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Billion with a 'B'

Posted by David Sabino  February 7, 2014 03:39 PM

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grant.jpgWill Jerami Grant and the top-ranked Syracuse Orange win someone a billion dollars on April 7?

What would you do with a billion dollars? Unlikely as it may seem, in March you'll have the opportunity to enter a bracket that will potentially win you roughly the GDP of the Solomon Islands as part of the Quicken Loans Billion Dollar Bracket Challenge, backed by Berkshire Hathaway patriarch Warren Buffett. All you have to do is correctly predict the outcome of every game in the upcoming NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, something that has never been achieved. Given the 9.2-quintillion-to-one odds, the chances of seeing a winner are beyond infinitesimal, but since this is a stats blog, I wanted to see if there was any way to use the numbers to get an advantage when chasing the billion dollar brass ring.

To help with this I tracked down one of the sharper statistical minds on the North Shore, Salem’s Bowen Kerins, a world-class mathlete who writes textbooks for a living, and has been enlisted by various game show producers to match question difficulty with odds of winning different value prizes. He’s also a world champion pinball player
Here’s his advice on how to win your billion:

Stats Driven: What was your initial reaction to hearing about the billion-dollar challenge issued by Warren Buffett? Are you going to give it a try?

Bowen Kerins: My first reaction was that they must be very, very certain that no one will win. My second reaction was to wonder if it was possible to sign up with every possible bracket. It isn't.

SD: What makes it so difficult to pick a perfect bracket? What's the best you've ever done?

BK: To get a perfect bracket, you must predict every single upset, and know just how far each Cinderella team lasts. Who could predict VCU-Butler as a Final Four matchup in 2011, or the deep runs of Florida Gulf Coast and Wichita State in 2013? To be perfect you have to guess the outcome of 63 basketball games before any of them are played.

I retired from bracket building after successfully predicting #3 Stanford vs #8 URI in the 1998 Midwest final. It was never going to get better than that ... and even then I might have hit 47 or 48 out of 63 games.

In 2013, there were over eight million entries in ESPN's Tournament Challenge, and the winner of that contest got 51 out of 63. Several companies in 2013 offered prizes for brackets with only one or even four errors, and none of those prizes were even close to being paid.

SD: Is there such a thing as a sound approach this challenge? Or are the random "throwing darts-at-your-bracket" and "picking-the-teams-with-the-better-uniforms" methods just as likely to be successful?

BK: It is possible to do better than chance alone, but surprisingly not much better. The big problem is that some game, and there's no way to tell which, is a major upset. In 2013 there was Florida Gulf Coast beating Georgetown in a 15-vs-2 matchup: only 1 out of every 50 brackets picked FGCU.

Nate Silver of 538 did a pre-tournament analysis, and one big conclusion is that traditional underdogs are much more likely to win their games than they're usually given credit for. He gave Florida Gulf Coast a one-in-10 chance of beating Georgetown. Is that enough to pick them? Not really, but it says more than one out of every 50 brackets should have picked them.

In the end, it's nearly impossible to even escape the first round perfectly. No ESPN player did, and based on the overall bracket picks, the chance of surviving the Round of 64 is 1 in 2.8 billion. That's only slightly better than flipping coins: the probability of calling 32 straight coin flips correctly is 1 in 4.3 billion.

So my short advice for the billion-dollar bracket battle: mark all the 1s over the 16s, then flip a coin for every other game. Doing this, you'll be more likely than the average ESPN bracket builder to hit the entire tournament completely perfectly, because you'll be immune to almost any bracket-busting upsets.

And don't just make a bracket with no upsets: even though this is more likely to happen than you would think, a mob of people are all going to mark their brackets this way. Imagine getting the perfect bracket and still losing the contest.

Unfortunately, none of this advice is truly helpful: the perfect bracket is not going to happen. You are about 100 times more likely to hit the jackpot playing Powerball twice in a row than you are to hit a perfect bracket. Everyone in the world could learn how to pick a bracket skillfully, then submit 100 million brackets each, and there would still be less than a 50% chance that one of those 700 quadrillion brackets would hit perfectly.

SD: What's your Final Four right now?

BK: It's hard not to see Syracuse and Arizona going all the way, they've looked very solid. Wichita State is undefeated, their strength of schedule is almost the same as Syracuse's, and their team has deep tournament experience... so they'll lose to whoever is #2 in that region, maybe Michigan State. My fourth pick is Wisconsin: they are stronger than their record indicates and started the season on a huge roll.

All I know for sure is, that will not be the actual Final Four.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Stats Driven is powered by David Sabino, who over the last two decades has been a source of statistical analysis on the pages of Sports Illustrated, New York Times, and Chicago Tribune. David has written about all seven recent Boston-area championships for Sports Illustrated Presents commemorative issues, was the creator of such long time features as SI’s Player Value Ranking, NBA Player Rating and long running fantasy football and baseball columns.

He has also authored or made contributions to many books, including the Sports Illustrated’s 100 Fenway: A Fascinating First Century.

Now living in Marblehead, he’s focusing his attention on the Boston sports scene, specifically delving into the numbers affecting the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins, with the goal of informing and entertaining real fans. You can follow him on Twitter at @SabinoSports.

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