Elite 8 and Final Four Picks

These rounds are all about the best teams taking control.


The Cinderella slippers usually fall off in the Sweet 16.  Double-digit seeds 4-25 in this round since 2003.  Also, picking the top 2 seeds to advance to the Elite 8 is right about a third of the time, 18 times of 60 since 2002.  13 of the 18 teams that entered the tournament with an adjusted efficiency margin over 30 won a Sweet 16 game.  This round is all about the best teams taking control as 4-6 of the kenpom top 10 and 7-8 of the kenpom top 26 usually survive to the Elite 8.

In the top half of the bracket, the top seed has won 31 of 42 times against a 4 or 5 seed.  Of the seven 4/5 seeds that upset a 1 since 2010, six underdogs were in the top 20 in adjusted offensive or defensive efficiency.  Of the 1 seeds that fell, five were ranked worse than 16 in either offensive or defensive efficiency.

In the bottom half, a similar pattern can be found with 2 v 3 or 6 seeds.  The 2 seed has won 21 of 29 times against a 3 or 6, with six of those upsets by a team that specializes in one side of the ball.  In 3 v 7 seeds, the match-up is surprisingly close, each seed winning 4 times.  In all but two of the 3/6/7 upsets, the underdog’s speciality matched opposite the favorite’s speciality (offensively focused underdog v. defensively focused favorite or vice versa).

Going from eight to four teams provides even more significant trends.  Over two-thirds of all Final Four teams have been top 3 seeds, with six 4-seeds, four 5-seeds, and eight from 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11 seeds since 2002.  Over a third were conference tournament champions.  Final Four teams are likely to have been top 3 in their conference during the regular season unless from the old Big East or the new ACC.  Typically, the Final Four teams consist of three from the top 10 preseason poll and one from the top 25.  Also, at least two and usually three of the kenpom top 10 advance to the Final Four.  If a mid-major rides to the Final Four, they should be in the top 10, or at least the top 12 conferences in kenpom.  Finally, FF teams should be in the top 20 in either adjusted offensive or defensive efficiency.

How Sweet It Is

Picking the top four teams to the Sweet 16 has only been right 7 times.

Picking the top four teams to the Sweet 16 has only been right 7 times, just over 10% of tournament regions since 2002.  Only about half of the top 25 kenpom teams and those teams with an adjusted efficiency margin over 25 survive the first weekend.

But if you are looking for major upsets, you should focus on the bottom half of each region.  1 seeds have only lost to eight 8/9 seeds since 2002.  Only two 12 seeds have beaten a 4 seed.  It is much more sensible to focus on a 2 seed and a 3 seed to fall early.

Indeed, in the last seven tournaments, seven 2 seeds and seven 3 seeds have lost in the second round.  2 seeds typically are those teams who did not win their power conference regular season title but won the conference tournament or vice versa.  They are the almost-perfects, the elite but not the best.

In preparing for this post and this entire exercise of making a perfect bracket, nothing was as shocking as this factoid.  In the last 15 years, there have been 14 2-seeds that won a power conference tournament – not a single one lost a second round game.  Now, obviously, 2012 Missouri and 2016 Michigan St., conference tournament winners in their own right, lost in the first round in unexpected fashion.  But if you see a conference tournament winner, pen them into the Sweet 16.

Conversely, 7-10 upsets have come from mid-major conference tournament winners or teams that lost in their conference’s semis or finals.  Only two 7-10 upsets came from a team that lost earlier than the semis since 2002: 2011 Florida St., which lost in the quarters by 1, and 2016 Wisconsin, which lost its first game and won over Xavier on a buzzer beater.

3 seeds versus 6 or 11 seeds are a bit more unpredictable.  Some 3 seeds seem so vulnerable, it feels like they should lose, but they don’t: like 2013 Florida, which went 1-7 in “A” rated games according to kenpom, or 2015 Oklahoma, which had two losses to teams that finished the year ranked 80th or worse in adjusted efficiency margin.  Other 3 seeds seem so strong, they should not lose but did: 2014 Creighton which had no bad or “B” rated losses.  Only about 62% of 3-6 matchups since 2002 resulted in the better team on kenpom winning.  Add in 11 seeds and that percentage barely rises to 67%.  Good, but we need more data.

The only consistent trend that I can see comes from a smaller sample size.  Of the last seven 3 seeds to have fallen, only one lost to defensively focused opponent – an over-ranked 2012 Florida St. team.

Next up is the seemingly trickier 4-5 matchup.  In looking at the data, picking the favorite in kenpom works more often than not and when it doesn’t, it has usually been because the underdog’s defense or offense was better (numbers favor defense slightly more).  Very rarely did I see an underdog 4 or 5 beat a similarly composited opponent.  Beyond that, it becomes tough call.  However, keep in mind that about half of all regions since 2002 have involved a second round matchup that wasn’t a 4-5 seed affair.  Selecting a 12 or 13 seed to win the first round game should make this second round choice easier.

Finally, we have 1’s versus 8’s and 9’s.  As stated near the top of this post, this type of upset is pretty rare but it used to be rarer.  Five 8/9-1 seed upsets have occurred since 2010.  Compare that to 2005-2009 when there were four straight tournaments without a second round upset of a 1 seed.  Three of recent upset winners were mid-majors, three offensive-focused, four out of five were in their conference tournament final, all five ranked in the top 45 teams, all five played an opponent rated 7th overall or better with a top 15 offense in kenpom, and all five had at least eight “A” or “B” ranked wins.  So while it is unlikely that a 1 seed will fall, it has been happening consistently as of late.  Another loss in the second round this year would solidify this type of upset as something that has to be included in a perfect bracket attempt going forward.

