In My Opinion

Linda Robertson: NCAA bracket perfection is just a dream

 

lrobertson@MiamiHerald.com

You have a better chance of being hit by a meteorite than picking a perfect NCAA basketball tournament bracket.

You have a better chance of winning a $100 million lottery than picking a perfect bracket.

You — yes, you — have a better chance of being canonized as a saint than picking a perfect bracket.

Your favorite football team has a better chance of winning the next 12 Super Bowls than you do of picking the perfect bracket.

Nonetheless, chances are you will attempt to pick the outcome of all 63 games (not including play-in games) in the annual March Madness spectacle that began on Selection Sunday with the announcement of seedings and pairings.

From now until April 7, millions of people — even those who think a Jayhawk is an actual bird — will inhabit a strange place called Bracketville, and their days will be defined by the sounds of fight songs and buzzers.

You may be trying to win the office pool, but, if you are really ambitious and optimistic, you ought to enter the new Quicken Loans Billion Dollar Bracket Challenge, which offers a $1 billion prize for perfection.

Warren E. Buffett is putting up the pot, which means the billion bucks is for real, and the chances of you beating investor expert Buffett on a bet are infinitesimal.

How long are those odds?

Try 9.2 quintillion to one.

How big is that number?

It has 18 zeroes, and if it was converted to dollars and split equally among every person in the U.S., you would pocket $30 billion.

Jeffrey Bergen is not feeling an iota of trepidation for Buffett. Bergen, a DePaul University mathematics professor, calculated the odds of winning the Challenge by raising two to the 63rd power.

That would be the same as coin-flipping heads 63 times in a row.

Even if everyone picking has some basketball knowledge, there would still be only a one-in-128-billion chance of winning.

Narrow that to 10 million entrants in the Challenge, and it’s still less than a one-in-10,000 chance of winning.

“That means there is a 99.99 percent chance of no winner,” Bergen said. “Not a risky gamble by Mr. Buffett.”

He didn’t get rich by throwing his money away on NCAA pools.

But he is a fan — especially of Tulsa and Nebraska — and has promised to attend the Final Four with anybody who gets that far with their picks.

“Not likely,” Bergen said. “Even if you pick the first 32 games of the first round correctly, you’ve only got a one-in-7.5-million chance of picking the next 31.”

Yet tens of millions of people will get in on the action this week.

The allure of March Madness is irresistible because the bonsai-growing expert in the cubicle next to the ESPN-watching junkie believes he or she has just as much ability to pick a No. 15 seed like Florida Gulf Coast upsetting a No. 2 like Georgetown as anybody.

That happened last year when, according to Bergen, the 2013 tournament tied the 1986 tournament as the most “upsetting” in history. Louisville won both.

Choosing Cinderellas doesn’t require a complex formula, although a University of Maryland scientist used quantum physics to make his picks last season.

Other methodologies include best mascots and favorite team colors.

“Filling out brackets is almost like a national holiday,” Bergen said.

“It’s the appeal of the underdog. The NFL doesn’t have the George Masons rising to the top out of nowhere like college basketball does.”

But don’t pick lower-seeded teams if you want to win. Eighteen of 29 NCAA champs since 1985 have been No. 1 seeds.

Take risks early and consider choosing No. 12 Stephen F. Austin over No. 5 VCU or No. 12 Harvard over No. 5 Cincinnati.

But lean heavily on higher seeds late, such as No. 1 Florida, which won its 26th game in a row Sunday.

No No. 16 men’s seed has ever beaten a No. 1, so don’t pick Coastal Carolina over Virginia, despite the mascot appeal of the Chanticleers.

Bergen would love to see 34-0 Wichita State run the table, but the Shockers are on a path that could force them to meet Kentucky, under-seeded Louisville, Michigan, Arizona and Florida or Virginia on the way to a title.

Quicken Loans is offering a $100,000 prize for buying, re-financing or renovating a home to the top 20 brackets.

But the $1 billion prize?

It’s only guaranteed of happening once in 64 billion years, Bergen figures.

“How you derive the numbers is pretty basic math and can be covered at the high school level,” said Bergen, whose area of expertise is abstract algebra.

The numbers are daunting, especially since he has never seen or heard of a perfect bracket.

Bergen used to participate in a family pool.

But the mathematician often finished in last place.

“I’m not entering this year,” he said. “I got tired of buying pizza for everybody.”

Read more Linda Robertson stories from the Miami Herald

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