1 billion to the owner of a perfect bracket. While no one came close, he did award $100,000 in mortgage products to each of the top 20 scoring game pickers. He achieved his business goal of generating a lot of publicity for his company but, as you would expect from the second richest man in America, he had done his investment risk homework.

"It would be easier to win the Mega Millions lottery two times in a row buying one ticket both times than it would be to get a perfect bracket," said Jeff Bergen, mathematics professor at DePaul University. "Getting a perfect bracket is also the mathematical equivalent of picking the winning party of each presidential election through 2264."

Bergen has been trying to educate us on the tournament’s math probability equation for several years. In 2012, he made a video explaining the difficulty of the task. So, what exactly are our chances? About one in 9.2 quintillion (that's 9,223,372,036,854,775,808). For those long-suffering Chicago baseball fans (home of DePaul University), he put it into terms they could understand, "It would be more likely for the next 16 World Series to be won by the Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox than it would be to pick a perfect bracket by guessing.”

Of course, college basketball fans are confident in their knowledge of the game to the point of believing they can beat the masses. Understanding the basics of the bracket seedings could help pick a few seemingly obvious games. But the perfect bracket is still elusive.

"Suppose you know that a one seed has never lost to a 16 seed in the men's tournament, that would help improve your odds. With additional knowledge of basketball and the history of the tournament, the odds of picking a perfect bracket would be approximately one in 128 billion," said Bergen.

Leading up to Selection Sunday, where the 68 team bracket is chosen, teams (and their fans), who don’t automatically qualify by winning their conference tournament, have to wait in agony until the seedings are announced. Another college professor, Jay Coleman, Professor of Operations Management and Quantitative Methods at the University of North Florida, claims to have a foolproof method to predict exactly who those “at-large” teams will be.

Using a formula he calls the “Dance Card,” referencing the tournament’s nickname of “The Big Dance,” he has correctly predicted 98% (108 of 110) of the at-large bids over the last three years combined.

His predictions for this year’s tournament, updated daily, can be viewed at his website. According to his description there, he picks the teams “using past decisions of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee and numerous pieces of information (e.g. RPI rankings, number of wins and losses, conference records, etc.) for all teams that were candidates for at-large selections in those years.”

Coleman has found that his predictions correlate with an interesting tool from the past. “For example, I found that the committee's decisions are more strongly related to the pre-2005 version of the Rating Percentage Index (or RPI, a widely discussed metric devised by the NCAA to rank and categorize teams), than they are to the version that's been in use since 2005. And yet essentially all discussion of prospective at-large teams refers only to the recent version,” he said.

So, while you can be somewhat confident if your team will make it into the tourney, trying to take a billion from Mr. Buffett, let alone a few hundred bucks from your co-workers, will still be pretty tough.

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Dan Peterson is a recovering sports dad who is fascinated with sports science research, skill development and the athlete’s brain. He has written over 400 science-based articles across the Web and consults with parents, coaches and young players to help them understand the cognitive side of sports. You can visit him at Sports Are 80 Percent Mental and at @DanielPeterson.

Release Date: Mar 09 2015

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