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March Madness brackets: A mathematician's formula for the best outcome

Putting together a March Madness bracket might seem like a guessing game, but can the power of math help perfect your choices?
Trevon Faulkner of Northern Kentucky goes up for a jump shot.
Posted at 6:18 AM, Mar 17, 2023

It's possible someone has filled out a perfect March Madness bracket, but there has never been one that has been verified.

The longest verifiable streak was during the 2019 tournament, when a man in Ohio created a bracket that had all games headed into the sweet 16 correct, the NCAA said

In 2022, the last one that was verifiable was busted on the first Friday of the tournament. 

Tim Chartier is an applied mathematician with Davidson College and the National Museum of Mathematics. 

He created March Mathness, a project where research created behind it in 2009 went on to form a bracket that beat 97% of more than 4 million brackets on ESPN, Chartier said. 

That following year, he says one of his students was able to learn the method and went on to beat 99.9% of more than 5 million brackets on ESPN. A pretty stunning claim. 

Chartier said, "One thing about March Madness is that it's often because we know that a tournament will be played out, we know that a bracket will end up happening by the end of the tournament."

"But the odds of a perfect bracket are 1 in 9 quintillion," he said. 

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That's like picking one second in 300 billion years, to give you an idea of how tiny that moment or chance is. 

On top of that, you'd have to find the one second that was picked. That's quite a challenge. 

According to Chartier, around four years ago, a high school student developed methods and variables using statistics to land in 500th place out of 15 million brackets on ESPN.

Chartier says you can also look at the 1 in 9 quintillion chance of coming in with a perfect bracket in another way. 

Think of a stack of dollar bills, and how many that would take to reach the dwarf planet, Pluto. But, make that 120 of those stacks, he said. 

If only one of those dollar bills is assigned, your job now is to pick that dollar bill. Those "are your odds," he says. 

"So my advice is, go ahead and make a bracket, go ahead and enter a pool. But do it for fun. But if you're doing it so that you can win a perfect bracket, that may not happen," Chartier says. 

"So your bracket isn't really busted when it isn't perfect. It's busted when you can no longer be better than other people," he said. 

So, the takeaway? Make a bracket and just have some fun with it. 

There are some tips, though, to make a better bracket. First, start with focusing on better ways to look for teams. 

Chartier says to look for teams that were playing very well in the second half of the season, "or maybe the last month of the season," he says. 

"Look for teams that could have consecutive wins" against strong competition. "And teams that played really well on the road," he advises. 

He also says to pay attention to teams that depend highly on 3-point shots. 

"They might do well in one or two games, but they can struggle to keep that up game, after game going deep into the tournament," Chartier said.

Scripps News, Tim Chartier, mathematician with Davidson College and the National Museum of Mathematics.