Sports Nut

The Odds of March

What are your team’s chances of winning the NCAA tournament?

The NCAA tournament has built a reputation as March Madness: three wild weekends of unpredictable upsets, buzzer-beating shots, and unsung heroes rising from anonymity. But the tournament actually unfolds each year in fairly predictable fashion. It’s so predictable, in fact, that I have predicted the winners of all 63 games in the men’s bracket. (You can look at my picks.)

So who’s going to win it all? Not Northwestern State, Monmouth, North Carolina-Greensboro, or Alabama State. In the 16 years since the tournament expanded to 64 teams, No. 16 seeds have a record of 0-64. (1-65 if you count last night’s elimination contest between Northwestern State and Winthrop.) One site puts the odds of a No. 16 seed winning the whole tournament at 384 million-to-1. The No. 15 seeds haven’t done much better, winning only three of the 64 first-round contests in which they’ve played. Princeton, Hampton, Holy Cross, and Eastern Illinois are all safe bets to go down in the first round.

The Rest of the First Round

One of the No. 14 seeds, on the other hand, has a good chance of advancing. Since 1985, the year the tournament went to 64 teams, a No. 3 seed has fallen in the first round 13 times, or 20 percent of the time. This year, Western Kentucky center Chris Marcus has a decent chance of leading his team to a first-round victory over Florida, but I’m not brave enough to pick the Hilltoppers. I penciled all four No. 3 seeds into the second round.

What about the No. 13 seeds? They win almost 20 percent of the time. I picked No. 13 Hofstra to upend No. 4 UCLA. History’s on my side: In the ‘90s, UCLA fell in the first round to Penn State, Tulsa, Princeton, and Detroit. Go Pride!

Then there are the No. 12 seeds, famous for upsetting No. 5 seeds. It didn’t happen last year, but it happens more than 25 percent of the time—in 17 of the 64 matchups since 1985. Who’s it gonna be this year? The trendy pick is Gonzaga, one of just five teams to advance to the Sweet 16 the past two years. (The others are Duke, Florida, Michigan State, and Purdue.) I say the trend stops this year. Instead, look for BYU to beat Cincinnati by making free throws and three-pointers by the bucket-load.

A No. 11 seed is likely to advance, too. No. 6 seeds go down in the first round 36 percent of the time. I like those odds so much I picked it to happen twice, with Texas getting befuddled by Temple’s matchup zone and USC losing to an emotional Oklahoma State team. (Eddie Sutton has never lost a first-round game in the NCAA tournament.) You can overpick upsets in the first round, of course, but in the average year, four of the 16 teams seeded between No. 11 and No. 14 advance to the second round. Granted, the odds are against picking the correct four teams, but you might as well give it a shot.

As for the teams seeded No. 7 through No. 10, look at it this way: The 8-9 games are pretty much a coin flip. Pick whomoever you want. I went with three 9s—Missouri, St. Joseph’s, and Charlotte—and an 8, California. Not that it matters. They’re all going to lose in the second round anyway.

No. 7 seeds beat No. 10 seeds 60 percent of the time, so I went with Penn State, Arkansas, and Iowa but picked No. 10 Butler to topple a slumping Wake Forest team. (Note: This doesn’t always work. In 1999, all four No. 10s won.)

The Sweet 16 and Beyond

Picking who’s going to advance to the tournament’s second weekend can sometimes be easier than picking the first round. For starters, you can cross out 25 percent of the field. Of the 256 teams seeded No. 13 through No. 16 since ‘85, only five—two No. 14s and three No. 13s—have advanced to the Sweet 16. Then pencil all four No. 1s into the regional semifinals. Only nine of the 64 No. 1s since 1985 have fallen in the second round.

At least one No. 2 seed, on the other hand, is likely to go down. Who’s going to fall this year? I went with media darling Arizona. That makes Butler the surprise No. 10 seed in the Sweet 16. The Bulldogs have four of five starters back from a team that took tournament runner-up Florida into overtime in last year’s first round. And Arizona has a history of crashing and burning. Under coach Lute Olson, the Wildcats have fallen in the first round as a No. 5, a No. 4, a No. 3, and a No. 2 (one of only three No. 2s to do that), and last year they became one of only nine No. 1 seeds ever to fall in the second round. (This pick could backfire: When Olson’s teams don’t lose in the first or second round, they often head to the Final Four, as they did in 1988, 1994, and 1997.)

The rest of the second-round games are tossups. No. 6 seeds advance to the Sweet 16 as often as No. 3 seeds, and the winner of a No. 4-No. 13 matchup is no more likely to advance than the winner of a No. 5-No. 12 matchup. My bracket mirrors the NCAA seedings, with the exceptions of Butler, No. 5 Ohio State, and No. 6 Wisconsin. Why pick No. 3 Maryland to go down to the Badgers? Somebody has to lose, and Terrapins coach Gary Williams isn’t known for taking his teams deep into the tournament.

Things get trickier when you pick who advances to the regional finals, where an underdog can ruin your bracket. More than 75 percent of the final eight teams in the last 16 tournaments have been seeded 1 through 4, and most of those have been 1s and 2s. But 40 percent of the 1s and 2s should also lose by this point.

I picked red-hot Oklahoma to upset top seed Michigan State in the South (a risky pick: Kelvin Sampson’s teams often flame out early, but the odds are that one of the No. 1s will go down in this round, and why not the defending champs, whom everyone will be gunning for?). My other mild upset picks: No. 3 Ole Miss to reach the Midwest finals, and No. 3 Florida to knock off No. 2 North Carolina in the South.

On to the Final Four: Almost half of the No. 1 seeds reach the Final Four, so I picked two, Illinois and Duke. Both teams have proven tournament coaches in Bill Self and Mike Krzyzewski. Then I picked No. 2 Iowa State to knock off Stanford, and my upset team is No. 3 Florida. A 3 seed a Cinderella? Yes: Only seven of the 64 No. 3 seeds since ‘85 have reached the Final Four.

I’m tempted to pick Iowa State to win it all. They have the best point guard in the country in Jamaal Tinsley and a tournament coach in Larry Eustachy. Last year, the Cyclones gave eventual champion Michigan State their toughest game of the tournament. So they’re my dark horse. But only three No. 2s have won the title since ‘85. Nine No. 1s have. As for the 56 teams that aren’t seeded No. 1 or No. 2, don’t get your hopes up. Only four teams seeded No. 3 or lower have won the title since ‘85. Those teams are facing long odds to win it all, about the same as those facing a No. 15 going against a No. 2 in the first round. I’m going with Duke over Illinois in the championship game.

After all this talk about odds, what are the chances that I’m right? The probability of picking all 63 tournament games correctly is 9.2 quintillion-to-1. (A quintillion is a 1 followed by 18 zeros. Put another way, it’s 1,000,000,000,000,000,000. Any way you look at it, it’s big.) That’s picking by random chance. The realistic odds are still minuscule, perhaps 100 billion-to-1. Last year, in a contest hosted by, only one woman out of 590,000 players picked all the Final Four teams. Her method? She’s an alumna of Florida, her father attended Wisconsin, her friend went to North Carolina, and she felt bad for Michigan State when her Gators displayed poor sportsmanship against the Spartans in a football game, the Citrus Bowl.

Maybe the tournament’s not so predictable after all.

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