NCAA Tournament Trends of the Day: First and Second-Round Upsets

Zach FeinAnalyst IMarch 17, 2009

The majority of bracket-fillers know the age-old advice to pick at least one No. 12 seed upset in the first round. This article will look at other predictable first-round upsets and how those teams compare in the second round of play.

All statistics are in the past 20 years, unless noted otherwise.

First-round upsets

The top three seeds  

  No. 1 seeds have never lost in the first round.
  No. 15 seeds have beaten No. 2 seeds four times and only once since 2000.
  No. 14 seeds have upset No. 3 seeds 11 times in 80 tries, but only twice in 36 tries since 2000.

No. 13 over No. 4

  No. 4 seeds have lost 16 times in 80 games, a one-in-five rate. They've won 28 of their 36 matchups since 2000, a winning percentage that is slightly higher than the historical rate.
  No. 13 seeds won twice last year and have upset No. 4 seeds four times since 2005, or once per year. Since 2001, there has been at least one upset in every year but two (2002 and 2007).

No. 12 over No. 5

  The so-called "inevitable" upset, the No. 12 seed has upset the No. 5 seed 28 times, or a .350 winning percentage, and they've won 13 times this decade, a .361 winning percentage.
  Since 2000, a No. 12 seed has won in every year except 2000 and 2007. Excluding those years, the No. 12 seed is 13-15 in the first round. In five of the seven years an upset occurred, two or more No. 12 seeds won.

No. 11 over No. 6

  You can say that this game deserves more popularity as being an upset pick. The No. 11 seed has won 25 games, or 1.25 per year, and since 2000, they've won exactly one-third of their games, or 1.33 per year.
  This upset has occurred in every year since 2005, a total of six times.

No. 10 over No. 7

  The No. 10 seed has upset No. 7 32 times, or two out of every five matchups. They've won just one-third of the time since 2000.
  After seven upsets from 2000 to 2003, the No. 10 seed has won just five times since 2004, or once per year.

No. 9 over No. 8

  Surprisingly, the No. 9 seed is 45-35 against the No. 8 seed, or 2.25 upsets per year. Since 2000, however, the No. 9 seed is only 17-19.
  Since 2005, the No. 9 seed has gone 9-7, in line with their 1980-2008 record. They've won at least once in every year since 2003.


  Advance the first three seeds in your bracket to the second round without thinking. The No. 4 seed has won 80 percent of their games—if you're feeling lucky, go ahead and pick a No. 13 over a No. 4, but it's best to play it safe and go with the No. 4 seeds, because if you choose wrong, your bracket is dead.
  Pick at least one upset of a No. 5 seed, but no more than three. Pick one No. 11-over-No. 6 upset and one No.10-over-No. 7 upset. For the matchups between the No. 8 and No. 9 seed, pick either one or two upsets, but not three.

Second-round upsets

Here's a table showing the results of the top five seeds in the two possible matchups in the second round.  

1 vs 828-715-4
1 vs 942-316-1
2 vs 734-1315-9
2 vs 1015-144-7
3 vs 625-2212-10
3 vs 1118-49-4
4 vs 524-187-11
4 vs 1214-77-3
5 vs 137-24-1

No. 1 seeds

  As common knowledge supports, No. 1 seeds are locks to win in the second round and to make the Sweet Sixteen.

No. 2 seeds

  This is unexpected. Against No. 7 seeds, No. 2 seeds are 15-9 since 2000, or only 2.5 wins per four matchups. In three matchups (that is, if a No. 7 seed is upset in the first round), No. 2 seeds would be expected to lose one game.
  And this is even more unexpected. No. 2 seeds are 4-7 against No. 10 seeds since 2000, but due to the small sample size, the "real" results are about 50-50 (15-14). Using the data from above, we know that one No. 10 seed will advance to play the No. 2 seed, which means there's a 50-50 shot that one No. 10 seed makes the Sweet Sixteen.
  Together, we should expect 2.4 No. 2 seeds to make the Sweet Sixteen. (15 divided by 24 times three, plus 15 divided by 29, equals 2.39.) That's certainly lower than previously thought.

No. 3 seeds

  Against No. 6 seeds, the No. 3 seeds have won 55 percent of its games. In three matchups versus No. 6 seeds, the No. 3 seed should be expected to lose 1.4 of them, just under half.
  Against No. 11 seeds, however, the winning percentage of No. 3 seeds rises dramatically, to 69 percent.
  Together, we should expect 2.3 No. 3 seeds to make the Sweet Sixteen. (12 divided by 22 times three, plus nine divided by 13, equals 2.33.)

No. 4 and 5 seeds

  No. 4 seeds have losing records against No. 5 seeds since 2000, winning just 39 percent of their matchups. Against No. 12 seeds, however, they've won 70 percent of their games.
  No. 5 seeds, since 1980, have won 78 percent of their games against No. 13 seeds. 
  We should expect 1.9 No. 4 seeds to make the Sweet Sixteen if only one No. 5 seed loses in round one, but 2.2 if two lose in the first round (this is on the assumption that all four No. 4 seeds win their first game).
  We should expect 1.8 No. 5 seeds to make the Sweet Sixteen if only one loses in the first round, and only 1.2 if two lose in the first round.


 • The second round is where you can make the upset picks no one else will. You should pick one No. 7 seed to beat a No. 2 seed, and a matchup between the No. 10 seed and No. 2 seed is a flip of the coin.
  You should also select one No. 6 seed to upset the No. 3 seed and two if you're feeling lucky, but always take the No. 3 over the No. 11.
  No. 5 seeds should win approximately two of three or one of two (depending on how many No. 5 seeds lose in the first round) matchups against No. 4 seeds. No. 4 seeds should win all of their games against the No. 12 seed.

Tomorrow, I'll look at the Elite Eight and unveil my bracket.