Filling Out Your Bracket: Tough First Round Picks

Brett LissendenSenior Analyst IJanuary 16, 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 hardest single games to pick correctly in the NCAA Tournament are, not surprisingly, the games pitting teams of closest numerical seed against each other.  For first round games, this means the match-ups of No. 8 and No. 9 seeds, No. 7, and No. 10 seeds, and No. 6 and No. 11 seeds. 

While these games are often the toughest to pick correctly, the bright side is that they often do not matter as much.  Because the winner of these games usually must play a No. 1, No. 2, or No. 3 seed in the second round, most of the teams that are able to advance past the first round do not make it much further.

Of course there are plenty of exceptions.  One of the most notable occurred very recently in 2006, when George Mason advanced all the way to the Final Four as a No. 11 seed, the highest number seed out of the six in consideration.

Clearly, as is the case with picking all tournament games, a wrong pick can be deadly.

No. 6 seeds vs No. 11 seeds


Since the 2000 NCAA Tournament, at least one No. 11 seed has advanced to the second round every year except one (2004).  No. 11 seeds have defeated No. 6 seeds 12 times out of 36 (percent).  The average margin in these games is for the No. 6 seed to win by 3.67 points.


No. 7 seeds vs. No. 10 seeds


Like the previous match-up, there has been at least one No. 10 seed to advance to the six round in every NCAA Tournament this decade except in 2006.  No. 10 seeds have defeated No. 7 seeds 12 out of 36 times (33 percent), again exactly the same as the previous match-up. 

Notice that six of the 12 (50 percent) No. 10 seeds that made it out of the first round also won their second round games.  In fact, two of the 12 (16.7 percent) went to the Elite Eight.  In comparison, only eight out of the 24 (percent) No. 7 seeds that won their first round game also won their second.  Four of those 24 (16.7 percent) went to the Elite Eight.

The average margin in this first round match-up is for the No. 7 seed to win by 4.56 points.  Notice that this is a larger margin of victory than in the match-up of a No. 6 seed and No. 11 seed.


Combined Match-ups:  6/11 and 7/10 games


Since the statistics from the two previous match-ups are so eerily similar, it makes sense to combine them for comparison.  The easiest way to perform comparisons is to separate teams by conferences.  For the purposes of this article, note that the power conferences are the ACC, Big East, Big 10, SEC, Big 12, and Pac 10.  The mid-major conferences are the Atlantic 10, CAA, Conference USA, Missouri Valley, WAC, MAC, Mountain West, Horizon, and West Coast.  All other conferences are considered to be small conferences.

It should be no surprise that most teams in the position of a No. 6 or No. 7 seed are from power conferences.  Here is a breakdown of how each power conference has fared in these two types of first round match-ups since 2000 (conference, record, win percentage):

ACC:                8-2 (80 percent)

Big East:           9-3 (75 percent)

Big 10:            10-4 (71 percent)

SEC:                  3-2 (60 percent)

Big 12:              5-4 (56 percent)

Pac 10:               3-3 (50 percent)

As a whole, power conference teams have won 68 percent (38/56) of their games as No. 6 and No. 7 seeds in the first round since 2000, while mid-major teams have won at a 62.5% (10/16) clip.  There have been no small conference teams that have received No. 6 or No. 7 seeds since 2000.

Teams that are seeded No. 10 or No. 11 are a much more diverse group.  The majority actually comes from the most successful mid-major conferences.  Here is an analysis of conference types in pulling upsets in these match-ups (category, record, win percent):

Power Conferences:          8-18   (31 percent)

Mid-Major Conferences:  14-27 (34 percent)

Small Conferences:           2-3     (40 percent)

The chances of an upset appear fairly even no matter what level of conference a team is from.  However, further analysis reveals a little more.  Four of the nine mid-major conferences have appeared exceptionally often as No. 10 or No. 11 seeds in this time frame. 

These are the Atlantic 10, Missouri Valley, Mountain West, and West Coast Conferences.  It is accurate to say these are considered the elite mid-major conferences.  If the mid-major conferences are broken down like this, the elite mid-major conferences win these match-ups only 18.5 percent (5/27) of the time, while non-elite mid-major conference win at an astonishing 64 percent (9/14) clip.

It is also worth noting that ignoring the Ivy League, which seems to be far over-rated in the seeding process this decade, small conference teams are 2-1 this decade as No. 10 or No. 11 seeds.

No. 8 seeds vs No. 9 seeds


Seed-wise, these are the most even match-ups of the first round of the NCAA Tournament.  Accordingly, they have also been historically the most even (and therefore most difficult to predict).

No. 9 seeds have won 17/36 (47.2 percent) of games against No. 8 seeds since 2000.  The average margin in these games is very slim; for the No. 8 seed to win by 1.11 points.

No matter who wins, neither of these seeds fair very well in the second round.  Only one out of 17 (6 percent) of No. 9 seeds that won their first game also won their second.  Only four out of 19 (21 percent) of No. 8 seeds were able to do the same.  However, three of these No. 8 seeds went to the Elite Eight and two made it all the way to the Final Four.

Since No. 8 seeds and No. 9 seeds are so even in this match-up, the conference record breakdown does not distinguish between high and low seed.  Here are the records for conferences in these games that have had at least five appearances since 2000 (conference, record, win percent):

Big 12:                 5-2 (71 percent)

Big 10:                 5-3 (62.5 percent)

Mountain West:   3-2 (60 percent)

Atlantic 10:          4-3 (57 percent)

SEC:                    6-5 (54.5 percent)

Pac 10:                 4-7 (36 percent)

Big East:              2-6 (25 percent)

Overall, power conference teams have won 48 percent (23/48) of their games in this match-up since 2000, while mid-major conference teams have won 52 percent (11/21) and small conference teams have won 67 percent (2/3).



  • No. 10 and No. 11 seeds each advance to the second round 1/3 of the time
  • Power conference teams are more likely to win as No. 6 or No. 7 seeds
  • Teams from low level mid-major conferences or small conferences are more likely to win as No. 10 or No. 11 seeds
  • No. 8 seeds and No. 9 seeds have essentially equal chances of winning in the first round
  • The Big 12 and Big 10 have been very successful in 8/9 match-ups, while the Pac 10 and Big East have been particularly bad
  • Teams from gradually lesser conferences seem to have better odds in 8/9 match-ups


Use Conference Tendencies for the Final Four

Seeds Making the Final Four

Cinderellas to the Elite Eight and Beyond

“Easy” First Round Picks

Make-Or-Break 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


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