Math Mondays: A Little March Madness

Yesterday, the brackets came out for the March Madness basketball tournament. The top 64 teams in the NCAA play in a multi-week elimination tournament. And in addition to being fun to watch, if you like basketball, the tournament just screams real world application of probability.

Every year my students and I incorporate the tournament into our busy class with opportunities for very basic probability calculations to much much more. 


Here's just a taste of what we do:


  1. Select teams and calculate probabilities:  Give students a printout of the brackets (readily available to download from NCAA). First we calculate the probability of team x winning the tournament.  But of course it's not as easy as that the teams are ranked. I ask students to fill out the brackets completely picking winners for each round of the tournament. To help inform students I found this handy chart that looks at outcomes for ranked teams historically. Students recalculate the probability of the team they selected winning. (It's the same). But, then how do we account for rankings?
  2. Weighted probabilities: Students work cooperatively to develop weighted systems and re calculate probabilities of different scenarios. It's great fun for students to compare ranking systems.
  3. Tournament begins: As the tournament plays on, we tweak our brackets and re-assess probabilities as teams successfully advance through rounds.


Truly, this probability in action is engaging. Depending on other class activities students embark on other related projects such as graphing win loss records of different ranked teams, researching other information related to the colleges in the tournament, or calculating the total cost(including compound interest of loans) of attending colleges for those without full athletic scholarships.  For all the student handouts and full directions, you can pick up a copy here or just create your own March Madness!

Are you feeling the madness?  How do you incorporate real world events into your math class?


Math Mondays is a weekly post sharing tips, ideas, resources, and products for teaching math.  If you have questions or think there is something I should share, you can leave me a message on Facebook or at the store in the question and answer section.

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