How Much Does Seeding Really Matter in the Men's NCAA Tournament?

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystFebruary 20, 2020

Baylor's Jared Butler (12) and Davion Mitchell (45)
Baylor's Jared Butler (12) and Davion Mitchell (45)Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

Bracketology is, hands down, the best -ology. And if you clicked on an article about NCAA tournament seeding in mid-February, there's a good chance you share that belief.

Whether it's the annual way-too-early projection right after the tournament ends, a doldrums-of-the-summer look ahead to March, the obligatory prognostication 12 hours before the first tipoff of the season or any number of in-season best guesses, inject those bad boys straight into our veins.

But when Selection Sunday arrives and it's time to stop trying to figure who belongs where and start forecasting who can make a deep run, how much does the seeding actually matter?

There have been 35 NCAA tournaments since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, and we've looked back through all of them in an attempt to determine the importance of seeding.

Here are some observations from that exercise.


It's Good to Be No. 1

This isn't exactly groundbreaking news here, but No. 1 seeds are the most successful in the NCAA tournament.

Teams on the top line are 139-1 in the first round, with UMBC giving us that one outlier two years ago against Virginia. That's a winning percentage of 99.3. No. 2 seeds are only at 94.3 percent, with an average of one 15-over-2 upset every 4.4 years. No. 3 seeds lose 15 percent of the time. And it only gets worse from there.

We aren't just talking about the first round, though. No. 1 seeds are far more likely to advance further into the tournament, too.

A whopping 85.7 percent of No. 1 seeds reach the Sweet 16, 69.3 percent reach the Elite Eight and 41.4 percent reach the Final Four. Using those figures, the expected win total for a No. 1 seed in the first four rounds is 2.96. That drops to 2.23 for No. 2 seeds, 1.76 for No. 3 seeds and so on and so forth.

No. 1 seeds have also won 23 of the last 35 national championships, including seven instances (1993, 1999, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2015 and 2017) of a No. 1 dueling a No. 1 in the title game.

That's a lot of numbers in quick succession, but the TL;DR version is that the four best regular-season teams are also expected to be the four best teams in the tournament.

San Diego State's Yanni Wetzell
San Diego State's Yanni WetzellSteve Conner/Associated Press

Keep that in mind next time you hear someone say San Diego State would be better off as the No. 2 seed in the West Region than it would be as the No. 1 seed in the East Region.

The argument makes sense. Based on current projections and assuming the bracket plays to form, the Aztecs would likely face a Big East or Big Ten team in the Sweet 16 followed by Duke in the Elite Eight, and both of those opponents would have a major geographic advantage over the No. 1 seed in New York City.

But don't worry about who or where you might play in the Elite Eight. Just get there. And the likelihood of playing in a regional final as a No. 2 seed (45.0 percent) is considerably lower than it is for a team on the top line.


Cindere11a Story

Your eyes aren't deceiving you. Those are ones instead of L's, and it's because No. 11 seeds are most likely to make a deep run full of upsets.

As far as the first and second rounds are concerned, there's no real difference between Nos. 10, 11 and 12 seeds. All three win their first game between 35.7 and 39.3 percent of the time, and all three get to the Sweet 16 approximately 16 percent of the time.

But if you're hellbent on picking an unlikely Elite Eight or Final Four team, go with a No. 11 seed.

There has been only one instance of a team seeded lower than 11 reaching the Elite Eight. That was No. 12 seed Missouri in 2002. Four No. 9 seeds have done it. And there have been eight each from the No. 10 and No. 11 seed lines.

As far as the Final Four goes, there have been only six teams seeded lower than No. 8: one No. 9 (Wichita State in 2013), one No. 10 seed (Syracuse in 2016) and four No. 11 seeds (LSU in 1986, George Mason in 2006, VCU in 2011 and Loyola-Chicago in 2018).

That 11 line has been particularly hot as of late, too.

There has been at least one 11-over-6 upset in 15 consecutive years and 28 out of 60 (46.7 percent) total during that stretch. Twelve of those 28 proceeded to win at least one more game, and five of them went to the Elite Eight.

