March Madness: Perks of being an underdog
By: Shana McHugh
March Madness is once again upon us. With the first weekend of games over, people across America are mourning the loss of their brackets. As coaches and players prepare for the next round of games, the No. 5 seeds vs. No. 12 upset conversation comes up once again. In the past 15 tournaments, a No. 12 seed beat a No. 5 seed in every tournament except the tournament in 2007. While most of these No.12 seed winners don’t usually advance much further in the tournament after the upset, the question most people entertain when planning out their brackets is, “how many upsets will I pick this year?” This year we saw two 12-5 upsets in the Maryland-South Dakota game and the Purdue-UALR games. As a matter of fact, the last “perfect” bracket was ruined over the Maryland (No. 5 seed)-South Dakota (No. 12 seed) because Parzych, the writer of the almost perfect bracket, picked this game as another upset. Because of how frequently the underdog wins these particular games, these games generate a ton of interest, and as a result, scholars and academics literally research how people guess who will win and predicted upsets year after year. Now that there’s two more upsets to add to the statistics, let’s look at the history of the 12 vs. 5 games. The No. 12 seed vs. No. 5 seed upsets this year will be analyzed using statistics of March Madness tournaments of the past.
In order to understand the weird phenomenon that makes up the No. 12 seed vs. No. 5 seed upsets year after year, one needs a grasp on how NCAA teams are selected to participate in the March Madness tournament. There are three phases to the process: (1) select the 36 best at-large teams, (2) seed the field of 68 teams, (3) place the teams into the championship bracket. Members of the Division I men’s basketball committee, fill out an “initial ballot” comprised of two columns that list all the eligible Division I teams in alphabetical order. In the first column, the members identify no more than 36 teams that should be “at-large selections,” while the second column is reserved for all the teams that should be considered to participate in the tournament. Votes are counted and deliberations occur to determine which teams will move on to the next steps of the process.
In phase II of the process involves the committee creating a “seed list” or the ranking of the teams in “true seeds” 1 through 68. In the final phase of the process, the 16 levels are established that cross the four regions. It is important that teams on each seed line are as equal as possible. And in the final phase, the teams are placed in the bracket. While this is a completely abbreviated version, the process is essential to understanding how and why each team is picked and placed in the tournament.
Since, 1985, No. 5 seeds were upset 44 times in 124 games. As shown in the chart, since 1985, there have only been three tournaments where no 12 seed vs. 5 seed upsets occurred, the 1988 tournament, 2000 tournament 2007 tournament.
In fact, three times in tournament history (2002, 2008, 2013) 3 of the 4 games ended with the 12 seeded teams beating the No. 5 seeded teams. In this year’s and last year’s tournament, 2 of the four underdog teams beat their No. 5 seeded opponents. Although these upsets happen frequently, they are in no way encouraged or discouraged “behind the scenes” when teams are being matched up for the tournament. According to Shaheeen,
“Wherever the five-seeds fall, wherever the 12-seeds fall, they fall. The committee doesn’t build a 5-12 matchup, the process does. When the committee builds the bracket, they don’t know who is playing who. They are assigning the [Nos.] 1s, then the 2s, then the 3s, in sequence. They don’t get to who they are playing until much later in the process, and that is geographically and policy predisposed. They are more mindful of protecting the top-four lines. Once they get to the five through 12 [seeds], they basically know that anything could happen.”
Brackets are always such a wildcard for people participating in them because there is no set formula that says which teams will win. Winning is all about who shows up and plays the best on game day. Because of the weird statistics that surround these particular games in the tournament, most coaches prefer being the underdog. As the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks’ coach, Brad Underwood states:
“It’s a great draw. There become some beliefs from the 12 [seed] that they can win because it has happened so often. So I think there is some media that helps the 12, and maybe puts more pressure on a five. What traditionally happens is when you get a five, you get a younger power conference team or a third-place team in their conference. In our case we were a veteran team — tremendous character, tremendous toughness — and we’ve been through all the battles and it all just played into it.”
The No. 5 vs. No. 12 match ups this year are Maryland vs. South Dakota State, Baylor vs. Yale, Indiana vs. Chattanooga, and Purdue vs. Little Rock. Based on each team’s season, Greenburg figured out the percentages of an upset in each game. In the Maryland vs. South Dakota game, there is a 30.6 percent chance of an upset. In the Baylor vs. Yale game, the chance of an upset sits at 43.1 percent. The Purdue vs. Little Rock game has a 32 percent chance of an upset and finally, the chances of Chattanooga beating Indiana are 20.6 percent.
So why do these statistics matter? As someone who’s never even filled out a bracket, I find it pretty interesting that for whatever reason there is such an emphasis place on the importance of these 12 seed vs. 5 seed games but not on other games, especially since most 13 vs. 4 seed upsets don’t happen as frequently (but Hawaii did beat California this year). The statistics from tournaments past help people plan their brackets for upcoming tournaments and lead to an interesting study. I find it so fascinating that these games are viewed as so important even though most of these 12 seed teams don’t end up advancing much further in the tournament even if they win this first game; but with that being said, having a 5 seed advancing far into the tournament can really mess up a bracket. After knowing about the patterns of past tournaments, This year, the No. 12 seed Yale beat Baylor with the score of 79-75 and Arkansas-Little Rock beat No. 5 seed Purdue in a 85-83, adding two of the four 12-5 games to the long list of tournaments with these upset games. Little did I know that so much thought, time and research went into March Madness brackets. As someone who knows very little about basketball, at least now I know that if I ever did decide to fill out a bracket, you have to pick at least one 12-5 upset otherwise you’re doing it all wrong.