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What are the odds of picking a perfect March Madness bracket?

Profile Picture: Jason Ence

March 7th, 2021

Every time I hear someone say “nothing is impossible,” I want to ask them to prove it by picking a perfect NCAA basketball March Madness bracket. It might be the most impossible feat in the world to achieve, which is why there has yet to be a single instance of it being accomplished.

How difficult is it? An exact number is hard to produce, due to the quality of teams being different in each tournament. However, statisticians have estimated that the odds are approximately one in 9.2 quintillion. A quintillion is a number with 18 zeroes, and nine quintillion is a number so large that if you counted it out, one number per second, it would take 292 billion years to reach the end. That is nearly twice the length of time since the Big Bang!

Some statisticians have stated that the number is closer to one in 120 billion, if you are very knowledgeable about the teams in the tournament. That number is also reached by the thought that some games—such as the one-seed against the 16-seed—have a near 100% chance of ending with only one result.

Regardless of the number, it’s nearly impossible. However, that has yet to stop people from trying to achieve the ultimate dream of correctly picking 63 games without a miss (not counting the “first four” games). Numerous websites offer massive prizes if someone can do it, and that’s not including the one billion dollar prize offered up by Warren Buffett.

Has anybody even come close?

Even getting to the Sweet 16 without a mistake is close to impossible. In 2019, Buffett offered his Berkshire Hathaway employees a whopping prize of one million dollars per year, for life, to anyone who picked the first 48 games correctly. The odds of achieving this milestone, if every game had a 50/50 shot, would be one in 281 trillion.

To show how difficult the “perfect bracket” truly is, only one person has ever officially had a perfect run through the first two rounds of the tournament. In 2019, Gregg Nigl of Columbus, OH became the record-holder for the most correct picks to start a bracket, as he accurately picked every game of the first weekend. His record of 49 correct selections came to an end in the second game of the Sweet 16, when Purdue upset Tennessee in overtime.

He would lose twice that night, and as if to further prove how tough it is to achieve perfection, Nigl correctly chose just one of the Final Four teams. For all his success, Nigl failed to even finish in the top 500 of the ESPN bracket challenge with his best of four entries.

Whose record did Nigl break?     

Tracking for a perfect bracket began less than ten years ago, and before 2019, only a handful of entries had gotten the entire first round exactly right. Prior to Nigl, the best run to start the tournament was 39 games in 2017, ten fewer than his record-setting bracket. The owner of that bracket, who entered the Yahoo! game, is unknown.

That year, a stunning 36 entries actually had the first round perfectly selected. However, his entry was the best run in Yahoo’s first 19 years of running the bracket challenge. The team that ended that run was – coincidentally – Purdue, who defeated Iowa State to end the run to perfection. Maybe don’t bet against Purdue if you want a perfect bracket?

The best start before this was in 2014, when Brad Binder picked the first 36 games correctly in his bracket. Before the 2017 tournament, Yahoo! said it was the only bracket in their history to roll through the first round undefeated.

With the chaos and uncertainty caused by COVID-19, this year’s bracket may see the final perfect bracket end sooner than ever. It will be interesting to see who can make the longest run through the tournament challenge, but one thing is almost certain: the wait for the perfect bracket will go on for at least another year. 

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