Fans use formulas, bracketology


Senior Photo Editor

March Madness

By Sports & Health Reporter

Sports fans are filling out brackets to predict which teams will make it through the 63-game tournament to ultimately win the NCAA basketball championship this year. 

Some compete in March Madness bracket challenges for office bragging rights, while others aspire to win Warren Buffett and Quicken Loans’ $1 billion prize offered to anyone who correctly guesses the outcome of each game. According to DePaul University mathematics professor Jeffrey Bergen, the chances of achieving a perfect bracket is one in nine quintillion.

“Picking all 63 games correctly, if you’re just guessing, is mathematically the same thing as getting a coin and flipping it and seeing if you can flip heads 63 times in a row,” Bergen said. “Every time you start flipping a coin and you get a tail, you can think of that as a failed bracket because that’s an incorrect pick. The odds of picking a game correctly if you’re guessing a single game is one-half, but since there are 63 games, you have to multiply 63 copies of one-half. And when you multiply 63 copies of one-half, you get one in nine quintillion.”

Bergen said the chances may increase to one in 128 billion with some knowledge of basketball. 

“If you put it in perspective, one in 128 billion is a much, much smaller number,” Bergen said. “On the other hand, [it’s still] much tougher than the chances of winning Powerball or Mega Millions. When you shrink from down to 32 teams, I would say for people who know something about basketball, your chances of being correct after the first round is about 1 in 17,000.”

The chances of the Cubs or the White Sox winning the next 16 World Series championships is more probable than a flawless bracket, according to Bergen. Only one person, Brad Binder of Champaign, Illinois, has been recorded as filling out a perfect bracket. Binder, who competed in Yahoo Sports’ bracket challenge in 2014, did not enter Buffett’s challenge, so he did not win the prize money. 

“If you can sit down now and guess the winning party, Democrat or Republican, in every presidential election through 2064—not that you’re going to be around to check— that’s the same as getting a perfect bracket by guessing,” Bergen said.

Columbia College Associate Journalism Professor Howard Schlossberg competes in ESPN’s March Madness tournament each year. Schlossberg carefully chooses the outcome of each game based on his knowledge of college basketball.

“I don’t have a formula; I just study what I think the best teams are and go with my gut on a toss-up,” Schlossberg said. “I study the teams very closely. I follow high school sports. I watch where the best high school recruits go. I particularly look for teams that are playing well at the end of the season going into the tournament because those teams usually carry the momentum with them.”

Schlossberg said he takes various patterns into account when competing in the bracket challenge. 

“There’s almost always a 12-5 upset every year,” Schlossberg said. “You know there’s going to be at least one; there’s usually two, so you have to be careful with those. Don’t sell underdogs short. In the Final Four, their rankings should not add up to more than 10. That usually works, but then the George Masons and the Virginia Commonwealths of the world happen, and the Wichita States of the world happen.”

Some turn to experts for analysis and advice when filling out their brackets. Joe Lunardi, associate vice president of marketing and communications at Saint Joseph’s College, is a “bracketologist” for ESPN. Lunardi regularly appears on SportsCenter and other programs to discuss March Madness.

“[Bracketology is] the art and science of forecasting which teams will make it into the NCAA men’s basketball championship in advance,” Lunardi said. “Not picking the games, but picking the bracket before it comes out.”

Lunardi uses various pieces of data published by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, such as winning percentage, conference performance, end-of-season performance and opponent strength. 

“They can weigh those factors however they wish, from quantitative to qualitative to observation,” Lunardi said. “What I do is try to replicate their process as closely and as accurately as possible by studying all of those things, and a few metrics of my own that I’ve developed over the years.”

One of Lunardi’s personal techniques is utilizing the adjusted scoring margin to determine a team’s ranking.

“It’s a way of putting a team’s offensive and defensive statistics into the context of the strength of its observation,” Lunardi said. “If Kentucky is beating all of its teams by 20 points, and Columbia is beating all of its teams by 20 points a game, that doesn’t mean Columbia is as good as Kentucky.”

The data provided by the committee has also been analyzed by statisticians and mathematicians to predict outcomes. Jay Coleman, the assistant provost and professor of management at the University of North Florida, created a formula to determine which teams will receive at-large bids in the March Madness tournament. The formula, referred to as The Dance Card, was Coleman’s brainchild after he discovered a website that compiled statistics that commonly influence the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. The Dance Card has correctly predicted 108 of 110 bids since 2012. The rankings can be found online at

“We’ve looked at well over 50 team performance statistics,” Coleman said. “The most powerful is the RPI ranking. The RPI is a metric that the NCAA itself devised to help rank and categorize teams. There’s some other things, such as if you have a losing record in your conference, you typically get dinged. For every win you have against top 25 teams, you get bonus points.” 

While Buffett’s billion-dollar prize served as incentive for Coleman last year, the daunting one-in-nine-quintillion statistic has encouraged Coleman not to take part in bracket challenges. 

“We can be very accurate with The Dance Card predicting who will get into the tournament, but what 10 guys running up and down a basketball court are going to do is an entirely different matter,” Coleman said. “Even if you could predict with 75–80 percent accuracy who’s going to win one given game—and that would be really good, to do it for 63 games in order to completely fill out a bracket completely—the odds are astronomical, so typically I don’t even play.”

Despite the seemingly impossible chances of winning the NCAA tournament, Bergen encourages fans to continue competing.

“Even if you don’t win the bracket, you can win your office pool,” Bergen said. “You can win pools within your family. It’s nice to try and seek perfection, but you can have an awful lot of fun with your friends and family and the games and the tournament, even if you’re not perfect. The tournament is enormous fun.”