Filling out a bracket in March has become one of the most widely endulged traditions in the country. Sixty-seven games are played over three weeks in arenas across the map. The goal is to be perfect, and when we’re inevitably not, we just hope to be a little bit better than our friends.
Looking back at recent years, it’s hard to remember what first-round upset you picked or which underdog you were convinced was headed to the Final Four. Some of us fill out too many brackets to keep track of. But it’s easy to remember the college kids that became household names, or the shots that led some to become immortalized in college basketball history.
The agony of being one of the 67 fan bases that get its heart ripped out at some point in March is a near certainty, yet the madness of March can provide any foolish fan with a glimmer of hope. In the rollercoaster of emotions that come and go in March, sometimes it’s best to rip up your bracket and just enjoy basketball and its purest form.
That’s not the focus now, though. In the midst of March, it’s time to create a bracket (or four), disregard the odds of bracket success, and hope this is our year. We’re sports fans, it’s what we do best.
MORE: Why it’s nearly impossible to have perfect bracket
Who was the closest to a perfect NCAA bracket?
Gregg Nigl was sick on the first Thursday of the 2019 NCAA Tournament. He called in sick to work and planned to stay in bed to recuperate, but before he could take a nap, Nigl decided to fill out a bracket so he could participate in the tournament group with his friends. That bracket turned out to be the best one ever recorded. His picks started winning on Thursday morning and kept it up. He was perfect through the first round, then the second.
Nigl became the first person to have a verified bracket that correctly predicted every game through the Sweet 16. He picked the first 49 games correctly, crushing the old recorded record of 39. Tens of millions of brackets are filled out every year, so it’s possible someone has produced a better bracket on paper or before websites kept an official record. According to its website, the NCAA has “closely tracked about 20-25 million online brackets per year at a half dozen major games since 2016 using public leaderboards in combination with direct reporting and information gathering with those games.” They relied on reports and online archives prior to 2016.
The act of correctly predicting the first 49 games of the Tournament is incredible, nonetheless. If every game is viewed as a 50-50 probability, the odds of correctly picking 49 straight games, as Nigl did, are one in 562 trillion. Nigl, a neuropsychologist from Ohio, lost for the first time on the 50th game of the tournament when Purdue beat Tennessee, 99-94, in overtime. His bracket lost a bit of its magic after that. After correctly picking every Sweet 16 team, he got five of the Elite Eight teams right and one Final Four team.
Odds of a perfect bracket in March Madness
To keep it short, the traditional odds of picking every game correctly, if each matchup is considered a 50-50 shot, is one in 9.2 quintillion. For reference, a quintillion is one billion billion. No. 1 seeds have beaten the 16-seeds every time except for one, so we know not all matchups are toss-ups. FiveThirtyEight projects that the odds for their model, which factors in actual basketball knowledge and tournament history, are one in 2.15 billion.
The odds are long no matter what metric is used. Billionaire Warren Buffett has offered $1 billion to anyone who got a perfect bracket, but the odds say that’s unlikely to ever happen. He’s since taken it down a notch, pledging $1 million a year for life to any Berkshire Hathaway employee who accurately predicted the Sweet 16. Buffett’s other offer to employees at Berkshire Hathaway is a nice $1 million to anyone who got all 32 first-round games correct.
Best March Madness brackets by year
Nigl’s 49-for-49 start wasn’t just the best start to a bracket in 2019, it was the best verified start in recorded history.
While the best bracket to date came in 2019, brackets in 2019 never really had a chance. 16-seed UMBC knocked off 1-seed Virginia and the 25 remaining perfect brackets were spoiled.
A bracket on Yahoo! started with 39 straight wins, a record until 2019. The bracket stayed perfect until the second round when Iowa State fell to Purdue.
Perfect brackets were deterred early when 2-seed Michigan State was upset by 15-seed Middle Tennesse State. The best bracket lasted 25 games.
One bracket in the ESPN online bracket game picked the first 34 games correctly. ESPN said the bracket was the best start to a tournament it had on record in 18 years of its game.
2014 and earlier
In 2014, Yahoo! Sports reported that a bracket was perfect going into the second round and started with 36 straight wins. Yahoo! said it was the only time the site had a bracket with a perfect first round in its 18-plus years of tracking brackets. A bracket in 2010 made headlines when it reportedly was perfect through two rounds, but there was no way to verify the bracket’s authenticity.