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Perfectly improbable: A flawless NCAA bracket

  • Kansas City Star
  • Published Thursday, March 17, 2011, at 10:11 a.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014, at 11:36 p.m.

Editor's note: Story originally published in March, 2011

For all you hoop heads out there dreaming of fame and fortune with your perfectly filled out NCAA bracket, we have two words for you:

“Fat” and “chance.”

Yes, Yahoo is offering a million dollars for a perfect bracket. And one sports betting site — www.sportsbook .com — is dangling $14 million. But before you lose sleep figuring out how to spend all that money, know this. Despite urban legends and various Internet claims, there has never been a documented perfect bracket in the history of the NCAA basketball tournament.

Trust us. You would have heard about it.

In 2009, the closest to perfection among more than 4 million entries in ESPN.com’s Tournament Challenge still got five wrong out of 63 picks. Last year a Chicago teenager created a buzz by having a perfect bracket after the first two rounds in the www.cssports.com bracket challenge.

Only one problem. After going 48-0 in the first two rounds, he missed 10 of his final 15 picks.

Still, bracketheads continue to chase their white whale.

“It’s natural when people start to fill out their brackets to say, ‘Maybe I could cover all the bases by filling out multiple brackets and taking care of every single possibility,’ ” said Mike Breen, a spokesman for the American Mathematical Society in Providence, R.I.. “They could ask, ‘How many possible outcomes could there be?’ ”

Ready for this?

“By taking the classic 64-team bracket, the number of possible outcomes for those games is 9 quintillion, 223 quadrillion, or 9,223,372,036,854,775,808,” Breen said. “So if everyone in the worldfilled out a bracket once a second (impossible), it would still take them about 42 years to fill out all the possible combinations.”

Getting the idea?

“If you laid the number of basketballs end to end that were equal to the number of possible bracket combinations, they would reach from the Earth to the moon more than five and a half billion times,” Breen said.

Um, Mike?

“If you threw a bean bag from space you’d have a much better chance of hitting your roof than randomly picking your bracket exactly right.”

Include the four play-in games, and the number of possibilities balloons to more than 147 quintillion, or a vertigo-inducing 147,573,952,589,676,412,928, Breen said.

Then again, that’s assuming everything’s random.

“No one’s going to pick a 16 seed over a 1 seed, so the odds are a little better for someone who knows something about basketball,” he said. But you don’t have to be a math whiz to know that the odds of picking a perfect bracket — even for a basketball savant — are still waaay worse than hitting the Powerball jackpot or getting struck by lightning.

“Think of it this way,” Breen said. “I’ve heard of lots of people winning the lottery or getting hit by lightning. But I’ve never heard of anyone getting a perfect bracket.”

But while a perfect bracket is all but impossible, perhaps this could help improve the outcome.

According to mathematical science models developed by Sheldon H. Jacobson, a computer science professor and director of the simulation and optimization laboratory at the University of Illinois, the most likely combination of seeds to make the Final Four are two No. 1 seeds, a 2 seed and a 3 seed.

So, as Bill Murray might say, you got that going for you.

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