The science of NCAA brackets

It’s March. That means the start of spring, high water in the rivers and creeks, spring break for students, St. Patrick’s Day and farmers starting to itch to get into the fields.

And March Madness. The NCAA basketball tournament. 

In our family, March Madness means the annual brackets contest. It’s for braggin’ rights only. That way 3-year-old Colin has as much to gain as the rest of us. 

Fifteen of us, comprising three generations, are competing this year. Age range is 3 up to 77. As the 77-year-old, I can vouch that tenure bears little relation to success. 

Some competitors are pretty darn good. Brad, daughter Molly’s husband, went 27 of 32 in the first round. So did son Dan. Molly herself picked 26 first-round games correctly. I went 24 of 32 and considered myself lucky. I’m back in the pack, where I usually run.

Millions of Americans fill out NCAA brackets in office pools, family pools, buddy groups and many other combos. I was in a local government office last week before the tournament started, and one of the public employees brought around the blank bracket sheets for everyone to fill out.

There are lots and lots of ways to compete. In our family, we get one point for a correct first round pick, two points for a second round winner, and so on up to five points for a fifth rounder (that’s the semifinal round). Picking the overall NCAA champion gets you 10 points.

That’s pretty basic stuff. Some bracket setups get pretty esoteric with odds, seedings, point spreads, etc., factored in. Not ours.

We’ve been doing this for years. I have yet to win, but it’s sort of like the start of baseball season, when I’m sure this is the Cardinals’ magic year. (That’s true this year, by the way.)

It’s a little humbling when somebody’s family dog, like Ozzie, Dave and Erin’s family’s golden retriever, beats me in our bracket contest as he did a few years ago. 

Ozzie has passed to doggy heaven, so I’m in no jeopardy from that embarrassment this year. I need every break I can get.

I’m a Hawkeye and a Big Ten fan. It’s a little difficult to resist inking in the Big Ten teams as winners through the brackets. But experience has taught me that’s not wise. So this year I held off.

And, of course, the Big Ten went 7 and 1 through the first round. 

Every year, after I finish back in the pack, I vow that next year I’ll simply pick the higher seed in every game, right up to the Final Four. And every year I get Hunch Syndrome, where I absolutely know that a particular 11th seed is a sure thing to beat a team seeded sixth. Over the years my hunches have not served me well.

Somewhere I read what the odds are for picking a perfect bracket, selecting the winner in every game. It’s something like eighteen gazillion to one, as I recall. 

I think it was Warren Buffett who last year offered to write a $1 million check to anyone whose bracket ended up perfect. He kept his money, of course.

I mentioned 3-year-old Colin earlier in this piece. 

As I write today, he’s ahead of an uncle, his sister, his brother and his dad, and tied with an aunt, a cousin and his mom. 

Colin picked Bradley because he likes Uncle Brad, Florida and Florida State because he’s going to that state before long, Iowa and Iowa State because that’s where he lives, and Gardner-Webb and Fairleigh-Dickinson because, well, he likes to say those names.

And as of now he’s only one point behind me.

I’m Mission Control for the contest. I have hard copies of everyone’s brackets, all 15 of them. I keep them current and at the end of every game day I compute the standings and send out an email blast to everyone. 

It isn’t as though I don’t have enough else to do. But there’s something mesmerizing about the tournament, and I waste an inordinate amount of time poring over everyone’s bracket sheets. Can’t help it.

And in a few days some of those same family members will gather to draft teams in the Iowa Farm League, our family fantasy baseball league. That’s like the NCAA tourney on steroids, with day-to-day updates for the next six months.

Doesn’t get much better than that.

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