How Math Can Help Your March Madness Bracket


March Madness begins today, and of course there is always pressure to pick a winning bracket. But this year the stakes are higher because Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway are offering $1 billion for a perfect bracket.

Too bad the odds are one in 9.2 quintillion. Or one in 9,223,372,036,856,775,808.

Last year, not one of the 8.5 million brackets filled out on ESPN had a perfect bracket after the first round.

While those odds are just plain horrible (and no one in history has ever got a perfect bracket), we decided to round up the different ways statistics can help you can outsmart the March Madness bracket. Because we care about you.

Do: Pick strategic upsets

Make sure at least one team seeded lower than fourth makes it to the Final Four on your bracket. Since 2009, every Final Four featured at least one team seeded fourth or below. Also, only once since 1985 did all four No. 1 seeds made the Final Four. Also on the upfront note, one No. 13 seed has beat a No. 4 seed every year since 2005, so you’d be wise to pick one No. 13 seed upset.

Don’t: Pay too close attention to AP Top 25 Polls

Because the seeds and brackets are developed off of teams’ performances at the end of the season and in league tournaments, it’s easy to assume that the AP poll will be a good indication of who will advance in the tournament. However, it turns out that AP’s preseason polls aren’t a great indicator, with preseason polls only a slightly a more accurate way of deciding tournament outcomes than regular-season polls.

Do: Value No. 1 seeds

Since 1985, a total of 18 No. 1 seeds have gone on to win the national championship. Compared with just four national champions each with a No. 2 and a No. 3 seed. On the note of No. 1 seeds, a 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1 seed, so you probably don’t have to bother with any first-round No. 1 seed upsets.

Don’t: Underestimate Louisville’s seed

Coming off an ACC tournament title, and currently fifth overall in the latest AP poll, Louisville’s No. 4 seed in the tournament is probably one of the most misguided seeds. In fact, two prominent statisticians, Nate Silver and Ken Pomeroy, both have Louisville as one of the teams most statistically likely to win the tournament. Silver has Louisville with a 24 percent chance of winning the tournament, and Pomeroy, whose comprehensive ranking system weighs a range of advanced statistics like offensive and defensive efficiency, has Louisville the second-best team in the tournament.

Do: Pay attention to how teams are playing recently

Davidson math professor Tim Chartier, who has analyzed the tournament for the past five years, said one of the best indicators is what he calls a “recency effect,” meaning how well teams play toward the end of the season. This isn’t to be confused with season polls. Rather, looking at how teams advance in their own league tournaments is a strong indicator of how they’ll perform when the pressure is on in the Big Dance.

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