Column: Perfect brackets and 16 seeds have same odds, but still a quintillion reasons to love March Madness

By Greg Cote - Miami Herald

A math professor at the University of Colorado calculates your odds of filling out a perfect NCAA Tournament bracket at one in 9,223,372,036,854,775,808. The number is un-sayable unless you are a math professor, so let’s just round it off to one in 9 quintillion, which sounds like a made-up word like bazillion but isn’t.

In other words your likelihood of having a perfect tournament is about equal to that of the South Dakota State Jackrabbits doing the same.

Nothing personal, ‘rabbits.

Here’s the thing, though. You don’t need a perfect bracket. You just need your bracket to be better than the one Myrna in accounting, Alphonse in shipping and everyone else in your office pool who filled one out.

And the Jackrabbits? All they have to do is be the barely-above-.500 basketball team that becomes the first No. 16 seed ever to beat a No. 1 seed and then follow that by winning five more games in a row. That’s all.

It could happen.

It won’t.

Ah, but it could.

The Cubs could win the World Series, Trump could be president, you could be struck by lightning (twice) on the way to a blind date with Emma Watson, and a bunch of Jackrabbits could be climbing a ladder and snipping pieces of net on April 3 in Phoenix.

I used to be a March Madness agnostic. I was that guy. While everyone else fell into spasms of rapture, jumping off the deep end into pools, I never quite got the hysteria. I’d make fun of the estimated 60 million Americans who obsessively filled out brackets.

I still think the magic-Cinderella-dust element is a bit over-dramatized. But I have come around to embrace the possibility, the idea you can never make a dream come true unless you start with a dream — something others laughed at and thought absurd.

No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast in 2013 flared famous as “Dunk City” in becoming the lowest seed ever to reach a Sweet 16. Three No. 11s have reached a Final Four — including of course George Mason, led by current Miami Hurricanes coach Jim Larranaga, in 2006. And Villanova was a No. 8 seed (same spot as the Canes now) when in 1985 it became the lowest-seeded team ever to win the national title.

Larranaga’s Miami men open Friday night vs. No. 9 Michigan State in the Midwest regional in Tulsa, with the Canes two-point betting favorites. (I like Miami advancing. I mean, it’s the perfect match: Larranaga, America’s Dancingest Coach, in the Big Dance!)

You find so many wonderful stories among this 68-team field.

Baylor, not ranked in any preseason poll — not even a single vote! — now a No. 3 seed.

Northwestern, making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 77 years and cheered on by comic actress/No. 1 fan Julia Louis-Dreyfus, mother of seldom-used reserve Charlie Hall.

The Mount St. Mary’s Mountaineers, who began this season 1-11.

Vanderbilt, here despite 14 losses, tied for most ever by a team earning an at-large invitation.

Not to forget Northern Kentucky, which we love solely for its nickname (Norse) and mascot (Victor E. Viking).

I once believed a better NCAA Tournament format would be for the 64 best overall teams to be invited, weeding out the South Dakota States that get automatic bids by winning small conferences. I was wrong.

Welcoming the Davids among the Goliaths is what separates this competition.

Can you imagine a scenario in which a Double A baseball team could somehow play its way into a World Series? Or a local amateur ice-hockey club winning its way into a Stanley Cup Finals?

That is about the equivalent of South Dakota State — or the New Orleans Privateers, Iona Gaels or Vermont Catamounts — having a shot at playing into a Final Four with the Villanovas, North Carolinas and Dukes.

And here is maybe what’s best of all about the NCAA Tournament:

It isn’t all about winning it all. You can fall short and still be celebrated nationally and worshiped back home.

If the Winthrop Eagles manage to win a game they’re Cinderella. Win two and they’re folk heroes. They could then get blown out by 30 points in their third game. No matter. Their legend is secure.

Only one school will be champion on April 3, yes, but a handful of charming little overachievers along the way will earn a spotlight thoroughly foreign to them in the three weeks that begin with Tuesday’s play-in games.

Who knows. It might even be the South Dakota State Jackrabbits who make a little history.

We’d need that math professor to calculate odds that high, but the possibility, however scant, is what makes the Madness so marvelous.



Greg Cote is a columnist for the Miami Herald.


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By Greg Cote

Miami Herald