Picking the teams that frequently appear in (and win) the big dance—powerhouses like UCLA, Kentucky, Duke, and North Carolina—over the more tempting small-school underdogs is the best way to boost your bracket, according to a physics theory developed by a Duke University professor. Yep, that’s right: You can use science to predict March Madness.
The idea comes from Adrian Bejan, Ph.D., a mechanical engineering professor at Duke—which coincidentally happens to be one of those perennial basketball heavyweights.
His theory, called “constructal law,” explains why hierarchies exist in nature and why they’re unlikely to change.
Here’s the basic idea: There are only a handful of top universities that recruit and sign the top basketball players in the nation, and in turn, those players only want to play for the top schools. Why? Because those schools continually win and ship off the blue-chip players to the NBA, where they find even more success. As the cycle repeats every year, that’s why you keep seeing the same schools at the top of the NCAA Tournament—and it’s exactly why you should bet on teams like the Blue Devils and the Tar Heels to make it far this year.
As for the smaller schools like George Mason or Villanova, both of which have pulled off historical upsets in the past: “Upsets do happen, but these are just exceptions to the pattern in place,” Bejan says.
In sum, constructal law says that all designs are flow systems that evolve in time to flow more efficiently. And once a successful flow system is in place, it can be very difficult—if not impossible—to significantly change its structure.
The theory also applies to best-college lists, which are frequently topped by the same prestigious institutions. “All the best students and professors want to be at the universities with the best reputations,” Bejan says. “But not everyone can be hired by MIT. And that’s the reason why America is very strong academically—because fortunately for everyone else, the best schools cannot readily hire all the top professors.”
Have you ever been turned away from a job even though you aced the interview, met all the requirements, and had a glowing resume? That could be the constructal law at work. “The name of your family matters. The name of your school matters. That’s a reason why mediocre students who get into Harvard have better luck at finding a job than brilliant students who only make it to the University of Michigan,” says Bejan. (Note to Michigan alums: Hey, we’re just reporting the story.)
But even if you’ve got a regular-old alma mater to your name, that doesn’t mean you’re doomed to middle management. After all, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg were both college dropouts, and they did pretty well for themselves. The trick, says Bejan, is to be aware of the constructal law in the first place. If you’re hoping to get into a better school, date a better-looking woman, or land a better job, then you need to try harder to get your name out there, he says. After all, people with better reputations have the same goals as you—so you need to walk a few more miles to catch up.