Feeling lucky? The odds behind picking a perfect NCAA bracket

March 11, 2016

For the millions out there readying to fill out 2016 NCAA basketball tournament brackets for your office pools in hopes of picking every winner, good luck. You’ll need it.

What are the odds of filling out a perfect NCAA Tournament bracket, picking all 63 games correctly? According to University of Colorado Boulder Professor Mark Ablowitz, former chair of the Department of Applied Mathematics, they are breathtaking.

Try about one in 9.22 quintillion, or about one in 9,220,000,000,000,000,000 (about one in 9.22 times 10 to the power of 18 for math fans) if someone picks winners of each game randomly, like a coin flip, said Ablowitz. He said those with some knowledge of college basketball can improve their odds in various ways. There has never been a No. 1 seeded team in any of the four regions, for example, that has been upset by a 16th seed since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

“These aren’t just numbers,” said Ablowitz, who specializes in nonlinear waves in optics, water waves and applications of complex analysis. “The real essence here is the issue of the behavior of large numbers. When numbers get exponentially larger and larger, things get out of hand very, very quickly.”

The odds are so infinitesimal that Warren Buffet’s $1 billion offer in 2015 for anyone on Earth filling out a perfect NCAA bracket went unclaimed. According to the Associated Press, if every possible combination of NCAA tournament winners and losers in the field of 64 (not including the two “play-in” games) were filled out on its own sheet of paper, it would weigh about 184 trillion tons. That is more than 500 million times the weight of the Empire State Building.

Others have calculated that the odds of picking all 63 NCAA tournament games correctly would be about the same as shooting four hole-in-ones in a single round of golf, winning three consecutive Powerball lotteries, or any professional football team including the Denver Broncos winning the next 13 consecutive Super Bowls.

There are other NCAA tournament bets with somewhat better odds, said Ablowitz, like picking every team that makes it to the Sweet Sixteen. The odds of randomly guessing all of the winners here (that’s 48 games) is about one in 282 trillion. “It’s still super-duper large, so no one is likely to get this one either,” Ablowitz said.

Suppose one waits until the Sweet Sixteen is finalized before picking the winner of the championship game. The odds are better yet, but still only one in 32,767, said Ablowitz, who did the calculations on his pocket calculator. And to pick the winner of the final eight teams, the odds are one in just 127 if selected randomly.

A few other numbers that may be of interest to business executives and supervisors: According to a 2015 report by the global job search company, Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., U.S. employers lose about $1.9 billion in wages during March Madness due to distracted basketball buffs. The American Gaming Association recently estimated that roughly 70 million people participate in NCAA tournament office pools. 

So how might NCAA tournament office pool participants up their chances for a perfect bracket? “I’m not a basketball maven,” Ablowitz said. “But if I wanted to improve my personal odds, I might look at a few high-profile websites that give the odds for each game, then suitably average those. Using multiple sources rather than one source can be helpful, and you wouldn’t be putting all of your money in one basket.”

As far as the prediction skills of successful statisticians go, Ablowitz pointed to Nate Silver, leader of the polling aggregation site FiveThirtyEight.com, who correctly forecast the winner of the 2012 presidential race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, as well as 31 of 33 U.S. Senate races.

“But sports can be far more complex than presidential elections,” Ablowitz said.

The final NCAA brackets will be announced on “Selection Sunday” March 13.

Mark Ablowitz, 720-301-5200
Jim Scott, CU-Boulder media relations, 303-492-3114