Much of the excitement that gives March Madness its nickname stems from the high frequency of upsets each year. But what happens when the underdog becomes overrated?
Each year, the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee has stubbornly seeded teams from mid-major conferences way too highly. Among top-5 seeds over the last 20 tournaments, schools from power conferences* are over 57% more likely to reach the Sweet 16 than mid-majors.
Percentage of Top-5 Seeds Reaching Sweet 16, 1995-2014
Famously, at least one #12 seed has defeated a #5 seed in 24 of the past 26 tournaments. What is less commonly known is the breakdown of those first round victims. Over that span, a whopping 61% of mid-major 5th seeds have lost in the first round, compared with only 33% of power conference 5th seeds. The question is: why are the mid-majors so routinely over-valued by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee?
The issue of over-seeding mid-major schools did not begin with Gonzaga, but perhaps no team better epitomizes the problem. In 1999, the Gonzaga Bulldogs were seeded 10th in the NCAA Tournament’s West Regional. They would upset #7 Minnesota, #2 Stanford and #6 Florida before falling to eventual champion, Connecticut in the Elite 8. It was an incredible run for the Zags (as they are often referred to) in only their second ever tournament appearance.
The following March, Gonzaga again enjoyed success. This time as a #10 seed, they were able to reach the Sweet 16, knocking off #7 Louisville and #2 St. John’s. In 2001, the team advanced to a third straight Sweet 16; this time, as a #12 seed. For three consecutive years, the school – previously best known for Hall of Fame alumnus, John Stockton – had won at least two games in the tournament as a double-digit seed. They had made it known that they were a force in college basketball.
Or were they?
By 2002, the Zags had built up some credibility and were rewarded with a #6 seed in that year’s tournament; it was their first ever single digit seeding. They proceeded to lose in the first round. In 2004 they moved all the way up to a #2 seed, only to fall to #10 Nevada in the second round. In 2005, they again lost in the second round, this time as a #3 seed.
For 16 consecutive years, Gonzaga has qualified for the NCAA Tournament; an impressive streak for any program. However, after those three exciting runs as a double-digit seed, the school has now gone 13 seasons with zero Elite 8s and only two Sweet 16s (despite having been seeded #1, #2 and #3 twice during that span). Since their most recent Sweet 16 appearance in 2009, the team has been eliminated in the second round in each of the last five years by an average margin of 16 points per loss.
Year after year, Gonzaga entered the tournament with outstanding win-loss records, though they had typically done so without having to play many tough opponents along the way. During their 16-year run of March Madness appearances, the school has defeated more than one AP Top 25 team during a regular season only four times. In spite of this, the Zags often were given a seeding that far outweighed their accomplishments. The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee seemed to think that Gonzaga’s prior success as an underdog from 1999-2001 was not a fluke; that somehow, their schedule weakness didn’t really matter. Well, it did. And the Zags weren’t the only team being seeded too highly despite having played a soft schedule.
Over the past dozen years, Dayton, Nevada, Drake and Creighton all have been given top-5 seeds. Each of them failed to reach the Sweet 16 in those instances. In fact, of those teams, only Creighton even advanced past the first round as a top-5 seed. The Bluejays proceeded to lose in the next round to #6 seed Baylor by 30 points. During those 12 tournaments, mid-major top-5 seeds were 83% more likely to lose their first round game than top-5 seeds from power conferences. In the five years prior (1998-2002), only one of 11 (9%) mid-major teams that were top-5 seeds reached the Sweet 16.
There are even repeat offenders, so to speak. St. Louis, VCU and Wichita State each have been top-5 seeds twice in the past three tournaments. Of those six instances, none of them managed to reach the Sweet 16.
Wichita State, of course, did make a run to the 2013 Final Four as a #9 seed, which was a remarkable achievement. They followed that run up with an undefeated regular season in 2014 that catapulted them all the way up to a #1 seed; a lofty ranking for a team that had played a schedule that wasn’t among the nation’s 100 toughest. Several teams that were not #1 seeds would have been favored in a matchup against the Shockers. It wasn’t a huge surprise, therefore, that they failed to reach the Sweet 16. The dynamic that resulted from their loss, however, was surprising.
When Kentucky, an 8th seed, defeated #4 seed Louisville and #2 seed Michigan to advance to the Final Four, the Wildcats gained a lot of respect among both the media and college basketball fans. It was a great story; a team that started five freshmen, seeded #8 in their region, had made it all the way to the national semifinals. Yet, earlier in the tournament, when they had slipped past #1 Wichita State in the round of 32, it was the Shockers who had somehow garnered a lot of respect – just for playing such a tight game against a storied program.
This year, there may have been no better example of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee forcing mid-majors into positions they don’t deserve than when 6th-seeded Massachusetts was a six-point underdog to Tennessee; a #11 seed that had to win a play-in game just to qualify for the field of 64 teams. Perhaps the Minutemen, and not the Volunteers, should have been forced to play the extra game. Tennessee went on to win the game by 19 points.
Then, there’s the mysterious case of over-seeding that occurs routinely with New Mexico. Over the past 22 seasons, the Lobos have participated in 11 NCAA Tournaments and were seeded 5th or higher six times. During that span, they have been eliminated in the first round five times and in the second round six times. That would be zero Sweet 16s in all those years; yet for some reason, they often get rewarded with a high seed.
Obviously, the lack of tournament success for top-5 seeds isn’t restricted to mid-majors. Vanderbilt has struggled in that role, getting to the Sweet 16 only once in five tries as a top-5 seed. But Vanderbilt is more of an exception than a rule for teams from power conferences, just as the success once enjoyed by St. Joseph’s and Butler are outliers among highly-seeded mid-majors.
Over the past three years, there have been 13 top-5 seeds from mid-major conferences. Only one (7.7%) – San Diego State this year – has reached the Sweet 16. Conversely, 66% of power conference schools who were top-5 seeds during that time have advanced that far. Backing out the historically dominant top-2 seeds still results in 56% of the #3-#5 seeds from power conferences reaching the Sweet 16. Of course, top-2 seeds aren’t always dominant; the only two such teams from mid-major conferences during those years, Gonzaga and Wichita State, both lost in the round of 32.
The David versus Goliath theme that is displayed during the NCAA Tournament is one of the most thrilling in all of sports. But when David is miscast as Goliath, he often is predictably unable to live up to expectations and the underdog storyline ceases to exist. In fact, it is often reversed; the lower-seeded power conference school has been having relatively little trouble getting past the highly-seeded mid-major; a fact that has consistently held true year in and year out. This trend will continue as long as the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee fails to properly weigh the mid-major schools.
* Power conferences include the ACC, Big East, Big 10, Big 8/12, Pac-10/12 and SEC. The AAC replaced the Big East in 2014, given how many of the conference’s top schools transferred last year. Also, a school’s classification changes based on what conference they are in; for example, Cincinnati, Louisville and Marquette were considered mid-majors prior to joining the Big East in 2005-2006.
(photo by SD Dirk)