When It Pays to Root for the Underdog

Last year, picking Little Rock over Purdue was a better bet than a choosing a clearly inferior Maryland squad to be upset.

The infamous 12 seed has a beaten a 5 seed in 27 of 31 years since the field expanded to 64 teams.  Over the last eight years, 12 seeds are an impressive 21-10-1 against the spread while also going 17-15 straight-up.  Despite the unlikely yet consistent success of 12 seeds, people still refuse to pick them to win.  This makes choosing a 12 seed a valuable proposition when trying to get ahead of others in your bracket pool.  But what makes these 5 seeds so vulnerable?

“The five-seed is where you lose natural geographic-area protection, because only the top-four line receives that protection,” explained Greg Shaheen, former senior vice president of the NCAA and organizer of the NCAA Division I men’s basketball championship. “Once you go to the five-[seed], you could be playing those games anywhere.”

So, has location actually mattered?  Of the 26 upsets since 2002, 16 involved 5 seeds that had to travel over 1,000 miles from campus to the first round location.  Lowering the mileage to 800 miles adds 3 more upsets.  Only one upset involved a 5 seed playing within 350 miles of their homes.  Notably, of the last 19 12-5 upsets, 11 occurred in the Mountain or Pacific time zones, and five from the state of Florida.

However, there have been a few 5 seed teams that traveled west and beat a team with regional home-court advantage.  In 2003, Wisconsin and UCONN won in Spokane versus Utah-based teams; in 2004, Syracuse beat BYU in Denver; in 2011, Kansas State defeated Utah State in Tucson; and last year, Maryland beat North Dakota State in Spokane.

The evidence may be surprising but highlights the importance of selection committee seeding when determining the top 16 teams.  This year, there are first round games in Sacramento, Salt Lake City, and Orlando.  Keep an eye on any 5-12 matchups in those locations.

The other commonly accepted tenet of a 12-5 upset is that it usually involves a mid-major over a power conference foe.  This is true – this type of upset has happened the most (10 times) since 2002.  But that is probably because it is the most common matchup between a 5 and a 12.  When looking at all of the possible chances (35), the fact is that 12 seed mid-majors upset 5 seed power teams only 28.6% of the time.

Compare that to other types of 5-12 matchups.  In the eight power vs. power 5-12 games since 2002, six were upsets.  In more recent years (2009-2016), underdog power teams have been matched up with mid-major favorites; the power teams were successful in three out of the four attempts.  That’s 75% for both types and something to watch going forward.

But we can’t stop there.  This is a perfect bracket we are talking about, after all.  Let’s dig deeper and look into Ken Pomeroy’s statistics since 2002 on these upsets to notice any trends.  Because we are trying to prognosticate what will happen, we will use the stats as they existed before each tournament began.

First, let’s see if the best 5 seeds are immune.  Looking at the adjusted Efficiency Margin rank (EM), we find that 5 seeds ranked in the top 20 account for 12 of the 26 victims.  So any 5 seed can be beat.  How about the other end, are there 12 seeds so bad that they never win?  Only five 12 seeds with an EM rank over 60 have won and none over 95.  That’s our floor then.  What about the gap in EM between the two teams?  Only half of the upsets came from teams ranked within 30 spots of the 5 seed.  The overall rank in EM does not seem to give us much information.

How about offensive versus defensive teams?  A 12 seed with a better adjusted defensive efficiency accounts for just six upsets – the same number of upsets won by a 12 seed that gave up 5-10 more points per 100 possessions and those won by a 12 seed that gave up 10 or more points per 100 possessions.  Looking at adjusted offensive efficiency provides better results.  Nearly half of the upsets (12) involved an underdog that was better on offense than the favorite.  Looking at both stats combined, we find that an underdog that was either better at offense or defense than the favorite won a remarkable 18 times.  Of the other 8 upsets where the underdog was not better in either offense or defense, the remaining 12 seeds were within 5 points per 100 possessions in at least one category and three within a point.  In sum, of the last 26 12-5 upsets, 21 (80.1%) involved a 12 seed that was better or within a point per 100 possessions in either adjusted offensive or defensive efficiency.

Based on the above analysis, here are our theories that give the best chance of a 12-5 upset (in order of what I think is most compelling):

  1. 12s seed with better or nearly equivalent adjusted offensive or defensive efficiency are more likely to take down a 5 seed.
  2. Upsets should have 12 seeds with an EM ranked 60 or better.
  3. An underdog team from a power conference is likely to win.
  4. The 5 seed is playing more than 350 miles away from their campus.
  5. The game is in a Mountain/West region or Florida.

There is still some wiggle room here but applying all of these to last year’s tournament would have shown Maryland and Indiana to be secure because their opponents were over EM rank 60 (80 and 105, respectively), Baylor at risk due to Yale’s superior defensive efficiency and EM ranked 50, and Purdue at risk playing in Denver against Little Rock with an EM ranked 59.  As stated above, any 5 can be beat.  But the worse the 12, the less likely the upset.  Little Rock still probably should not have won that game but this analysis shows why picking Purdue was riskier than a choosing a clearly inferior Maryland squad.