March Madness Math

Sports tournaments are great ways to get your students excited to practice math, and few tournaments generate excitement equal to that of March Madness. Each year, schools that belong to the NCAA fight for a chance to be contenders in the ultimate basketball championship tournament. While many teams will never make it onto the bracket, it seems some teams play well enough to always be a part of the challenge. They are often the ones who produce an illusion of guaranteed wins, but if you have filled out a bracket for this year's games, you know these super teams do not always win, causing the tournament to live up to the name of March Madness. From basic addition lessons to complex activities focusing on probability, March Madness can be used to show students how math has real-world applications.


If you have been working in your classroom with problems regarding probability, then your students understand basic ways to calculate the likelihood of an event occurring when there is a known number of possible outcomes. Surely, your students have calculated the probability of a flipped coin landing heads-up. There is a one in two chance that that will happen since only two possible outcomes exist. Dice rolls have a finite number of outcomes too. Cast a die, predict the side that will land face up, and there is a one in six chance that you will have predicted the outcome correctly. Fill out a March Madness bracket, and you will see that there is little to no chance that you will have created a perfect bracket! Your students will want to know why this is the case in a situation that will end with a team either winning or losing. For each game, it appears that there is a 50% likelihood of a team winning a game. At first glance, this appears to be valid, but upon further examination, students can see how the likelihood of an outcome occurring can be affected by several factors. First of all, unlike dice and coins, basketball teams' abilities are unequal. Especially in Round One of the tournament, winners appear to be obvious. The NCAA has assigned a rank to each. It seems evident that the number one seeds in each of the four divisions will easily beat those teams ranking at the bottom. While their season records speak for them, it is easy to forget factors that can impact the probability of them advancing to the next round.

What are the Factors?

Ask your students to brainstorm what factors can contribute to the mathematical calculations failing to play out in the real games. For example, one twisted ankle can change everything. If a key player is unable to compete because of an injury, the whole team's ability to play well may suffer. Humans' physical abilities get in the way of predicting a perfect bracket. Injuries are not the only contributing factors of this. Fatigue can be a problem, too. Besides the time of day a game is scheduled for play, travel time can affect each individual's ability, too. These are just a few factors your students will name that can upset the outcome of a game in the tournament. You may want to have your students research numerical information to determine a few other factors that may influence the outcomes of March Madness. With so many teams playing in Round One of the tournament, you can assign each student one team to research. Besides finding their team's current season record, they can research historical data on the team. One important piece of data to locate is the number of wins a team has had during past NCAA tournaments. Students can work to find out which of the teams in the current tournament has had the most championships since the March Madness inception. Once your class has gathered data like this, use it to practice converting fractions to percentages to decimals. Conversion activities can include hands-on experiences, too. Bring your class to the school's basketball court to generate data. What percentage of free throws can each student make? Can students determine the probability of the entire class making a free throw shot? Use this data to practice conversions.

More Basic Skills

Students working through lower-level curricula can still practice basic addition skills during March Madness. As a class, take a look at the final scores of the basketball teams that were earned in Round One of the March Madness tournament. Have students figure the average of points earned in this round. Then, have them compare that calculation to the average number of points scored in subsequent rounds of the tournament. Averages can even be figured for the scores earned by all of the losing teams and by all of the winning teams as well.

Another activity to use in the class is to determine what kinds of goals were made during a game for the final score to be what it is. For practice, present students with a final score from any one of the March Madness games. Have each student predict multiple ways in which the team scored. How many regular goals were made? How many three-point shots were successful? How many free throws swooshed through the net? Students should write a number sentence to illustrate their calculations. Once the predictions have been made, review what really happened on the court. Check the teams' stats to see what went down in history. Extend this activity by having your students use the information on the game to write story problems about the game that include players' names and college affiliation. Practice the math involved by having students trade their problems and figure them. A third student can check the math for accuracy.