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NCAA Men's College Basketball Tournament Trends - Part I

Updated: March 13, 2016

The NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament is just around the corner and that means it will be time to fill out your brackets. As we all know, the winner of the pool is not always the person who follows college basketball closely. In fact, the winner of the office pool always seems to be a person who hasn't watched a game all year and picks winners based on uniform color and thinks Pepperdine is a children's cough syrup. The bottom line is that anyone can win the NCAA college basketball pool with a little luck and that's what makes it so interesting.

In the past, I have done a more in depth analysis but in recent years seeding has become an even more powerful predictor of tournament success than it was in the past. For instance, first round matchups of 7 vs 10 and 8 vs 9 were toss-up games (seed didn't really matter) for most of the first 25 years of the 64-team tournament. But 7 and 8 seeds are 29-11 against the 9 and 10 seeds in the Round of 64 in the last five years. The 3 vs 6 matchup that we often see in the Round of 32 has also become less competitive as #3 seeds have won 12 of 15 matchups since 2008. I don't know if this is an aberation or if advanced analytics has made the Selection Committee that much better at seeding these teams. The big upsets certainly have not gone away but we've seen fewer smaller upsets (based on seed) in the past five years. I will keep an eye on this but in the meantime, here is some analysis of seed matchups by round since 2000.


Let me start by saying that this site does not support or encourage gambling. I have provided this information for the amusement of college basketball fans and stat junkies like myself. If this helps you fill out your brackets, that's great, but I would never advise anyone to gamble with money that they cannot afford to lose. The beauty of the NCAA pool is that it is very low risk with a possible high reward and the tournament is much more interesting when you have someone to root for. The following information is based on trends in the tournament over the past 16 years. There is no guarantee that these trends will continue this season. More importantly, even if these trends do hold true, they give you only a slight edge. Most of what happens in the tourney is pure chance and it takes a lot of luck to do well in your NCAA pool. Please feel free to email me and let me know what you think about the results. However, if you complain to me because you used these trends and they did not help you choose winners, I will not listen. Use this information at your own risk.

Rule #1 - Know Your Seeds

The first step in filling out your bracket is to understand the importance of seeding. Unless you are a complete novice to March Madness, you know that in general ... the better the seed, the better the team. There are of course exceptions to this rule. At times the committee loses its mind, but most of the time seeding is a fairly accurate representation of the quality of the teams. Here is how the seeds have performed on a round by round basis since 2000. At this point in time, I am not analyzing the Tuesday/Wednesday First Round (which some call the "play-in" game).

Round of 64

The following are the won-loss records of the better seeds in the Round of 64 (2000-2015):

Seed Record Win Pct
1 64-0 100%
2 60-4 94%
3 57-7 89%
4 51-13 80%
5 38-26 59%
6 39-25 61%
7 40-24 63%
8 38-26 59%

Round of 32

Some interesting patterns also emerged in the Round of 32.

Sweet Sixteen

By the time the Sweet Sixteen round is complete, most of the "Cinderella" teams have left the tournament.

Elite Eight (winners advance to the Final Four)

It has been my experience that it is very difficult to win a large office pool without correctly picking at least three of the Final Four participants. This is because most pools allocate a greater amount of points to the later rounds. Historically, it is rare for more than two teams seeded lower than a #2 seed to reach the Final Four. However, it's happened in two of the past three years. In 2011, #3 UConn, #4 Kentucky, #8 Butler and #11 VCU all advanced to the Final Four. In 2014, #7 UConn defeated #8 Kentucky in the Finals.

Seed # Final Fours
1 24
2 13
3 7
4 6
5 5
7 1
8 4
9 1
11 2

Seed Differential

As we have seen, seeding is the greatest predictor in determining who will win tournament games. The #1 seeds have performed significantly better than #2 seeds and #2 seeds have performed much better than seeds 3 through 6. However, these numbers have also shown us that when seed differential (the difference between the seeds of the participants in a given game) is small, the advantage for the team with the better seed diminishes. Here are the breakdowns by seed differential since 2000:

Seed Diff Better Seed Rec Win Pct
1-2 104-86 54.7%
3 87-50 63.5%
4 38-18 67.9%
5-7 152-77 66.4%
8 77-28 73.3%
9-10 61-15 80.3%
11-13 129-11 92.1%
15 64-0 100.0%

As you might have expected, a seed advantage of 1 or 2 isn't much of an advantage as the poorer seed won about 45.3% of the games. This includes a lot of #8 vs #9 games in the Round of 64 and #4 vs #5 matchups in the Round of 32. However, the uspet percentage has decreased in the past 3 to 5 years. When the seed differential was increased to 3, the better seed's winning percentage jumped to almost 64%. Interestingly, there really wasn't much difference in the winning percentage when the seed differential was between 4 and 8. Having a seed advantage of 9 or 10 paid more dividends mostly because this group was dominated by the 4 vs 13 matchups in the Round of 64 (typically a top 25 team vs a conference champion from a one-bid conference or a bubble team). When the seed differential gets up to 11 or more, you're talking about a huge upset.

I'm sorry that this analysis is a lot shorter than it's been in the past. My previous updates included analysis of road/neutral court strength, record against the RPI Top 50, record in the last 12 games, experience and Round of 64 upset profiles. I did not update those numbers this year because I need to figure out the best way to adjust for the increasing power of seed differential.

Good luck with your brackets.
Patrick Reilly

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NCAA Trends Part II
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