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Bracketology at “Sweet Sixteen”

Bracketology at “Sweet Sixteen”

Now that NCAA basketball tournament, popularly known as “March Madness,” has reached the “Sweet Sixteen,” it’s time to take stock of your bracket predictions.

Part of the fun – or madness – is trying to accurately predict the 63-game record from start to finish. Picking the bracket has turned into its own rite of passage every spring, ranging from just-for-fun office pools to a $1 billion bounty for a perfect pick offered by superstar investor Warren Buffett last year.

“The odds of predicting a perfect bracket in the tournament is said to be 9.2 quintillion but that's if the teams had a 50-50 chance,” says Dr. Jennifer Suh, associate professor of Mathematics Education at George Mason University. “Historically no 16th seed has ever beaten a 1st seed in the round of 64, so better predicting the possible upsets might give you better odds.”

Even taking the 16:1 history into account, the odds of a perfect bracket prediction are astronomical. Time Magazine reported last week that first-day upsets left only 0.7 percent of the 11.57 million brackets registered with ESPN with perfect scores. Now that the tournament has pared the bracket down to the “Sweet Sixteen,” and most dreams of perfection are broken, it’s still about predicting the most winners.

With approximately $9 billion in betting on the line, the search is white-hot for a scientific method to accurately predict the winning teams.

Mark McClusky, editor of, outlines a methodology that mixes statistical number crunching with what he calls “crowd consensus.” The PBS NewsHour weighs in as well, with an overview of how picks are made, including a summary of the LRMC ranking system – a blend of results, schedules and even home court advantage.

The reality, though, is most people end up filling in their brackets with more hope and team loyalty than science. “Sometimes, we pick our teams based on our hearts … because we are rooting for the team but many use the statistics,” says Suh. “Basketball gives students a perfect venue to explore data analysis.”

Using the statistics from the box scores (ESPN tracks scores and stats from every game), teachers can encourage students to “retell the story of the game, which can be a great way to bring relevance to math concepts like percentage and analyzing and interpreting data.”

From how many minutes the players played to the position of players to the field goals versus attempts, to total points by each player, there are a number of stats that can “tell an important story of how a team won the game,” says Suh.

Whether science- or fan-based, there are other ways teachers can turn the madness to a teachable moment, too. Education World has a list of related classroom activities and School Library Journal offers a list of some great companion books.  

So enjoy the games. And may the best team – or YOUR team – win!

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