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.