March Madness: College basketball fans seeking perfect bracket face astronomical odds

It is a ritual of March Madness. When the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournament brackets are announced on Sunday, college basketball fans will dutifully fill them out, hoping for that perfect bracket.

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Good luck. Bracketologists in office pools and online contests have a better chance of winning the Powerball or Mega Millions lotteries.

Selecting 63 games in either the men’s or women’s tournaments -- there are 67 games, but most bracket contests skip the four play-in games -- should be easy, right? Wrong. Mathematicians believe it is nearly impossible.

“You’re picking 63 games, so that sounds like, ‘Hey, that shouldn’t be that hard, and if there’s millions of people filling out brackets, somebody should be able to do it,’” Ken Pomeroy, a college basketball statistician and analyst, told The New York Times. “But we could play the tournament for a million years and someone would not get a perfect bracket.”

According to the NCAA, no one has achieved a verifiable perfect bracket in the history of the tournament.

If a contestant merely treats each game as a 50-50 coin flip, the chances of predicting a perfect bracket is about 1 in 9.2 quintillion, the Times reported. The exact number is 9,223,372,036,854,775,808, according to the newspaper.

If a person has some knowledge about the basketball teams involved, that number drops to 1 in 120.2 billion, according to the NCAA.

“Perfection’s basically impossible,” Richard Cleary, a mathematician at Babson College, told the Times. “It’s out of the question.”

By comparison, the odds of winning the Powerball jackpot on any given drawing is 1 in 292,201,338. It’s not much better for the Mega Millions -- 1 in 302,575,350.

“Our finite minds and our inability to think of numbers of those sizes can make it more alluring than it is,” Tim Chartier, a mathematician at Davidson College interested in sports analytics, told the Times.

The odds of a perfect basketball bracket are so remote that in 2014, billionaire Warren Buffett partnered with Quicken Loans to offer a promotional $1 billion prize to anyone with an unblemished sheet, according to Bleacher Report. In this venture, Buffett did not lose a dime.

Buffett has a more attractive pool now for his employees, the Times reported. Anyone who picks all 32 games correctly in the first round wins $1 million. Anyone who predicts all 48 games through the first two rounds will win $1 million annually for the rest of their lives, according to the newspaper.

The entrant whose bracket stays perfect to the deepest point in the tournament will be awarded $100,000.

Plus, Buffett is giving his employees a pass in games involving all No. 1 or No. 2 seeds. That means a Buffett employee only needs to pick 24 games correctly in the opening round.

By using a coin flip, the odds are 1 in 16 million, according to the Times.

“It’s not impossible,” Buffett told the newspaper. “I would love to fly somewhere and hand somebody a million bucks in $100 bills.”

According to the NCAA, the last verified men’s bracket last year was busted on the first Friday of the tournament, when No. 11 Iowa State upset sixth-ranked LSU, 59-54.

In 2021, someone was perfect through 28 games, the NCAA said.

The farthest that anyone has gone without a loss is 49 games, set in 2019.

That is when Gregg Nigl, of Columbus, Ohio, was perfect until the 50th game of the men’s tournament, when third-seeded Purdue edged No. 2 Tennessee 99-94 in overtime in the second game of the Sweet 16, the NCAA said.

He was the first verified player to reach the Sweet 16 with a perfect slate.

Nigl, 44, a neuropsychologist, submitted a bracket he had filled out quickly and under the influence of cold medicine, the Times reported.

During his streak, Nigl was treated like royalty, with Buick paying for him and his son to fly to California to watch games, according to the newspaper.

But like everyone else, Nigl came up short of perfection.

“I knew I wasn’t going to get a perfect bracket,” Nigl told the Times. “And I don’t think anybody ever will.”

But there is always a chance, sort of a basketball version of “Don Quixote.” It does not matter what analysts and mathematicians say, bracket players believe.

Besides, it is a fun exercise.

“Bracketology really underscores the unpredictable nature of the human experience,” Chartier told the Times. “I think it’s why we watch sports. No matter how much we know, no matter how much we study, no matter how much we cheer, we intrinsically know that we have no idea how it’s going to unfold.”

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