How one fan picked the greatest March Madness bracket ever built


On the morning of March 19, 2019, Gregg Nigl and his wife Casandra would load up their two kids in the car and leave home in Columbus, Ohio, for the first part of the 12-hour drive toward the snowboarding slopes of Vermont. March Madness would be the soundtrack for the entire trip.

Nigl (pronounced NYE-gull) planned half of the drive for Saturday, leaving home right as the second round of the 2019 NCAA men’s basketball tournament began. His car’s SiriusXM radio was locked and loaded with a cluster of hoops stations. He’d listen to the first batch of games that day and find a sports bar in Pennsylvania where they could stop and have a late dinner that would perfectly coincide with tip-off for his beloved Michigan Wolverines in their second-round matchup.

After the game, they’d drive a little more that evening, crash at a hotel, then finish the trip the following day as he listened to the final portion of the Round of 32 games. Hopefully, he’d be lying down at the ski lodge as he watched his least-favorite team, the 11-seed Ohio State, lose that Sunday night. Then, they would have five awesome days on the slopes of Killington, Vermont. What a plan.

But, as the old saying goes, we make plans and God laughs. In this case, unbeknownst to Nigl, his entire vacation was about to implode because of all those college basketball games that would help him get his family to Vermont.

Nigl is one of those modest quiet people who is brilliant but would never say that. He’s 45 and has worked as a neuropsychologist for the VA in Columbus since 2009, helping vets manage dementia, memory loss and other cognitive issues. He is meticulous, and when he says something, it automatically feels considered and wise. In the annals of mapping out family vacations, the scale would range from Clark Griswold at the low end to Gregg Nigl as the best-case scenario.

On the drive, he figured he would keep loose tabs on how his brackets were making out. Nigl always filled out a few men’s brackets, deploying the same basic philosophy that so many people use — a little strategy, a little eye test, a little wishful thinking.

For his 2019 brackets, he went heavy on his favorite team (Michigan) and his favorite conference (the Big Ten, except for Ohio State). He had always liked Gonzaga and hoped the school would win a title sometime, so he rode the No. 1-seeded Zags to go all the way. He even sprinkled in the time-honored tradition of picking a random school he had a loose tie to; in this case, he knew someone who lived near the UC-Irvine campus, so he went with the 13-seed Anteaters to upset Big 12 champ Kansas State in the first round.

But on the Thursday the tournament began, two days before they were supposed to leave for Vermont, Nigl was a mess. He called off work because he was so sick, and he hoped to watch every game as he lay on the couch and tried to recuperate for the long trip. This was not a part of his plan.

He was so sick, though, that he never even turned on the TV that Thursday. He eventually saw that Gonzaga won by almost 40, that the Big Ten went 7-1 and that UC Irvine did indeed spring a big upset. He had a feeling that he was doing pretty well but didn’t check his brackets. On Friday, he felt a little better and managed to watch a few games, including Michigan’s win over Florida.

But as he got in the car on Saturday morning, still a little under the weather, he had no idea the reality of his situation: He was well on his way to having built the best NCAA men’s bracket ever assembled — one that he didn’t even remember filling out.

NO ONE HAS EVER picked a verified perfect NCAA men’s bracket, and it’s probably not going to happen in our lifetime, or the lifetime of our kids, or their kids, or their kids.

The possibility of getting every game right is often reported as 1 in 9.2 quintillion. But that figure is slightly hyperbolic. It’s computed by assuming all 63 games are coin flips, when, in reality, quite a few NCAA games have much higher percentages in favor of one team. The actual odds of a knowledgeable person picking a perfect men’s bracket are closer to 1 in 120 billion.

And guess what? It’s not getting any easier. Despite advances in analytics, accessibility of watching games and more experts than ever, the variance of men’s college hoops has never been higher. The rise of the 3-point shot has played a huge part, for sure, but so has the transfer portal and NIL. A No. 1 seed hadn’t ever lost in the first round of the tournament, then it happened in 2018 and 2023. A 15-seed has won in the first round three straight years, a first in NCAA tournament history. And last year’s men’s tournament featured a Final Four of no 1, 2 or 3 seeds, which hadn’t happened before.

San Francisco State professor Paul Beckman did a study of every men’s and women’s bracket since 2000, primarily relying upon seeding of teams that made it to the Sweet 16. He found the women’s tournament to be slightly more predictable (the odds of picking a perfect women’s bracket are still something like 1 in 100 billion) and that the men’s tournament has been wildly variable, even from year to year. For example, from 2018-20, the men’s tournament Sweet 16 team total seeds went from 85 to 49 to 94. Even the predictability of the tournament is unpredictable, let alone picking individual games.

Yet we can’t stop trying. About 40 million Americans fill out an estimated 70 million brackets every year, with around $2 billion in prizes, according to the American Gaming Association. The 64-team format was introduced in 1985, and within five years, the NCAA tournament had become synonymous with office pools. Many featured entry fees and prizes, which technically made them illegal but catnip for millions of employees over the years.

