The NCAA Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournaments were both canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year was the first year since 1939 when Oregon beat Ohio State that there wasn’t a men’s or women’s national champion.
This year, March Madness is back with a bang. UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) has been the most successful university in the NCAA Tournament, winning 11 national titles. The Bruins join 63 other teams in a single-elimination tournament where six straight wins will take the title.
Who will win this year? Nobody knows, but millions will pit their skill and luck against each other participating in full and sweet sixteen tournament bracket contests against near-impossible odds. The participants in these bracket pools are comprised of not only basketball fanatics but hardcore mathematicians and statisticians who deep dive into the odds and stats. Even casual fans get involved, as bracket pools reach every corner of society.
The History of March Madness
The term ‘March Madness’ was first coined in an article written by Henry Porter back in 1939 to describe the annual Illinois Highschool Association (IHSA) boys basketball tournament. The IHSA tournament began in 1908 with just a few teams competing, to a statewide institution with over 900 schools participating by the mid-1930s.
The term regained its popularity in the 1982 basketball tournament when CBS reporter Brent Musburger began to use it officially, but not without some controversy.
The IHSA used the term for some 50 years in print materials before it finally trademarked the phrase “March Madness” in 1989. This set up a legal battle between the IHSA and NCAA, which began in 1996 when the IHSA sued an NCAA sponsor for using the trademark phrase. Eventually, after a number of countersuits, the IHSA and NCAA agreed to share the phrase and both still use the term to this day.
The National Invitational Tournament
The National Invitation Tournament (NIT) is played in March but oddly, is not considered part of March Madness. Founded in 1938, a year before the NCAA Tournament, the NIT is sanctioned by the NCAA and played at regional sites, culminating with a “Final Four” at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Currently, the NIT’s field is made up of the top remaining teams that did not receive invitations to the NCAA tournament. Unlike the NCAA Tournament, the NIT is strictly men’s basketball and does not have a women’s version.
Bracketology and Probability
The odds of completing a perfect March Madness bracket are astronomical.
While no official records exist, it is estimated there have been between 80-million and 100-million brackets are filled out every year over the last 25-years, without a single perfect bracket.
To complete a perfect bracket, one would have to correctly select the winners of 32 matches in the 1st round, then 16 in the 2nd round, 8 matches in the 3rd round, and 4 matches in the 4th round just to get to the Final Four.
To put that into perspective, the longest (verifiable) streak of correct picks is 49. This was accomplished by Gregg Nigl of Columbus, Ohio in 2019. That incredible streak only got Nigl one game into the Sweet-16, busting when the 2nd seed Tennessee Volunteers lost to the 3rd seed Purdue Boilermakers in overtime.
The cold hard math is even more daunting.
Randomly picking each game gives you a 1 in 9,223,372,036,854,775,808 chance (about 1 in 9.2 quintillion). Know something about the game? According to DePaul professor Jeff Bergen, your odds improve to 1 in about 28,200,000,000 chance with an understanding of the teams, the tournament, and the game of college basketball.
Given those odds, nobody should be quitting their day job, but do enjoy the tournament.