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.
No. 1 vs. No. 16
It is widely known that a No. 16 seed has never defeated a No. 1 seed in the men’s NCAA basketball tournament. Most years each of these four games is decided by halftime.
The last time a No. 16 seed was a threat to upset a No. 1 seed was in 2006, when Albany led Connecticut by 12 with 11:33 left in the game. Still, the Huskies went on to win the game by a margin of 13 points.
In the 36 games between No. 1 seeds and No. 16 seeds since 2000, none have been decided by a margin of fewer than 10 points. Only one-third of them have been decided by a margin of fewer than 20 points.
No. 2 vs. No. 15
The only No. 15 seed to defeat a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament since 2000 was Hampton in 2001, when the No. 15 seed defeated No. 2-seeded Iowa State by a score of 58-57. Thus, No. 15 seeds have won their first round games less than three percent (1/36) of the time since 2000.
Since the expansion of the NCAA tournament to 64 teams in 1985, only four No. 15 seeds have won their first round game. This is just over four percent (4/96) of the matchups.
A No. 15 seed has never advanced past the second round in the NCAA tournament.
Generally there are much closer games in the 2/15 matchups than the 1/16 ones. Just last tournament, No. 2-seeded Duke needed a basket with 12 seconds left to defeat No. 15-seeded Belmont by one point.
No. 3 vs. No. 14
In the 36 games between No. 3 seeds and No. 14 seeds since 2000, No. 14 seeds have only won twice (5.6 percent of the time). The lone upsets were in consecutive NCAA tournaments in 2005 and 2006. First No. 14-seeded Bucknell beat No. 3-seeded Kansas 64-63, and the next season No. 14-seeded Northwestern State topped No. 3-seeded Iowa by the same exact score.
There have many more close calls for No. 3-seeds where teams were successfully able to avoid an upset.
Neither Bucknell nor Northwestern State was able to win their second round game after their respective upset victories.
Prone to Upsets
While it takes a special high-seeded team to pull off an upset, it also takes a special (in a different way) low-seeded team to lose one of these games.
The same Iowa State team that lost to Hampton in 2001 was upset in the second round of the Big 12 Conference tournament by Baylor in their last game prior to the NCAA tournament. Iowa State was the top seed in the Big 12 tournament that season.
In 2005, Kansas was also upset in the Big 12 tournament prior to playing in the NCAA tournament. Kansas was co-champion of the Big 12 tournament in 2005 and earned the No. 2 seed for the conference tournament, but fell in the semifinals to Oklahoma State.
In 2006, Iowa did win their conference tournament before losing in the first round to a No. 14-seed. Iowa did show some vulnerability to an upset during the season though, as they lost games to Iowa State, Northern Iowa, and Northwestern that same season.
Neither Iowa State nor Northern Iowa made the tournament that season, and Northern Iowa made the tournament as a No. 10-seed.
In each of the three “easy” matchups outlined above, the team seeded lower has won over 97 percent of the time since 2000. Each of the three victories by higher-seeded teams was by a single point.
Even if your scoring system gives you bonus points for upsets, it is never worth it to pick a No. 1, 2, or 3 seed to lose in the first round. In addition to throwing away nearly guaranteed points in the first round, these seeds usually advance further in the tournament and will cost you even more points as the rounds advance.
That being said, an upset in one of these games can kill a bracket right from the start. Be sure to take the first round opponent into consideration when determining how far these low-seeded teams will advance in the tournament. It’s very difficult to recover from losing a Final Four team in the first round.
In the rare event that there is one of these upsets, it will affect all of the other entrants in your pool for the first round. The best thing to do is to make sure not to have a team advancing too far that could be prone to an upset in the first round. Be careful of teams that have been upset before during the season, especially during their conference tournament.
Don’t be surprised to see close games in these “easy” picks, but rest assured that the favored teams almost always come out on top.