For ESPN analyst and former Duke star Jay Bilas, it’s been a wild ride. He played in the first 64-team tournament and doesn’t remember a single person mentioning filling out a bracket. Now picking a bracket is an essential part of his job, and it might be his least favorite part of being an analyst. He spends five minutes applying everything he knows when making his picks, then he never looks at it again. He neither feels high nor low when he does well or badly because he knows the truth: There’s no realistic chance, regardless of data, a high-level hoops background, or a crystal ball, that someone can run the table deciphering how college men and women are going to do over a month-long one-and-done basketball tournament. “The tournament is not a predictable thing,” says Bilas. “No one can do it, and that’s why it is great.”

That doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of strategy to consider. Illinois professor Sheldon Jacobson has spent 20 years studying the NCAA tournament, and he has come to several interesting conclusions. On his website, Bracket Odds, he suggests working inside-out when you fill out a bracket, sorting out the Final Four or Elite 8 and going backward because most pools will be won by the people who rack up the biggest points from the end of the tournament rather than the beginning. “You can do terrible the first two days of the tournament and still win if you hit the last few games,” he says.

Jacobson has found that the single best factor is also the most obvious: seeding. As wild as early-round games are, and as fun as it can be to see a George Mason or Saint Peter’s come out of nowhere to make a run, the best strategy over time is to fight the urge to nail the 15-seed who’ll win one game and simply load up on the highest-seeded teams.

In women’s hoops, only top-three seeds have ever won the tournament, with 22 of 28 champs being No. 1 seeds. On the men’s side, a No. 1 or No. 2 seed has won 76% of tournaments since 1986 — the best bracket Bilas ever picked was 2008, when he went with all four No. 1 seeds to make the Final Four, and it happened for the first time. “I never cashed them, but I had multiple people send me checks from their pool winnings after that tournament,” Bilas says.

And yet, Jacobson thinks the Selection Committee does an overall bad job with seeds. He says the data shows that the top and bottom seeds — 1s and 2s, 15s and 16s — are usually spot on and that the next tier (3-4, 13-14) are very close every year. But he thinks the committee routinely whiffs on 5-8, usually underseeding non-power conferences. His favorite value pick is the 11 seeds, who have gone 19-17 overall since 2014. The 11s that advance are then 26-32 in the second round against either the 3 or 14, creating a surprisingly frequent road into being an 11 seed in the Sweet 16. “I’d rather be an 11 than an 8,” he says. “I think the path is better.”

But Bilas, Jacobson and Nigl all agree about what the single biggest factor of any great bracket is: pure luck. Nigl picked mostly teams he’d never seen play a minute of basketball. Of the four 12- and 13-seeds to win in the opening round, Nigl got all four of them right, a virtually impossible feat. “Pretty much all luck,” Nigl shrugs.

On a recent Zoom call, he still shakes his head about his remarkable 2019 bracket. By the time he got to Vermont on that Sunday, he began to realize he must be doing quite well. The Ohio State-Houston game was on, and he smiled when he saw the dreaded Buckeyes were down 39-31 at halftime. He lives in Columbus, likes Columbus, and has quite a few Buckeye friends… but like any maize-and-blue-blooded American, he loves when Ohio State loses. He went to bed that night warm and fuzzy thinking of the No. 3 seed Cougars advancing, which he knew he’d picked.

Nigl has a soothing, steady voice, and he rarely uses more words than he needs to. It’s easy to imagine a veteran needing help and finding it in Nigl. But in the middle of the Zoom, Nigl lowers his voice a bit and says, “I haven’t told very many people this,” and he proceeds to tell a story about a ghost bracket, a mysterious phone call from the NCAA and how his life has never been the same.

NIGL WOKE UP at the Vermont ski lodge to a message from a work colleague, who said that the NCAA was trying to get ahold of him.

“The NCAA?” Nigl asked. He was baffled, but he returned the call.

In disbelief, he was told that he had picked the first 48 games of the men’s tournament correctly, something that the NCAA believes had never happened before. His bracket was in a group called “center road,” and it was the only bracket in the entire group.

At first, none of it made sense to Nigl. When did he fill out an bracket? Why was the pool named Center Road? Why was he the only one in the group? Nigl shrugs his shoulders: “To this day, I don’t know how I ended up in that pool, or making the picks. I must have filled it out and went to bed, and I didn’t think about it again until that Monday call.”

But throughout speaking with writer Daniel Wilco from that day in 2019, some murky memories came flooding back for Nigl. He vaguely remembered getting an alert an hour before the tournament tipped off on Thursday. He was barely functional that morning, so he thinks in the fog of being sick he must have responded, started a group, filled out a bracket and laid back down.

Now, he was being told that one of the coolest moments of his life happened without him even knowing it. At the end of the call, Nigl began to realize the stakes of his unbelievable bracket. planned to publish a story on its website later that day, and Nigl was told that Buick, a March Madness sponsor, wanted to fly him out to Anaheim that week to watch Michigan play in the Sweet 16.

