How Close Are We to a Perfect NCAA Tournament Bracket?

Erick McCollum | 24 Mar 2019

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It’s March Madness time! In the excitement of the annual tournament, I decided to do some research and write a fun article for all you bracket-builders out there.

EDIT: Since writing this article, there has been a new record set for the number of games picked correctly in an NCAA Tournament bracket. The record is now fifty games picked perfectly before the bracket busted. You can read more about this record-breaking bracket on NCAA.com.

As we all build our brackets (some more than others), one can’t help but wonder, will there be a perfect bracket this year? This is a question that seems to come up more and more each year during March. The thought of being the first person ever to fill out a perfect NCAA Tournament bracket is extremely exciting. Unfortunately, I am here (along with others) to tell you that this is a dream which none will ever achieve.

Ignoring the “first four” games, as many bracket challenges do, there are 63 total games in the NCAA Tournament. This equates to 9,223,372,036,854,775,808 total bracket combinations, or a little over 9.2 quintillion. For you number enthusiasts out there like myself, that means that filling out one bracket gives you a 0.0000000000000001% (1.08 x 10^-16%) chance of having the perfect bracket. Yes, filling out multiple brackets can increase your odds. But even if you filled out one thousand brackets this year, your odds would only increase to having a 0.00000000001% (1.08 x 10^-11%) chance. In order to make every possible bracket combination, each person in the United States of America would need to make a little over 28 billion unique brackets. Doesn’t quite build up confidence, does it?

If you still don’t believe me, I think I can convince you. According to the Powerball website, the odds of winning the Powerball lottery are one in 292,201,338. That is around a 0.0000003% (3.42 x 10^-7%) chance to win. Therefore, not only are you more likely to win the Powerball than create a perfect NCAA Tournament bracket, but it’s not even close. In fact, you are more likely to win the Powerball twice in a row (0.000000000000001% or 1.17 x 10^-15%) than you are to create a perfect NCAA Tournament bracket. I don’t know about everyone else, but I would much rather create the first perfect NCAA Tournament bracket than win the Powerball twice in a row.

Now, I know what you are thinking: “Those odds are only if you don’t know anything about basketball. I know basketball, so my chances are much better.” While it might be common to think that basketball knowledge increases your chances of getting a perfect bracket, are we sure that it really does? For example, we used to able to guarantee the outcome of four games to start off, but last year showed us that even the lowest overall ranked team in the tournament can beat the best overall on a given night. Surely even the best basketball minds out there did not predict that outcome in their bracket. Number one seeds in the tournament are 135 for 136 all-time (per Wilco, D. at NCAA.com). So it is actually more likely that three number one seeds will lose in the same year (0.0000003% chance or 3 x 10^-7%) than it is that someone will create a perfect bracket this year. Let that sink in.

Even with the rise of AI and machine learning in the technology world, we are not getting any closer to creating a perfect bracket. The following graph shows the average user’s NCAA Tournament bracket score over the past eight years according to NCAA.com (192 is a perfect score):

As one can see above, we have not improved as a whole over the past eight years. This sporting event is just that unpredictable. Also, with the increasing impact of the three pointer in the game of basketball, one could argue that the tournament will become even more unpredictable moving forward.

The current record number of correct games picked in a row in an NCAA bracket, as reported by NCAA.com, is 39 games. While this is impressive, it is still not even a perfect bracket through the first two rounds (48 games). Since visual aids always help, the below graph shows the discrepancy between the current record number of games picked correctly and the end goal of a perfect bracket:

Even with all this data suggesting otherwise, we still create brackets every year in hopes of having the first perfect bracket, including myself. In reality, there may never be a perfect NCAA Tournament bracket, but that does not make it any less fun to try. The impossibly low odds present a challenge that everyone can be interested in, and the fact that it has never been achieved makes it so much more enjoyable. There is something oddly amusing about talking to friends, family, and co-workers about how bad our busted brackets are each year. In the end, who knows? The odds may be ridiculous, but there is still technically a chance, I can’t deny that. So why not keep trying every year? I know that I will.

If you enjoy the NCAA Tournament and filling out brackets, then I would recommend taking a moment to read the following articles that I also found interesting:

Acknowledgments

The following sources were referenced when writing this article, and I do not claim ownership of any data or facts taken from these sources. Citations were created using CitationMachine.net.

  • Benzie, M. (2019, March 24). The longest we believe an NCAA bracket has ever stayed perfect. Retrieved March 24, 2019, from NCAA.com
  • Powerball.com. Powerball. Retrieved March 24, 2019, from Powerball.com
  • Wilco, D. (2019, March 17). March Madness: Was your 2018 bracket average? Retrieved March 24, 2019, from NCAA.com
  • Wilco, D. (2019, March 21). A perfect NCAA bracket: The absurd odds of the March Madness dream. Retrieved March 24, 2019, from NCAA.com