What Are Your Odds of Filling Out a Perfect Bracket for the NCAA Basketball Tournament?

This is the weekend of the Final Four in the NCAA Basketball Tournament.

Just for the record, the matchups are:

  • Louisville (33-5) vs. Wichita State (30-8)
  • Michigan (30-7) vs. Syracuse (30-9)

If one of your teams is still in it, good luck!  (Go Shockers!)   And even if your college Alma mater hasn’t made it to the Final Four since, like, 1939 (which, for the record, featured Villanova vs. Ohio State and Oregon vs. Oklahoma), you may still have a rooting interest if you selected one or more of the remaining schools when you filled out your bracket.  If a school you picked is still alive, you’ve already defied the odds quite a bit, because today’s matchups feature a number 9 seed (Wichita State) against a number 1 seed (Louisville) and a number 4 seed (Michigan) against a number 4 seed (Syracuse).  Even if you know something about college basketball, it’s highly unlikely you predicted that grouping.

But you may be wondering:  when you risked your $5 in the March Madness pool at your office or in your neighborhood, what are the odds that you would pick a perfect result — that is, predict the outcome of the whole tournament?

Well, Jimmy, for that we need to use math.  Fortunately, there’s a guy who knows about math who has demonstrated just how likely it is that you would fill out a perfect NCAA tournament bracket.  He is Professor Jeff Bergen, who teaches math at DePaul University.  (You can see his video demo of the calculation below.)

It turns out that the odds of picking a perfect tournament bracket by simply guessing are 1 in 263 — that is 1 in 2 to the 63rd power.  If you need a more detailed representation of 2 to the 63rd power, it is:

  • 9,223,372,036,854,775,808

More than 9 quintillion.

One chance in 9 quintillion are not good odds.  By comparison, your odds of winning the jackpot in the Powerball lottery are 1 in 175,000,000.   Almost a sure thing, if you compare it to the NCAA tournament selection odds.

You have a better chance of hitting 4 holes-in-one in a single round of golf.  Even if you’re not Tiger Woods.

9 quintillion is about 370,000 times more than the distance in miles (25 trillion) from the Earth to the nearest star outside the solar system (Proxima Centauri).

But Professor Bergen is able to be reasonable, in that he also figures out what the odds are of your picking a perfect bracket if you know something about basketball.  It must really improve your odds, right, if you know, for example, that a number 16 seed has never beaten a number 1 seed?  Well, sort of.

If you follow college hoops a bit, your odds of picking a perfect bracket are 1 in 128,000,000,000.  That is, the odds are only 128 billion to one against you.

If every person in the United States was an expert on basketball and filled out a bracket, less than one-quarter of 1% would get it right.


Still, who’s to say you couldn’t be one of the lucky ones?  Keep trying.  That’s what Americans do.  You might get your $5 back someday.

Better yet, buy a lottery ticket.

Better luck next year, Jimmy.

To improve your odds even more over that 1 in 128 billion, keep up on college hoops by reading ESPN The Magazine (which you can get from BlueDolphin for a good discount).

Hey, I’m all about adding value.

Read interesting about college basketball and many other sports in ESPN The Magazine.  Subscribe for a good discount from BlueDolphin.

Follow college hoops in ESPN The Magazine. Even if you don’t predict a perfect bracket, you’ll know more about sports than your friends.

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