It’s March Madness time – and that means brackets, brackets everywhere. And that’s great because we love bracket contests. Many people’s hoops brackets get blown up early though—that’s not so great. Don’t feel bad, we’re told, the odds of nailing a perfect bracket are longer than 8,000,000,000,000,000,000-to-1.
Sure, the odds are long, but they’re nowhere near that tough. That guess, and every number like it, is based on the idea that almost every one of the 63 match-ups is nothing more than a perfectly random coin flip. Nothing could be farther from the truth. You can cut those odds drastically by picking very few upsets in your bracket.
Consider the #1 seed vs. #16 seed match-ups. The people on our basketball promotions desk think that a #16 seed is going to beat a #1 seed someday fairly soon because college basketball is getting more competitive top-to-bottom. But it hasn’t happened yet. And in any particular game this year, the #1 seed has to be at least 95% to win.
Here’s some match-up data you might want to look at: Team Data
Here are a few points that jump out:
- The #2 seeds win their first games 94% of the time (vs. #15)
- The #3 seeds win their first games 83% of the time (vs #14)
- The #4 seeds win their first games 80% of the time (vs. #13)
- Moving on to the second round, the #1 seeds are still about 85% to win their games (80% vs #8 seeds, and 90% vs #9 seeds). Overall, #1 seeds win 78.5% of their games.
Now here’s something else that’s a little bit cute: Seeds can only play “themselves” in the Final Four or the Championship. #1 seeds have matched up against each other 21 times. That means the #1 seeds are going so deep into the tournament, their biggest enemies might be other #1 seeds. #2 seeds have only played other #2 seeds twice. #3, #4, and #5 seeds playing their own kind? Once each. So going forward, it seems we’re much more likely to see a #1 vs #1 in the Final Four than #2 vs #2 or #3 vs #3 etc.
Trying to win your bracket contest? Pick the stronger seeds, and pick the #1 seeds to do very well.
OK, so what about that perfect bracket? It’s still tough. Tougher than hitting the lottery? Maybe, because we can’t expect all the favorites to win all the time. But it’s not quintillions to one, because the games aren’t totally random. Stronger teams do better more often, and you can use that to your advantage. Go build that bracket!