It’s March. It’s that time of year when we foolishly hope the snow will be gone by April, and

when we all take a keen interest in National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)

basketball.

We take an interest because we, like many across the world, harbour an aspiration to

predict the tournament — to pen an immaculate bracket.

And on this past Sunday, March 12, the NCAA unveiled the 68-team bracket for its mega-

popular annual basketball tournament, which has garnered the nickname “March Madness.”

It’s called March Madness, in part, because the tournament always delivers delightfully entertaining

chaos.

Another thing the tournament always delivers is upsets — and upsets mean busted

brackets.

Indeed, there has never been a perfect bracket. The closest anyone has come to

perfection was in 2019, when an Ohio, U.S. neuropsychologist rattled off 49 correct picks in

a row out of the 63 games to pick.

The probability of getting 49 in a row correct is basically inconceivable. It would be

represented by the fraction one over two to the power of 49. It equals such a high number

your calculator won’t even show it to you in full.

To help comprehend the incomprehensible probability of filling out a perfect bracket, the

Manitoban interviewed U of M statistics professor and associate head, Alexandre Leblanc.

The simplest way of defining probability, is to draw on the classic experiment of a coin flip.

The chance of getting either heads or tails is 50/50. It’s important to understand that, at its

core, probability is just a fraction, how often something occurs.

“Mathematically […] it means if you were to repeat the same experiment under the same

conditions, very, very, very many times — infinitely, often — in the long run, in proportion,

the fraction of the time where you would have seen heads over the total number of flips,

would be one half, 50 per cent,” Leblanc explained.

The difficulty with most kinds of probability, however, is that one cannot be entirely sure

about the fraction they’ve come up with when the experiment in question cannot be run an

inordinate number of times.

This is known as subjective probability.

In the NCAA tournament, there are 63 games played. And, if you’re just guessing, you’ll

have a 50/50 shot for each of the first-round games. But that’s only 32 of the 63.

The chances of you getting them right in the second and subsequent rounds drop even more

because the teams you picked to win in the first round may not have gotten to the second

round at all.

Therefore, guessing the first-round games are the simplest because the

matchups are fixed.

Nevertheless, the chances of you selecting the first round correctly at random is “one over

ten billion […] still impossible to do, still very hard,” Leblanc explained.

But the real difficulty comes with trying to predict the whole tournament correctly. It’s like

flipping a coin over and over and trying to get tails 63 times in a row.

As a fraction, Leblanc explained, the probability of selecting every game correctly is

represented by one over two to the power of 63, which is an astronomical number.

According to the NCAA, the likelihood of filling out the perfect bracket can be as high as one

in 9.2 quintillion.

“This is just unthinkable how big this is,” Leblanc noted.

To help conceptualize how large that number is, if everyone in the world — roughly eight

billion people — was constantly filling out one bracket per second, in the hopes of generating

every single possible outcome, and thereby attaining the perfect bracket, it would take the

entire world 36 and a half years to write them all.

“The whole world, working on writing these little papers for 36.5 years, would lend you one

paper per each possible bracket,” Leblanc added. “It’s just crazy! It can’t work.”

Even if you were 90 per cent sure who would win each game, the probability of you

selecting each game in the first round correctly is still only about 3 and a half per cent.

Moreover, concerning the unfathomable odds of a perfect bracket, Leblanc calculated that

“it’s easier to win the jack pot at Lotto 649 twice in a row […] it’s 47.2 thousand times easier.”

Will this dismal probability of success dissuade people from making brackets? Of course

not. And it shouldn’t, for, at its heart, it’s just good fun.

Yet, when asked why he thought people try to construct the perfect bracket, Leblanc said,

“well, obviously they don’t realize that it’s not possible.”

Nonetheless, improbable odds aside, there are still strategies you can adopt to increase

your chances of doing well.

A University of DePaul professor, a post-secondary school in

Chicago, Ill., thought the odds of someone who follows college basketball picking a perfect

bracket were only one in 128 billion.

So, there’s a bit more hope if you’re in the loop.

If you’re not, don’t worry. When filling out a bracket, it’s typically a good idea to always

pick the higher seeds — especially the number one seeds.

However, it’s also important to remember that the “rankings are made up math numbers,”

and that they don’t “actually have any physical meaning when the team hits the court,”

Leblanc said.

Nevertheless, the key to a good bracket is to spy out the possible upsets. The six versus

11 and 5 versus 12 games are usually rife with them.

Usually, there’s at least one upset in every region. Here’s a few I’ve got a good feeling

about, because, at the end of the day, picking is mostly about feeling.

In the South region, keep your eyes on the five versus 12 game between the University of

San Diego State University Aztecs and the College of Charleston Cougars. Charleston is just

one of four teams in the tournament with 30 plus wins.

In the East, Oral Roberts University Golden Eagles may take down perennial powerhouse

Duke University Blue Devils, but the University of Tennessee Volunteers’ starting point

guard is injured, so take the University of Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns in a 13 over four upset.

In the Midwest, number one seed University of Houston Cougar’s best player, Marcus

Sasser, recently suffered an injury and it’s unknown when he’ll return. So, whichever team

you take in the eight versus nine game, advance them to the sweet 16, too.

Finally, in the West, side with the Virginia Commonwealth University Rams over the University of

Saint Mary’s Gaels. The Rams are rolling, having won nine games in a row entering the tournament.