The Elusive Quest for a Perfect March Madness Bracket
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- Nobody has officially achieved a perfect bracket in the March Madness basketball tournament.
- The odds of correctly guessing every game in a 64-team tournament are staggeringly long.
- Investor Warren Buffett once offered $1 billion to anyone submitting a perfect bracket.
- Even computers can't achieve perfection given the unpredictability of the games.
You can have perfect pitch, nail a perfect landing, or achieve a perfect score. You can write in the present perfect, past perfect, future perfect, or pluperfect tense while using WordPerfect (is that still a thing?). You can believe practice makes perfect and even become Mr. Perfect.
But you cannot — absolutely cannot — predict a perfect March Madness bracket.
It's never been done, and, to be perfectly honest, likely won't happen during this year's tournament either.
The Odds of Achieving a Perfect Bracket
What, exactly, are the odds of achieving a perfect bracket? Long. Insanely long.
Let's skip the "First Four" play-in games and examine only a 64-team bracket. Your odds of getting every game correct are roughly 1 in 9.2 quintillion. More specifically, they're 9,223,372,036,854,775,808:1.
"To put the number 9.2 quintillion into perspective, if every person on the planet (about 7.5 billion) began filling out one bracket per minute, it would take over 2,300 years to fill out 9.2 quintillion brackets," the late DePaul University mathematics professor Jeffrey Bergen said.
Or consider this: There are 31.5 million seconds in one year. How many years would it take to reach 9.2 quintillion seconds? Try 292 billion.
Yet this figure assumes choosing 63 games at random. So let's say you're a knowledgeable fan and make educated guesses.
Your odds would improve to 1 in 128 billion, Bergen estimated.
Still absurdly long odds. You have a much better chance of winning Powerball. That's only 1 in 292,201,338.
Or getting struck by lightning, at 1 in 15,300. Who says lightning doesn't strike twice? It does, but the chances of it happening to you are 1 in 9 million.
You're far more likely to get bopped by a meteor (1 in 300,000), mauled by a bear (1 in 2.1 million), or killed by a shark (1 in 3.7 million).
Flip a coin and call heads. You of course have a 50-50 chance, or 2:1 odds. How about landing on heads 50 times in a row? You would accomplish this once in a quadrillion tries.
And randomly achieving a perfect bracket is 9,200 times harder than that.
Billionaire Buffett Banks on Busted Brackets
Investor Warren Buffett was so convinced of the impossibility of achieving a perfect bracket that he wagered $1 billion that nobody could.
In 2014, his company, Berkshire Hathaway, along with Quicken Loans, offered a cool billion dollars to anyone who submitted a perfect bracket for that year's tournament. The winner could choose between 40 annual installments of $25 million or a lump sum of $500 million.
Multiple winners (stop laughing) would split the pot evenly.
Shockingly, nobody won.
The offer continued over several years, with some modifications. Only Berkshire Hathaway employees were allowed to play, with any winner guaranteed $1 million a year for life. For 2021, the employee with the best bracket pocketed $100,000.
A billion dollars may seem like a bold bet, but Buffett evidently felt assured no one would overcome the staggering odds. The sports betting company BetMGM is similarly confident, offering $10 million for a perfect bracket in the 2023 tournament.
Has Anyone Come Close to Achieving a Perfect Bracket?
That depends on your definition of "close." But in 2019, one person did have a perfect bracket into the Sweet 16, guessing correctly on the tournament's first 49 games. Two years prior, one person achieved a streak of 39 games before going bust.
Last year, nobody made it out of the first round unscathed, according to the NCAA. The organization tracks competitions hosted by ESPN, Yahoo, and other sites, monitoring the progress of some 20-25 million brackets out of the estimated 60-100 million that are completed each year.
And not one perfect bracket has lasted through the Sweet 16, let alone all the way to the final game.
Now just imagine if the NCAA succeeds in expanding the tournament to 90 teams, as it has suggested. Doing the quick math, that would mean the odds against winning would increase to … times six … carry the four … equals Ridiculously Large Number:1.
But hey, you say, we're smack dab in the age of artificial intelligence, where computers can do the thinking of humans, only better. Why not ask a bot to pick the games?
Yes, well, we've tried.
A few years ago, postdoctoral student Danny Tarlow and his nerdy colleagues created a tournament pool consisting of computer-generated entries. How did they fare?
About as poorly as us humans.
"No matter how much computer analysis you do," University of Minnesota math professor Mike Weimerskirch told NPR, "you're still stuck with the way the ball bounces."
Such unpredictability — Davids felling Goliaths, Cinderellas making the Final Four — is what lends the tournament its "madness" moniker and spurs watercooler chatter for several weeks each spring. We love a good underdog story, even if it busts our bracket and robs us of a billion-dollar payout.
And for some colleges, it's a once-in-a-generation opportunity to excel on a national stage, to rally students and alumni, and to broadcast their brand to millions of new fans. For that one shining moment, there's nothing more perfect.