It’s the big reason why even tepid fans of college basketball – or sports in general – love the NCAA tournament. The upset.
When a team that isn’t supposed to win a game does, it’s one of the biggest thrills in sports. It has happened often and it is likely to happen again as the 2023 NCAA tournament gets underway.
If you’re betting on upsets, a history lesson might help. Simply randomly picking upsets is not the answer. Handicapping an NCAA tournament game will come down to the basics – matchups, the four factors, injury reports, etc. Some history may provide a boost.
An Upset Defined
The NCAA defines an upset in the NCAA tournament as a win by a team seeded at least five spots below its opponent. Others will define an upset as a winning team seeded at least two spots below the opponent.
Regardless of how you define an upset, there have been many in March Madness and you can bet there will be more in 2023.
No. 16 & No. 15 Seeds
Only once has a No. 16 seed won an NCAA tournament game. That happened in 2018 when UMBC shocked No. 1 Virginia in a first-round game. It’s extremely unlikely to happen again.
There have been ten instances when the No. 2 seed defeated the No. 15 seed in the first round of the tourney. The most recent occurred just last year when Saint Peter’s beat Kentucky in overtime. Since the NCAA expanded the tournament to 64 teams in 1985, No. 2 seeds have won 6.76 percent of the time.
Looking for Value
When you are looking for value in an upset pick, it is worth looking at the No. 7-No. 10 matchup in each region. Typically, a No. 10 seed is a team from a major conference that has a decent record but got beat up in league play. In 2023, USC from the Pac-12 and Penn State from the Big Ten are two examples.
The other type of team that gets a No. 10 seed is a strong team from a mid-major conference. They may have some Quad I wins or maybe they had a great season but lost their conference tournament. Boise State (24-9) and Utah State (26-8) both fit that bill this year.
Since 1985, No. 10 seeds have won 39.2 percent of their first-round games. That’s 58 wins, including the most recent which was Miami’s win over USC last year. There were two wins – Maryland and Rutgers in 2021 – and three wins in 2019. Minnesota, Iowa, and Florida all won first-round games that year.
Check the No. 11 Seeds
The other first-round matchup that sees plenty of upsets is the No. 6-No. 11 game. Since 1985, 57 No. 11 seeds have won first-round games. In seven of the last eight NCAA tournaments, at least two No. 11 seeds have won opening round games.
Last year, three No. 11s won their first game – Michigan, Notre Dame, and Iowa State. The 2019 tournament was the only one in the last eight in which only one No. 11 seed (Ohio State) won a first-round game. NC State (23-10) and Pitt (23-11) are two of the No. 11 seeds this season.
Deeper in the Tourney
As you go deeper in the tournament, the number of upsets will decrease. Keep in mind that in the Final Four, no team seeded lower than No. 8 has ever won a game. Only four times has a No. 8 seed won a Final Four game and three of those teams – North Carolina, Kentucky, and Villanova – are blueblood programs. The other, Butler, beat a No. 11 (VCU) to advance.
Only one No. 7 seed – eventual national champion UConn in 2014 – has ever won a Final Four game. Two No. 6 seeds have won Final Four games, Michigan in 1992 and Kansas in 1988.
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