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.

If the Shoe Fits…

11 seed upsets are becoming more frequent and are enjoying greater success.

While 12-5 upset picks are chic first round affairs, picking an 11 seed to make it beyond the second round is starting to become a trend.  George Mason kicked off the party with a Final Four run to remember in 2006, followed by VCU’s improbable 2011 campaign, and Dayton’s 2014 Elite 8 appearance that elevated Archie Miller to “coach rumored for every job opening” status.  Still, only 19 have made it to the Sweet 16 and 46 out of 128 (35.9%) have won a first round game.  However, eight 11 seeds have made it to the Sweet 16 since 2010, one more appearance than 6 seeds, and more than half (15 of 28) won first round games.  So 11 seed upsets are becoming more frequent and are enjoying greater success.

So let’s analyze the 11 seed in greater detail and try to figure out which teams are thriving in this position.  Since 2010, seven power conference teams won from the 11 slot while eight mid-majors won.  It should be noted that most mid-major winners were teams that found past success in the tournament (Gonzaga, VCU, Dayton, Wichita St., and Northern Iowa).  Yet, of the eight 11 seeds that advanced to the Sweet 16, five were power teams.

There is very little consistency  when looking at advanced stats.  Offensive-focused teams (like Marquette 2011 and Gonzaga 2016) are just as likely as defensive teams (see Old Dominion 2010 and Wichita St. 2016) to win.  And against opponents, there is a lot of noise with no clear trends in a particular type of 6 seed that is susceptible to upsets.  Unless you look at the schedule.

Of the 15 11-6 upsets since 2010, all but three occurred against a 6 seed with a bad loss on their resume.  These bad losses include those against a team ranked post-tourney in kenpom over 100 in adjusted efficiency margin. All three that did not have such a loss did lose against teams ranked post-tourney at 69, 73, and 80.  One of those was an SMU team that should have won on a blown call at the buzzer, an Ohio St. shocked by pesky, in-state combatant, Dayton, and Arizona team destroyed by a grossly under-seeded Wichita St.  12 of 15 upsets with a trend is good news for our perfect bracket efforts, and we can add in some x-factor to account for the others.

Finally, there is something else unique about the 11 seed in recent years.  The First Four has provided seven 11 seeds with a warm-up game to get tournament anxiety out of the way.  More than half (VCU, Tennessee, Dayton, and Wichita St.) won their first round game.  While the sample size is small, the early returns require careful consideration of an 11 seed fresh off a First Four victory.

Although their matchups with 6 seeds seem unpredictable and there is admittedly some “gut” feeling that needs to be applied, 11 seeds can and have found their way with 6 seeds who were victims of bad losses in the regular season.

As to the second round, six 11 seeds have defeated 3 seeds and two 11 seeds defeated 14 seeds en route to the Sweet 16 since 2010.  Of the victories against 3 seeds, Gonzaga and Washington were underrated and started the tournament with a better adjusted efficiency margin rank than their second round opponents; and Dayton, NC State, Marquette, and VCU were  offensive teams playing defense-first 3’s.

Going further to the Sweet 16, an 11 seed has only won six times ever.  Since 1990, an 11 seed victory has only occurred because of other upsets that left them playing a 7 or 10 seed.  A perfect bracket will likely not include an 11 seed to the elite 8 considering how unlikely and uncommon it is.  But if other factors lead one to choosing between an 11 and a 7/10, then maybe it is time for Cinderella to put on her slippers again.