The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is considered by many the greatest tournament in all of sports, with one of the largest brackets and wildest histories. The “upsets,” when a lower ranked team defeats the favorites, are the most exciting games of each year. For example, last year we witnessed the first ever sixteen seed, Maryland-Baltimore County, to defeat a top seed, Virginia. Eleventh-seeded Loyola-Chicago reached the Final Four, bringing forth the legend of Sister Jean. Notable surprise runs in recent history include local George Mason in 2006 (eleven seed, reached Final Four), Davidson, led by Stephen Curry, in 2009 (ten seed, reached Elite Eight), and “Dunk City,” Florida Gulf Coast, in 2013 (fifteen seed, reached Sweet Sixteen).
With all of the drama–or madness, however, no double digit seed has ever won. Since the tournament field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, 1 and 2 seeds have dominated (top two seeds have won twenty-seven of the tournaments since the field expanded), but brackets clearly don’t always end up with the higher ranked teams winning all of their games.
Bracket predicting has become an increasingly popular March tradition. This year saw over 17.2 million brackets created on ESPN. GDS has had a student bracket pool for multiple years, in which scores of high school students try their hand at picking what they believe could be the first ever perfect bracket. With 64 teams, there are over nine quintillion possible brackets, which would take one person 292 billion years to complete (at a rate of one bracket per second) to generate one perfect bracket. Just picking the best among a group of 76, like at GDS this March, is difficult enough–some students opted out because the ten dollar buy-in didn’t seem worth it given the odds.
Through the second round in 2019, there was one perfect bracket left. This may have seemed unfortunate for bracket predictors, but it was record-setting. Gregg Nigl, a Columbus, Ohio neuropsychologist, had predicted the first 49 games of the tournament correctly—no one before him had ever gotten the first 40. He stated on the Today Show on March 26, while his bracket was still alive, “the secret… watching a lot of Big Ten basketball… and a lot of luck.” Lots of luck indeed—the final perfect bracket lasted one game into the next round (he incorrectly picked Tennessee to defeat Purdue).
This tournament was, however, somewhat more predictable than recent years. Although a thirteen, two twelves, an eleven, three tens, and all four nine seeds won their first round games, several of these upsets were foreseen by basketball fans and analysts; Oregon, Murray State, and UC-Irvine were all victorious over higher seeds. Some fans were disappointed after the first weekend of the tournament with top seeds dominating and few real surprise teams doing real damage to the field. The only team seeded lower than five in the Sweet Sixteen was Oregon, who had been on a tear entering the tournament. Central Florida—and Virginia Tech the next round— posed major threats to most people’s brackets; their games against Duke (36.1% of brackets nationally had Duke as the champion and 46.1% at GDS), came down to final shots that rolled off the rim. After the second round, the betting favorite in all sixteen games had won, handing Vegas Sportsbooks huge losses.
Three one seeds remained entering the Elite Eight, and two of them—Duke and Gonzaga—fell in heartbreaking fashion. The other, Virginia, came up in the clutch to take down blazing hot Carsen Edwards and Purdue. Edwards set scoring records for his school and the country on his run that came up just short of the Final Four in Minneapolis. Each of the four matchups were within six points, and all came down to clutch shots and missed free throws. Only 0.5 percent of brackets had the Auburn, Michigan State, Texas Tech, Virginia Final Four correct.
Virginia utilized their defensive prowess and an unfortunate last-second shooting foul by Auburn’s Samir Doughty to allow the Wahoos to advance to the final while Texas Tech wore down Michigan State in a grind-it-out game. Not a single GDS bracket featured championship first-timer Texas Tech in the final while seventeen picked Virginia (22.4 percent of brackets). After a relatively predictable first couple rounds, the Elite Eight and beyond propelled this tournament into the history books. The main storyline of this tournament was Virginia’s comeback from last year’s early exit. “It’s a great story,” Coach Tony Bennett stated appropriately following his team’s semifinal victory. The championship game was a classic and the Cavaliers were finally able to celebrate.
Eight GDS students opted to pick Virginia to cut down the nets in Minneapolis because of both this bounceback story but also their top seed status. Annalise Myre, Ethan Cohen, Joyce Yang and Maddi Salwen each took a slice of the GDS pool’s championship by picking in the top 1.4 percent of brackets nationwide.
Micah Hurewitz ’20