Every year, 68 NCAA Division I basketball teams compete in a single-elimination tournament affectionately known as March Madness. Those 68 teams are winnowed down to a Sweet Sixteen, then a Final Four, and finally a single champion. Even for those who don’t avidly follow college basketball, March Madness makes for a highly exciting viewing experience.
Those who do make a hobby of closely following college hoops often go a step farther, predicting the round by round results of the tournament by filling out a March Madness bracket. Here we take a closer look at the astronomical odds involved in picking a perfect March Madness bracket, and answer the question of whether that feat has ever been accomplished.
The odds of picking a perfect March Madness bracket
A total of 68 teams participate in March Madness. Over the course of the tournament, there are a total of seven rounds. The total number of games played from the first round to the last is 63. Therefore, to fill out a perfect March Madness bracket, you would need to correctly guess the winners of all 63 games.
At first, that may not sound like such a daunting feat. After all, there is a 50-50 chance that you could guess the correct results for each match up. Those with above-average familiarity with the strengths and weaknesses of different teams could further skew those odds in their favor.
So just how difficult would it be to build a perfect bracket, statistically speaking? Unfortunately, the answer is that it would be astronomically difficult. Statisticians have determined that the odds of selecting a perfect bracket are roughly one in 9.2 quintillion. Put another way, there are 9,223,372,036,854,775,808 different possible outcomes for a 68 team bracket.
Has anyone ever picked a perfect bracket?
Those staggering odds beg the question: has anyone ever accomplished the unthinkable goal of picking a perfect March Madness bracket? The answer to that question, as far as the official record goes, is no. In that case, you may find yourself wondering, how close has anybody come to getting it all right?
Fortunately, the NCAA tracks all publicly verifiable March Madness brackets online. Using that information, they can determine the longest streak of correct bracket picks. According to their data, the longest verifiable streak stands at 49 games. That record was set during the 2019 March Madness by Gregg Nigl, a neuropsychologist from Columbus, Ohio.
Nigl shattered the previous record of 39 correct picks, which was set in 2017. Nigl’s bracket finally went bust on game 50, when his pick of Tennessee lost to Purdue. When asked for the secret to his success, Nigl admitted to watching a lot of Big 10 basketball. Yet he also said that, ultimately, getting that far came down to “a lot of luck too.”
The lure of a perfect bracket
While Nigl deserves credit for his success—and for his modesty—he probably undersold the importance of luck in picking a perfect bracket. In fact, luck is probably the single most important factor. In other words, no matter how extensive your knowledge of college basketball, the number of variables at play is too vast and too random for anybody to pick.
Of course, that doesn’t stop people from trying. Filling out a March Madness bracket has become a rite of passage for many sports fans—including some high-profile celebrities. Even former president Barack Obama makes a yearly tradition of filling out his March Madness bracket.
From 2009 to 2015, Obama managed to correctly pick 64% of tournament games. That number falls significantly below the 73-75% average reported by ESPN. Fortunately, Obama hasn’t let his poor picks deter him from filling out new brackets each year.