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Why it’s hard to win your March Madness bracket

March Madness 2019 is in the house. Even if you’re not a huge college basketball fan, chances are you or someone you know has some skin in the game. According to the American Gaming Association, an estimated $10 billion was wagered in last year’s NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament.

And if you are one of the nearly 24 million people who played along last year and lost or if you are thinking about filling in your own brackets this year, college basketball fan and KSU mathematics and data science professor Joe DeMaio says that you may want to pace yourself since as far as we know, no one has been able to correctly pick all of the winning teams.

So what makes it so difficult and why, according to DeMaio, is it harder than playing the lottery?

NCAA Mock Bracket

“There are 64 teams in the tournament and you have to pick 63 games correctly to have a perfect score, so there are more things to worry about here rather than picking five numbers and a Powerball number for the lottery,” said DeMaio. “In a lottery, you pick several numbers to win or lose for a drawing that takes less than a minute. In March Madness, you have to make some correct picks in round one to play in round two. If you miss all 32 of the first games you are out of it. So, you have to do something successful early on to go all the way.”

From a statistics and probability perspective, DeMaio says he doesn’t really like the odds because there are too many unknowns.

“Statistically speaking you have one chance in 9.2 quintillion or 263 (2 to the power 63) to fill out your bracket all at once and only one reality will play out,” he said. “You have better odds of being struck by lightning, one in 280 million, than winning March Madness.”

“You have better odds of being struck by lightning, one in 280 million, than winning March Madness.”

Joe DeMaio, professor of mathematics and data science at Kennesaw State University

So, what’s his best recommendation for tackling this mathematical conundrum?

“You can look at how players and teams have done in the past as you match two teams up. But there are still a lot of chance elements that can come into play, like the bracket a team gets put into,” he shared. “A relatively easy strategy is to pick alphabetically, or by which team colors you like, or just pick teams by their seed and take the higher number seed to win.”

With such little odds of winning, why do so many people bother to even fill out brackets? Why not just stick with the lottery?

According to DeMaio it comes down to good old-fashioned fun.

“If you’re a basketball fan, March Madness offers a lot of great games, it’s a chance to bond with your friends, it’s a much more social experience than say picking a number or scratching a ticket,” he said.

And of course, DeMaio says for those fans of the winning team or those who are lucky enough to have a winning bracket, there are those all-important bragging rights. If you’re lucky, you may even pick up a few extra bucks.

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