Here’s how to win your office March Madness pool, according to science

It’s the most wonderful time of the year once again. Well, at least for college basketball fans. March Madness is upon us, and that means workplaces all over the US are getting their office brackets ready. Not everyone is a college basketball expert or fan for that matter, but that doesn’t stop millions of co-workers from participating in some friendly competition. 

March Madness in the office

If you’ve been handed a bracket to fill out and have no idea where to begin, a team of data scientists from the University of Illinois has got you covered. Their advice is actually refreshingly simple: start by placing some of the top-seeded teams in your Final Four and then work your way backward through the bracket. Also, if you’re submitting more than just one bracket, be sure to switch up your Final Four choices. That way you have a better chance of winning at least one.

This recommendation contradicts how many typically fill out their brackets. It’s common to start with the first round and progress through the tournament to the Final Four and eventual champions.

“If you can only pick one bracket, then leaning heavily on the top seeds makes sense,” comments Sheldon H. Jacobson in a press release. “However, all bracket challenges allow you to submit multiple entries. A person does not need all of their brackets to score well; just one will do.”

Over the past decade, Jacobson has studied and analyzed basketball bracket seeds, while simultaneously ignoring the actual teams attached to said brackets. In this sense, his work is very unique due to the fact that it has only focused on the performance of seeds.

Before reading further, prepare yourself for some serious math. According to the research team, there are over nine quintillions (9 x 10^18) possible bracket combinations. So, the odds of filling out a bracket with all 63 games’ winners chosen correctly are incredibly small, even if one fills out multiple brackets. It’s those astoundingly low odds of success that helped Jacobson formulate his work backward from the Final Four approach.  

“Once you pick a set of Final Four teams, 12 additional game outcomes become fixed, effectively reducing the number of games that you must pick,” Jacobson explains. “Our research suggests that anything that can be done to reduce the uncertainty in your picks, while simultaneously expanding the diversity of your pool, will give you a step up in having a good scoring bracket amongst your set of brackets.” 

The study’s authors have already put their strategy to the test over the past few March Madness tournaments and say their brackets would have landed in the top 100 of the ESPN bracket challenge.

“Our models that start by picking the Elite Eight or Final Four teams perform especially well, perhaps because they balance the two main risks: incorrect picks in the first two rounds, which may propagate through the tournament, and incorrect teams in the later rounds, where each game is worth more points,” notes co-author Ian Ludden.

You can find all of the researchers’ March Madness work on their website. First launched in 2012, it already boasts over 650,000 visits.

Even if you’re skeptical of their working backward approach to the tournament, the website offers a variety of helpful tools for understanding tournament odds and filling out a bracket. For example, according to one available calculator, the probability of a number-one seed reaching the Final Four is roughly 0.0155, which works out to about once every 64 tournaments. Conversely, the chances of a Final Four made up of only the lowest-seeded teams is so unlikely, it should only occur once every 13 trillion tournaments. Not exactly great odds.

For most of us, an office bracket pool is just an excuse to have a little fun with co-workers. Still, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t apply these principles and give yourself a better shot at bragging rights this year.

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports.