NCAA Basketball: High Seeds Bring High Expectations

What began as the field of 68 has been whittled down to the Final Four: Kansas, Loyola (Chicago), Michigan, and Villanova. Two 1 seeds, a 3 seed, and an 11 seed. Seedings aren’t always accurate, though, for a variety of reasons, which I’ll discuss later. When a higher-seeded team plays a lower-seeded team, the assumption is, the higher seed is the better team—after all, the Selection Committee thought so.

As a college basketball fan, if your team is one of 68 selected to play in the NCAA Basketball Tournament, and it’s awarded a high seed, you’re thrilled. But a high seed brings high expectations. How far should you expect your team to go? You can get an idea by looking at the seeds of the opponents your team will face (and may face if they advance), and if your team’s seed is higher, your team should win and advance. But there’s a simpler way.    

How Far Should Your Team Advance?

Seed                                       Expectation

1                                              Final Four

2                                             Elite Eight

3, 4                                         Sweet Sixteen

5, 6, 7, 8                                  Round of Thirty-Two

9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16        None

The 1 seeds are theoretically the four best teams in the tournament, so it’s reasonable to expect them to reach the Final Four. Upsets happen (I’ll discuss why, later) and while it’s rare that all four 1 seeds advance to the Final Four, it’s nevertheless a reasonable expectation. In fact, going back to 1985 when the tournament field was expanded to 64 teams, and not including this year, only 54 out of a possible 128 1 seeds have reached the Final Four. Or fewer than two each year.

If all four 1 seeds reach the Final Four, what then? Since each team in each group is further seeded, it’s reasonable to expect the higher-seeded team to win. So, for example, if the teams in the championship game are both 1 seeds, the higher-seeded 1 seed should win. But this level of analysis comes later. I’m merely providing the minimum number of games you can expect your team to win once you know your team’s seed (but before any games have been played).  

Kansas and Villanova, 1 seeds, both reached the Final Four. Xavier, a 1 seed, lost to 9th-seeded Florida State, and Virginia made history by becoming the first 1 seed to lose to a 16 seed. Even worse for Virginia, they didn’t lose on a buzzer beater—they were routed. By the Retrievers from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).

The 2 seeds are the next best teams in the field, in theory, so they should reach the Elite Eight. Duke was the only 2 seed to make it that far. Purdue lost to 3rd-seeded Texas Tech, Cincinnati lost to 7th-seeded Nevada, and North Carolina lost to 7th-seeded Texas A&M.

The 3 and 4 seeds should reach the Sweet Sixteen. Of the 3 seeds, only Michigan and Texas Tech reached the Sweet Sixteen while Michigan State and Tennessee lost to 11 seeds: Michigan State fell to Syracuse, and Tennessee fell to Loyola (Chicago).

Gonzaga was the only 4 seed to reach the Sweet Sixteen. In fact, the 4 seeds may be the most disappointing group, with the four teams winning a total of three games (two of those wins belong to Gonzaga). Gonzaga fell to 9th-seeded Florida State in the Sweet Sixteen, Auburn won its opening-round game before falling to 5th-seeded Clemson, and Arizona and Wichita State lost in the first round. Arizona was blown out by 13th-seeded Buffalo, and Wichita State lost a close game to 13th-seeded Marshall.

The 5 through 8 seeds should only win their first-round games, but several of these teams gave their fans a treat and won two: 5th-seeded Clemson, 5th-seeded Kentucky, 5th-seeded West Virginia, 7th-seeded Nevada, and 7th-seeded Texas A&M.

The 9 through 16 seeds, according to my analysis, aren’t expected to win a single game. But teams in this group commonly exceed expectations. Since 2006 a 9 seed or lower has advanced to the Sweet Sixteen—or further—every other year. Sometimes every year. Four teams in this year’s tournament accomplished this feat: 9th-seeded Florida State, 9th-seeded Kansas State, 11th-seeded Loyola (Chicago), and 11th-seeded Syracuse.

How Many Wins Should You Expect?

Your team needs six wins (seven if it was in the First Four) to become national champions, and though only one team will win the tournament, the following provides the minimum number of wins you should expect:

Seed                                       Wins

1                                              4

2                                             3

3, 4                                         2

5, 6, 7, 8                                  1

9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16         0

Recipe for an Upset

What makes this the most exciting sports tournament in America is, there will be upsets. If we can correctly call them that. When the Selection Committee is comparing teams from different conferences that haven’t played one another, part of its rationale is, “Since Team A beat Team B, and Team B beat Team C, then Team A is better than Team B and Team C.” Boxing fans commonly use this rationale to compare fighters who haven’t fought, although boxing’s conventional wisdom reminds us: “Styles makes fights.” Similarly, in basketball, matchups matter, so in some cases what appears to be an upset when comparing seeds is actually a case of the better team winning.  

Then there are injuries. No matter how talented and well coached a team is, if they lose their best player to injury—or even a key player—it’s practically assured they won’t perform as well as they would have had they been at full strength. Similarly, if a team lost a vital player to injury during the season but got him back for the NCAA Tournament, that team will be better than their seeding indicates because the Selection Committee was grading that team at less than full strength.

An upset can happen if a lower-seeded team is able to keep the score close because as the game goes on, the lower-seeded team grows confident—the game shouldn’t be close—and the higher-seeded team gets nervous. Because again, the game shouldn’t be close.

Finally, coaches with lots of NCAA Tournament experience who have teams with low seeds often have the advantage over coaches with little experience in this tournament who have teams with high seeds. Why? Because the pressure of the Big Dance is unlike anything coaches (and their players) have experienced all year.

Biggest Winners and Losers

No single win was bigger than UMBC’s. They weren’t expected to win a game, but their lone win was historic. There were other first-round surprises by teams not expected to win. The 13th-seeded Buffalo Bulls shellacked a team with a rich basketball tradition and NBA talent on its roster, 4th-seeded Arizona, and the 13th-seeded Marshall Thundering Herd beat 4th-seeded Wichita State.

Then there were teams that, while not expected to win any games, got hot and won several. Florida State and Kansas State, both 9 seeds, won three games and reached the Elite Eight. The most surprising team in this year’s tournament—and the second-biggest story (after Virginia)—is the 11th-seeded Loyola (Chicago) Ramblers. They’ve won four games and are in the Final Four!

At the opposite end of the spectrum were teams that were expected to win lots of games but didn’t. Virginia, of course, is at the top of this list with Cincinnati and North Carolina close behind. The Bearcats and Tar Heels, 2 seeds that were expected to win three games and reach the Elite Eight, lost in the second round to 7 seeds: Cincinnati fell to Nevada, and North Carolina was routed by Texas A&M.  

Conclusion

Upsets, endless debates, weeks of entertainment with best friends—nothing in sports rivals March Madness! My analysis is simple, yet picking a perfect bracket is practically impossible. But my method provides an expectation that’s not unreasonable.

Performance by Seeds
(Highlighted teams are still in tournament)

Key:     [-4] (won 4 less games than expected)

            [-3] (won 3 less games than expected)

            [-2] (won 2 less games than expected)

            [-1] (won 1 less game than expected)

            [0]  (won as many games as expected)

            [+1] (won 1 more game than expected)

            [+2] (won 2 more games than expected)

            [+3] (won 3 more games than expected)      

Kansas (1) Won 4 games [0]
Villanova (1) Won 4 games [0]
Virginia (1) Won 0 games [-4]
Xavier (1) Won 1 game [-3]

Cincinnati (2) Won 1 [-2]
Duke (2) Won 3 [0]
North Carolina (2) Won 1 [-2]
Purdue (2) Won 2 [-1]

Michigan (3) Won 4 [+2]
Michigan State (3) Won 1 [-1]
Tennessee (3) Won 1 [-1]
Texas Tech (3) Won 3 [+1]

Arizona (4) Won 0 [-2]
Auburn (4) Won 1 [-1]
Gonzaga (4) Won 2 [0]
Wichita State (4) Won 0 [-2]

Clemson (5) Won 2 [+1]
Kentucky (5) Won 2 [+1]
Ohio State (5) Won 1 [0]
West Virginia (5) Won 2 [+1]

Florida (6) Won 1 [0]
Houston (6) Won 1 [0]
Miami (Florida) (6) Won 0 [-1]
TCU (6) Won 0 [-1]

Arkansas (7) Won 0 [-1]
Nevada (7) Won 2 [+1]
Rhode Island (7) Won 1 [0]
Texas A&M (7) Won 2 [+1]

Creighton (8) Won 0 [-1]
Missouri (8) Won 0 [-1]
Seton Hall (8) Won 1 [0]
Virginia Tech (8) Won 0 [-1]

Alabama (9) Won 1 [+1]
Florida State (9) Won 3 [+3]
Kansas State (9) Won 3 [+3]
North Carolina State (9) Won 0 [0]

Butler (10) Won 1 [+1]
Oklahoma (10) Won 0 [0]
Providence (10) Won 0 [0]
Texas (10) Won 0 [0]

Loyola (Chicago) (11) Won 4 [+4]
Saint Bonaventure (11) Won 0 [0] (excluding First Four win)
San Diego State (11) Won 0 [0]
Syracuse (11) Won 2 [+2] (excluding First Four win)

Davidson (12) Won 0 [0]
Murray State (12) Won 0 [0]
New Mexico State (12) Won 0 [0]
South Dakota State (12) Won 0 [0]

Buffalo (13) Won 1 [+1]
Charleston (13) Won 0 [0]
Marshall (13) Won 1 [+1]
UNC (Greensboro) (13) Won 0 [0]

Bucknell (14) Won 0 [0]
Montana (14) Won 0 [0]
Stephen F. Austin (14) Won 0 [0]
Wright State (14) Won 0 [0]

California State (Fullerton) (15) Won 0 [0]
Georgia State (15) Won 0 [0]
Iona (15) Won 0 [0]
Lipscomb (15) Won 0 [0]

Pennsylvania (16) Won 0 [0]
Radford (16) Won 0 [0] (excluding First Four win)
Texas Southern (16) Won 0 [0] (excluding First Four win)
UMBC (16) Won 1 [+1]

Overachievers

[+3]
Florida State (9)
Kansas State (9)
Loyola (Chicago) (11)

[+2]
Syracuse (11)

[+1]
Alabama (9)
Buffalo (13)
Butler (10)
Clemson (5)
Kentucky (5)
Marshall (13)
Michigan (3)
Nevada (7)
Texas A&M (7)
UMBC (16)

Underachievers

[-4]
Virginia (1)

[-3]
Xavier (1)

[-2]
Arizona (4)
Cincinnati (2)
North Carolina (2)
Wichita State (4)

[-1]
Arkansas (7)
Auburn (4)
Creighton (8)
Miami (Florida) (6)
Michigan State (3)
Missouri (8)
TCU (6)
Tennessee (3)
Virginia Tech (8)