He had the interview on speakerphone, so his wife listened in on the entire wild story and was as flummoxed as he was. “I might be famous after this,” he joked to her afterward.

To some extent, he was right. When the story was posted, Nigl’s phone lit up with media inquiries. He spent the next two days doing a slew of interviews, including two that required him to drive down to Burlington on Tuesday morning with his family. Nigl appeared on CNN and “Good Morning America” from a tiny studio right around the corner from Bernie Sanders’ office.

By the time the day was over, the whole Nigl crew found their heads spinning. Deep down, Nigl felt a little silly telling the whole story. He was being treated like an NCAA tournament guru, booking a trip to Anaheim for him and his 9-year-old son, Kaiden, because of his masterful prognostications … and he wasn’t quite ready to tell the world that it had been a mixture of cold medication and sleep-picking that got him there. “I still wasn’t sure how to process the entire thing, to be honest,” he says.

They drove back to Killington that day knowing their vacation was over, and that a new trip was taking its place. Nigl and his son bought some non-ski slope clothes to wear in California. They managed to squeeze in some snowboarding on Wednesday, but they needed to leave early Thursday morning to get to the airport.

Halfway to the airport, Nigl realized he had forgotten his wallet. They turned around and rushed back to the lodge, but Nigl eventually found it in the car and they turned around for Burlington again. He realized they probably weren’t going to make it in time for the flight, so he called the airport to see if there was any way the plane could be held, even just for a few minutes.

“You’ll be fine,” he was told. “It’s a small airport.”

Nigl and Kaiden ran into the airport 10 minutes before his flight was supposed to take off. The Burlington airport was indeed small, and they cleared security in four minutes. As improbable as his bracket was, making that flight felt like 1-in-120 billion odds, too.

They flew to Newark, New Jersey, and had some time to kill in the airport. Kaiden took a barrage of photos — he has more than 100 from that trip — with the New York City skyline in the background. They both got a good laugh when they saw Nigl’s face on CNN as they hiked through the airport. Maybe he was famous, after all.

In Anaheim, they had a blast. Buick hooked them up with $500 spending money, a rental car, a place to stay and tickets to the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 games. Everywhere Nigl went, his bracket came up in conversation. At the time, he was 48-for-48 and still going.

As they sat down at their seats for the Michigan-Texas Tech game on Thursday night, he found out he’d hit his 49th straight game, Virginia over Oregon. He was now almost 80% of the way toward doing the unthinkable, a perfect bracket.

Right before his Wolverines took the floor, he saw on his phone that his run was in trouble. He’d picked No. 2 seed Tennessee to beat No. 3 Purdue, and the Vols were down by 18 with 16:19 left.

Then Tennessee got hot, storming back to take a 70-67 lead late in the second half. Game No. 50 had swung back his way, and even when Purdue managed to force overtime, Nigl’s bracket seemed like it might inch one more game closer.

But the Boilermakers slowly pulled away in overtime as Nigl and his son followed along from their seats. Final score: Purdue 99, Tennessee 94 in OT.

The run was over at 49 straight picks. According to Jacobson, the chances of getting the first 49 games correct were somewhere around the same as winning the Powerball twice.

From there, things got ugly for the Center Road bracket. Nigl missed on three of his eight Sweet 16 games, and only one of his Final Four picks ended up making it to Minneapolis. Both of his title-game guesses, Gonzaga and Kentucky, didn’t even make it to the Final Four. Worst of all, he had to be in attendance to watch his Wolverines lose, which he had picked to happen but it stung nonetheless. He finished with 53 total games correct in the pool.

Over the weekend, Nigl and his son took a boat tour near Anaheim and hit the city aquarium. On Saturday night, they went to the Texas Tech-Gonzaga game, where the Red Raiders took out Nigl’s championship pick.

When the trip ended, they headed back to Ohio. Nigl’s wife picked them up at the airport — she’d driven herself and their daughter back from Vermont a few days earlier. On the car ride, they told her about how awesome the trip was. Kaiden cycled through some photos, but he had so many they still haven’t looked at them all. Nigl has a few photos, too, and in them, he sees a 5-foot-11 dad with his young son… who now stands 6-foot-4 and towers above him.

In a recent conversation, Nigl and his son talked about the trip, and Kaiden immediately said his favorite memory wasn’t the hoops, the sea urchins or his dad’s 15 minutes of fame. “Eating Del Taco for the first time,” he told Nigl, who laughed as he remembered going to Del Taco all four days in Anaheim.

Toward the end of the conversation, after talking about swimming in the chilly hotel pool as much as possible, Kaiden pauses and reconsiders everything he’d said earlier. “Mostly I was just happy to be in a cool place with my dad,” he says.

And when those words come out of his mouth, Nigl can’t help but think back to five years earlier and feel like maybe picking the best bracket ever might have been the second-luckiest thing that happened to him that March.

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