92 Quintillion to 1
A couple of weeks ago, I outlined a few of the rudimentary tenets of Existentialism, the central and most controversial of which is that life is Absurd; it is devoid of meaning. There is no luck, only circumstance and action. We can ascribe relevancy and value to certain things until we're blue in the face, but they aren't inherently significant. So every event, action, entity, and concept is entirely capricious.
This may seem like a bummer, but if you take a moment to read the piece (or better yet, read more about the views of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus), I hope that you'll come away with the feeling that this philosophical pathos is actually a pretty optimistic approach to life - it's not necessarily atheistic, and it certainly isn't nihilistic. Rather, to the practitioner, Existentialism is a pragmatic way of life, but, I must admit, occasionally there are certain events it just can't explain.
Case in point: If everything in life is so meaningless, why do I invest so much time, energy, and interest in the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament? Why does it mean something to me?
The Field of 68
While there probably isn't anything in the world more absolutely inconsequential than watching strangers throw a spherical leather object in the general direction of an iron hole for forty minutes, my life feels totally complete as I stare at the TV for hours on end during March Madness. I "waste" three entire weekends bathing sporadically, eating copious slices of pizza, and compulsively checking and rechecking my bracket (which I'm usually cursing immediately after the first day of games has been completed) - all while taking my eyes off the television only for the purpose of human waste removal, at the completion of which, I vigorously sprint back to the couch. The opening weekend of March Madness is all about neglecting even the simplest notion of responsibility. If that's not living, I'm sorry, but I don't know what is!
The NCAA Tournament is the single greatest athletic competition in the world. It pits the best amateur players and teams from the across the United States against one another for three weeks in order to determine, without question, collegiate basketball supremacy. Everything that has happened in these young men's athletic careers prior to this moment can be thrown out the window. Past recruiting is an afterthought, statistical accomplishments are now merely a distant memory, there's no sympathy for an injury-depleted roster, and regular season records no longer have any bearing whatsoever. It's win or go home, and 67 teams will do just that.
This is the true beauty of the tournament. Starting now, every school controls their own destiny. Theoretically, Iona has the same statistical possibility of winning "The Big Dance" as Duke; Florida Gulf Coast has the same right to be there as Kansas; and Michigan should destroy South Dakota State, but they'll all actually have to play the games in order to create their essence, to find out who truly deserves to keep dancin'.
As the tourney kicks off, each team gets a fresh start and a clean state, but one loss puts them in the "also-ran" category. All that remains is the talent and will of every player on every roster on full display, and the winner has to actually earn the trophy. It won't be handed to them by a computer program designed to analyze massive collections of arbitrary information that have nothing to do with a showdown of the best teams in the land (here's looking at you BCS).
Now, the reality is that Iona will not win it all. In fact, they will likely be stomped out immediately by heavily favored Ohio State. Of the last 20 winners of the tourney, every single winner was at least a 3 seed or better, with 16 of those being 1 seeds. The lowest seeded team to ever win the National Championship was 8-seeded Villanova in 1985, who defeated heavily favored Georgetown in one of the great upsets in sport's history. A 5 seed has never won the title, and a 16 seed has never won a single game. But that doesn't mean that it won't happen. To be a fan of the NCAA tournament is to be a fan of the wildly unpredictable.
So, it seems that, based on the history of the tourney, we have a fairly good idea of who will probably win it all - a 1 seed. Therefore, conventional wisdom would suggest that certain teams should just be glad that they've been invited. Upsets happen every year, but they're usually reserved for the earlier rounds. Rarely does a lower seeded team take the basketball world by storm and demand to be recognized, although this does happen from time to time. For instance, in 2006, George Mason, an 11 seed who many pundits didn't think deserved to even be invited to the tournament, reeled off a series of upsets to advance all the way to the Final Four, where they eventually lost to the Florida Gators.
However, when filling out your bracket, it's important to remember that this was the exception, not the rule. There's a reason traditional powerhouses are rewarded with top seeds while teams from smaller conferences are served up on a platter for the major schools, and this becomes more and more apparent as the field narrows en route to the Final Four. The larger schools with the deeper pockets and larger recruiting bases are built for athletic, not academic, success.
However, the assumption is that every team has an equal opportunity, and, on paper, this is ostensibly true. This is the chance for little brother to play with the big boys, and there's no shame in getting blown out by the likes of say, Syracuse. However, given the elite nature of the field of 68, every single game matters, and every single team feels that they have a legitimate shot at the championship, even if everyone else knows better. Sure, it's upsetting for a 19-year old young man to lose in the "Sweet 16," but, despite the recent rise in parity throughout the sport, should he really be that upset? Did he not see this coming? He's only a sophomore, there's still time to transfer!
Easy for me to judge the weeping of brokenhearted boys from the confines of my living room couch as I gluttonously suck on my Cheeto fingers. Cheers!
Playing the Odds
Every spring, when I hand in my bracket, I'm fairly certain that I've picked every one of the 63 games correctly. I'm confident in my upsets, and I can't imagine why anyone would ever place overrated Kansas in the Elite 8. Then, four days later, I'm laying in bed after the weekend's games, with Kansas still very much alive, wondering how it could have ever gone so wrong for me. Why didn't my sleepers pull through? How could my locks have loosened down the stretch. Well, here's the reason.
According to Jay Bergen, a Professor of Mathematics at Depaul University, picking a perfect bracket involves allowing for the possibility that either team could win a single contest over the course of all 63 games. This number is represented by the exponential equation, 263, which comes out to roughly 92 quintillion. That's the number 92 followed by 18 zeroes, and it also represents your odds of picking a perfect bracket if you have no prior knowledge of the teams involved: 1 in 92,000,000,000,000,000,000.
So when you're sitting on your own couches this weekend, wearing nothing but your undies and caked in dead skin cells as you cry into your cheap beers and leftover nachos, don't get too down on yourself. At least you've got another shot next year, but remember that those odds aren't gonna change anytime soon, and those poor kids are a lot more upset than we are.
Who cares anyway, it's not as if we didn't already know that life was meaningless.
Chant, Ian. "The Odds of Filling Out a Perfect NCAA Bracket Are Amazingly Bad." Weird. Geekosystem.