Breaking down bracketology

BU Men’s Basketball qualifying for the NCAA tournament in 2020. Photo Courtesy of BU Today.

By Paige Albright

Boston University News Service

The start of spring brings with it the promise of summer, which brings joy to many. However, for a large portion of the world, March means the start of something else that could be just as enjoyable. The NCAA Men’s and Women’s basketball tournaments, dubbed “March Madness,” are a staple in the sports calendar. 

March Madness was given its name due to unexpected results that seem to be a permanent fixture in the event. The single elimination style of the tournament brings a high volume of games to watch and remarkable upsets. As the event draws millions of viewers, a tradition started in 1977 for viewers to create brackets from the first round of 32 games until the final, placing bets on who will be the closest to the result. 

In a tournament full of upsets and underdogs, predicting the results is nearly impossible, and the odds of a perfect bracket are 1 in 9.2 quintillions. However, nearly 63 million people have created brackets in recent years, and the numbers are expected to continue rising. The average participant is 66.7% accurate with their picks for the men’s bracket, which historically experiences a larger number of upsets.

A breakdown of the odds of having a perfect NCAA March Madness bracket and previous history from past tournaments. Graphic courtesy of Paige Albright/BU News Service.

In 2023, there was not a single bracket left untouched by the 25th game of the tournament due to the historic upsets including the loss of the heavily favored No.1 Purdue to FDU, a 16 seed. In 2019, there was a bracket that correctly predicted everything through the 49th game, breaking the previous record. Due to how unpredictable the tournament is, if an individual were to create a perfect bracket, they would win over 1 billion dollars through the Warren Buffet pledge and the ESPN challenge. 

The tournament has developed over the years on both the women’s and men’s sides. The development of formerly weaker conferences like the SEC has made the tournament more competitive. While powerhouses like Duke, Kansas and Kentucky remain for the men and South Carolina, Uconn and Tennessee for the women, the growth of new contenders outside of the once-unstoppable ACC has made the games harder to predict. 

The favorites this year for the Women’s Tournament are Dawn Staley’s South Carolina Gamecocks, currently ranked first. Another favored team is the University of Iowa, which houses expected player of the year Caitlin Clark. The ACC still leads as the dominant division for women, as the conference will be sending nine teams to the tournament, more than any other. 

The women’s tournament last year saw a major jump in viewership, bringing almost one million more than the men. The women’s side of March Madness saw a major revamping in recent years after Sedona Price, a player for the University of Oregon, exposed the NCAA for their underfunding of the women’s tournament, a direct violation of Title IX. Last year, the women’s final between LSU and Iowa was the most watched women’s final in history. As more attention has been drawn to NCAAW and the WNBA, these numbers are expected to only go up. 

For the men’s side, Kansas has secured itself at the top of the standing, bouncing back from the loss of major scoring players this season to the NBA draft. Purdue is once again the favored team going into the tournament despite their loss to the 16 seed last year. The conference that will be sending an astounding 12 teams to the tournament this year is the BIG 12, who in recent years has overtaken the ACC as the powerhouse division. 

“On the bubble” refers to teams that either must win their respective conference’s title or are still in contention to secure their spot in the tournament. As of now, there are twenty teams remaining on the bubble for both the men’s and women’s tournament. These teams must improve their record to end in top standings for their conference if they belong to one of the larger conferences, and, if they are from a smaller conference, win their conference title to play for the NCAA title. Winning a conference title for any NCAA D1 conference will secure a team a spot in March Madness.

Even as data is compiled and players or teams are expected to dominate, odds are no one will ever have a “perfect” bracket. What is guaranteed for March Madness is, well, some madness and a little sadness as fan favorites are eliminated through the competition.

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