Filling Out Your Bracket: Make or Break First Round Picks

Brett LissendenSenior Analyst IJanuary 9, 2009


This article is part of a series of articles that uses historical trends in the Men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament to provide advice for predicting future results.  Recent trends will be the most heavily considered, namely from 2000 to the present.  Other articles can be viewed from the links in the archives section at the bottom of the page.




The most tricky and often most crucial games to pick in the first round of the NCAA Tournament are No. 4 seed vs. No. 13 seed and the No. 5 seed vs. No. 12 seed matchups.  No. 4 and No. 5 seeds have shown the ability to reach the Final Four, while No. 12 and No. 13 seeds have also been able to make the Sweet 16.


In the past nine NCAA tournaments, five teams have made the Sweet 16 as a No. 12 or No. 13 seed, and one has even reached the Elite Eight.  In the same time period, three teams have reached the Final Four as a No. 4 or No. 5 seed, and two of those teams reached the Championship Game. 


One of the best examples of how crucial these matchups can be came in 2000.  No. 5-seeded Florida was lucky to survive No. 12-seeded Butler in the first round by a score of 69-68, and then the Gators proceeded to advance all the way to the Championship Game.


In the 72 games played in these first round pairings since 2000, the higher-seeded team has won 21 times (29 percent of the time).  Since there are eight of these games in each NCAA Tournament’s first round, on average there are over two upsets per year in these games.


Further, many of these games are very close regardless of who wins.  The average margin in both of these first round matchups is 6.94 points in favor of the lower-seeded team.


It is also true that No. 12 seeds do have significantly better success against No. 5 seeds than No. 13 seeds do against No. 4 seeds.  No. 12 seeds have won 13 of 36 (36 percent) games against No. 5 seeds, while No. 13 seeds have won eight of 36 (22 percent) of games against No. 4 seeds.


The average margin in the 5/12 matchup is 5.22 points in favor of the No. 5 seed, and the average margin in the 4/13 matchup is 8.67 points in favor of the No. 4 seed.


There are several factors that can help in trying to pick the right underdogs in these games.


One of the most important is experience.  Ten of the 21 high-seeded teams to win were in at least their second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, and many had even more tournament experience than that.  Also, many of the low-seeded teams to get upset in the first round had relatively little tournament experience.


Another thing to look for is conference tendencies.  Most No. 4 seeds and No. 5 seeds are power conference teams, but not always.  There have been five teams from non-power conference seeded No. 4 or No. 5 in this decade, and they are a mere 2-3 in these first round matchups.  All of these games have been against other non-power conference opponents.


Conversely, No. 12 and No. 13 seeds are usually non-power conference teams, but not always.  Five power conference teams have been seeded No. 12 or No. 13 in this decade, and they an impressive 3-2 in these first round games, all coming against power conference opponents.


Further, some power conference teams have held up better than others in playing as the favored team in these games.  The Big Ten and Pac-10 have been very successful as No. 4 or No. 5 seeds, while the SEC has been upset more than their fair share. 


Here are the records for each of the power conferences as No. 4 and No. 5 seeds in the first round since 2000 (conference, record, winning percentage):


Big Ten:  10-2        (83 percent)

Pac-10:  5-1           (83 percent)

Big East:  14-5       (74 percent)

ACC:  8-3              (73 percent)

Big 12:  4-2           (67 percent)

SEC:  8-5              (62 percent)


Similarly, some non-power conferences have had much more success in pulling off upsets in these first round games than others.  The Mountain West conference has had surprisingly very little success, while the Missouri Valley, West Coast, and Metro Atlantic Athletic Conferences have had good records as No. 12 and No. 13 seeds in the first round.


Here are the records for each non-power conference in first round games as No. 12 and No. 13 seeds since 2000 (conference, record, winning percentage):


Missouri Valley:  3-1      (75 percent)

WCC:  2-1                     (67 percent)

MAAC:  2-1                   (67 percent)

America East:  1-1        (50 percent)

Big Sky:  1-1                (50 percent)

WAC:  2-3                     (40 percent)

Horizon:  2-4                (33 percent)

MAC:  1-2                     (33 percent)

Sun Belt:  1-3                (25 percent)

Big West:  1-3               (25 percent)

CAA:  1-5                     (17 percent)

Mountain West:  1-9      (10 percent)

Big South:  0-1             (0 percent)

Patriot:  0-1                   (0 percent)

Summit: 0-1                  (0 percent)

Ivy:  0-2                        (0 percent)

Southern:  0-3               (0 percent)

Atlantic Ten:  0-3           (0 percent)

Ohio Valley:  0-4            (0 percent)


Teams from conferences typically considered Mid-Major Conference fare slightly better than teams from conferences typically considered small conferences.


Mid-Major Conferences (Atlantic Ten, CAA, Horizon, MAC, Mountain West, Missouri Valley, WAC, WCC) are 12-28 (30 percent) as No. 12 and No. 13 seeds in the first round.  Small Conferences (America East, Big Sky, Big South, Big West, Ivy, MAAC, Ohio Valley, Patriot, Southern, Summit, Sun Belt) are 6-21 (22 percent) as No. 12 and No. 13 seeds in the first round.






  • Aim for two No. 12 and No. 13 seeds to advance to the second round, but be cautious of picking against No. 4 and No. 5 seeds that could go deep in the tournament.
  • Favored teams from non-power conferences are more likely to be upset, and Underdog teams from power conferences are more likely to post an upset victory.
  • Underdog teams with NCAA Tournament experience are especially dangerous, while favored teams without much tournament experience are especially vulnerable.
  • Low seeded teams from the Big Ten and Pac-10 are rarely upset in these matchups, while low seeded teams from the SEC may be the most vulnerable of the power conference teams.
  • High seeded teams from the Mountain West, Atlantic Ten, and Ohio Valley Conferences have been highly unsuccessful in these games, while teams from the Missouri Valley, MAAC, and West Coast Conferences have been highly successful.




Use Conference Tendencies for the Final Four

Seeds Making the Final Four

Cinderellas to the Elite Eight and Beyond

“Easy” First Round Picks

Tough First Round Picks

No. 1 and No. 2 Seeds in the Second Round

Other Second Round Games

The Sweet Sixteen

The Elite Eight

The Final Four