March 21, 2013 at 4:54 AM ET
If you put $5 into the office March Madness pool with the hope of creating a perfect bracket, here’s a tip: You should have bought a lottery ticket instead.
The odds of picking a perfect bracket in the annual NCAA men’s basketball tournament are one in 9.2 quintillion, according to calculations by Jeff Bergen, a mathematics professor at DePaul University.
That’s if you’re the type of person who picks teams based on whether you like the mascot or fancy the team uniform. The chances get a little better if you actually know something about basketball.
According to Bergen’s calculations, a person with a little understanding of team rankings and other data has perhaps a 1 in 128 billion chance of correctly calling every game in the March Madness tournament, which begins in earnest Thursday and runs through April 8.
To put that in perspective, you’re still much more likely to be the sole winner of a big lottery jackpot. The odds of being the sole winner of last year’s Powerball jackpot were around 175 million to one.
A perfect bracket could be done – but there’s no known case of it ever happening.
“If you ran tournaments for 64 billion years, you’re eventually going to have someone with a perfect bracket,” Bergen said. “But for just a single event, it’s highly unlikely.”
Of course, you don’t need a perfect bracket to win an office March Madness pool. You just need to do better than anyone else in your pool.
Plus, part of the allure of the NCAA tournament is that it is notoriously difficult to predict. That’s what gives the office cat lover who might watch basketball twice a year a feeling that he or she just may beat out the fanatic fan who has spent hours watching every game and poring over every statistic.
Nate Silver, the FiveThirtyEight blogger and data geek who successfully called the presidential election last year, spoke this week about how tough it is to even successfully call a March Madness winner now that there is more parity among the teams.
His incredibly complex formula makes clear just how hard: It only gives his top pick, Louisville, about a one in five chance of winning.
Bergen, the math professor, doesn’t fill out March Madness brackets anymore. He said his family used to have a contest where everyone would fill out a bracket and the person who had the worst bracket would have to buy everyone pizza.
“I got tired of buying pizza every year,” he said.
Oh, and in case your wondering: A quintillion has 18 zeroes.