History helps when filling out March Madness brackets

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Over the next week “Bracketmania” will be the hot phrase as the field of 68 teams competing for the 2019 NCAA basketball championship will be announced this Sunday afternoon.

All the seeds and matchups will be shown as the paths those 68 teams will need to navigate to be the lone survivor come Monday, April 8.

Aside from the interest of alumni, basketball fans in general and sports bettors in particular, much of the widespread interest in the tournament relates to the various office pools and contests in which the participant fills out the routes each team will take on its way to seeing its season come to an end.

Remember, 67 of the teams will end their season with a loss. With the exception of the winners of the four “First Four” games (played next Tuesday and Wednesday) the other 60 teams will have to win six straight games to win the national title.

Let’s take a look at some history to guide you through the process of filling out your bracket. And with “seeds” being the important criterion to consider, let’s “plant” some key thoughts along the way.

Do not go overboard in picking opening-round upsets as based upon the seeds. In the 34 tournaments since the field expanded to at least 64 teams, an average of eight lower-seeded teams per season have defeated their higher seeded foe which is only 25 percent.

And a full quarter of those upsets involve a No. 8 seed losing to a No. 9 –- the matchup that, in theory, is thought of as the most competitive of the opening- round matchups.

Eliminating the 8 vs. 9 matchups the other 7 seeded matchups (of which there are four each tournament) the lower seeded team has pulled the upset just under 22 percent of the time, a significant decrease when more than 1,000 games are included in the sample.

Much attention has been accorded the 5 vs. 12 matchup yet the number of times the No. 5 seeded team has defeated the No. 12 seed is almost the same of the number of upset pulled by an 11 over a 6 and a 10 over a 7.

The matchup that provides far fewer upsets than one might ­expect is a 13 defeating a 4. Over the past 10 tournaments the No. 11 seed has won 21 of 40 matchups against a 6 while the 10 and the 12 have each won 16 games and the 13 seed just eight.

Note that there has been wide volatility in recent seasons. Two of the five tournaments producing the fewest number of opening-round upsets were within the past four seasons.

In 2015 only five lower seeded teams won and in 2017 only six did so. Yet in between those seasons we witnessed the most opening-round upsets in the 34 Tournaments as 13 lower-seeded teams won vs. 19 wins by the higher seed.

Of the next three rounds, the rounds of 32 and 16 go most according to form with roughly 11 of the 16 and five or six of the higher-seeded teams advancing, about 70 percent in both rounds.

Yet once teams reach the Elite Eight, the higher seeded team has advanced slightly more than 55 percent of the time (76 of 136). In reaching this round, teams have already won three games when facing the end of their seasons. 

Which leads to some thoughts on picking teams to make the Final Four.

• Avoid picking all four No. 1 seeds to make it through the first four rounds. Only once, in 2008, have all four top seeds made it to the Final Four.

• It is almost as unlikely that no No. 1 seed will make it that far. Only twice – in 2006 and 2011 – did none of the four 1 seeds made it past the Elite Eight.

In fact, there has been much greater parity over the past decade or so. In more than half of the past 16 Tournaments since 2003 have either one or no No. 1 seed made the Final Four (nine times).

• In five of the 16 exactly two top seeds made the Final Four (including each of the past two seasons) with three making the Tournament once, in 2015.

Remember that if form held through the first two rounds no team seeded lower than 4 would reach the third round – the Sweet 16. All teams seeded 5 or lower are “projected” to not survive the opening weekend.

Which leads to the following.

Perhaps the most surprising development in recent seasons is that in each of the past six tournaments at least one team seeded 6 or lower has made the Final Four, including two such teams in 2014.

And although no teams seeded four or higher made the Final Four in 2012 a Number 5 seed reached the final Four in 2011.

Yet when it comes to the championship game, nine of the last 12 National Champions have been No. 1 seeds. The three exceptions have been Connecticut in both 2011 and 2014 (as a 3 and a 7) and Villanova in 2016 (2). The Wildcats were a No. 1 seed when they won their second title in three seasons last year.

And in five of the last dozen seasons, including the last two and in three of the last four, the championship game featured a pair of No. 1 seeds playing for the title.

And while it took 34 years to happen, don’t look for a No. 1 seed to lose its first-round game.

Since the NCAA Tournament went from 48 to 64 teams in 1985 and began seeding teams 1 through 16 the first 33 tournaments produced a perfect 132-0 record of 1 seeds defeating No. 16 seeds.

Then came the 2018 tournament and Maryland, Baltimore County, a 16 seed in the South Region.

The Retrievers shocked the sports world by defeating No. 1-seeded Virginia as a 20.5 point underdog. Perhaps even more shocking was the final margin as UMBC defeated the Cavaliers 74-54.

It’s unlikely we’ll see history repeat itself this year. So good luck with your brackets. Don’t be afraid to take some chances but don’t get carried away. And, most of all, have fun and enjoy the next three weeks. 

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About the Author

Andy Iskoe

Owner and author of “The Logical Approach,” Andy Iskoe has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football.

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