George Mason was a No. 1 seed when it made the Final Four in 2006.
George Mason was a No. 1 seed when it made the Final Four in 2006.MARK HUMPHREY/Associated Press

No. 11 seeds are often either the top mid-majors or bubble teams that perhaps rode a late wave into the tournament and were able to keep that hot streak going. Maybe there's something to that, or it might just be a product of teams building momentum with a win over a borderline Top 25 opponent and then catching the subsequent No. 3 seed by surprise.

Who knows? But what we do know is that submitting a bracket without at least one No. 11 seed in the second round is akin to just giving up before the tournament starts.


Sweet No. 16

No, we aren't talking about No. 16 seeds, but rather the No. 16 overall seed.

For those unfamiliar with the bracket-building process, here's a quick lesson. As the current No. 1 overall seed, Baylor gets top consideration in terms of both region and sub-region (pod) for the first two rounds. Any bracketologist worth his or her salt is projecting the Bears for the South Region with first- and second-round games in St. Louis. That continues down the line with Kansas then going to the Midwest Region with an opening weekend trip to Omaha, Nebraska.

But by the time you get down to the No. 16 overall seed, all that's left is the scraps, which often results in a geographic disadvantage. Last year, Virginia Tech was No. 16 overall, and it had to go all the way out to San Jose, California, for the first two rounds. It was even worse in 2015, when Georgetown got shipped out to Portland to face Eastern Washington and Utah.

One would think that the No. 16 overall seed would be a great spot for picking an early upset, but one would be wrong.

In the eight years since the NCAA began releasing its overall seed list to the public, the lowest-ranked No. 4 seed has gone to the Sweet 16 six times and reached the Final Four twice. The only one to lose in the first round was Arizona, which got walloped by a veteran, under-seeded Buffalo squad in 2018.

That bottom No. 4 seed has averaged 2.1 wins per year.

During the same eight-year span, the other three No. 4 seeds have averaged 1.6 wins and sent only one team (2013 Michigan) to the Final Four. They also suffered a combined total of five 13-over-4 upsets.

The takeaway here isn't that you absolutely have to pick the No. 16 overall seed to reach the Sweet 16, but rather that there's no good precedent for writing off that team just because its journey begins far from home. Syracuse's 2013 Final Four run began in San Jose. The year before that, No. 16 overall seed Louisville had to win two games in Portland and two more in Phoenix. That didn't matter one bit.


Big Difference Between No. 4 Seeds and No. 5 Seeds

Auburn's Samir Doughty
Auburn's Samir DoughtyJeff Roberson/Associated Press

Maybe you don't need to hear this last part because you immediately pencil in four 12-over-5 upsets every year, but it is surprisingly rare for a No. 5 seed to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.

Over the past 35 years, there have been only nine No. 5 seeds in the Elite Eight. Auburn was one of those nine last March, but that was the first time since 2011.

Meanwhile, there have been 14 No. 6 seeds in the Elite Eight, 10 No. 7 seeds and eight each from the No. 8, No. 10 and No. 11 lines.

The size of the gap between the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds is surprising considering there's neither a significant difference in resume strength nor the paths they need to take.

No. 4 seeds reach the Sweet 16 a solid 47.1 percent of the time compared to 33.6 percent for No. 5 seeds. And of the ones who get to the Sweet 16, only 19.1 percent of No. 5 seeds also advance to the Elite Eight; that success rate is 31.8 percent for No. 4 seeds.

But if you have the guts to pick a No. 5 seed to the Elite Eight, go ahead and ride that team to the Final Four, too. Seven out of the nine (77.8 percent) won their Elite Eight games, which is the highest percentage by far. The next best is No. 8 seeds with five out of eight (62.5 percent).

With that said, if you're a fan of a team like Oregon or Kentucky that's hovering on the border between the No. 4 and No. 5 seed lines, you should be rooting for the former. It's rough out there for the No. 5 seeds.


Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.