They call it March Madness for a reason – no one is safe from an unpredictable upset! But who’s most vulnerable come Tournament time?
Buzzer beaters. Cinderella teams. March Madness upsets.
They might be the first three things that come to mind when you think about March Madness. Yet every year, it seems that when the dust settles and the Tournament comes to an end, it’s one of the old, familiar names cutting down the nets as National Champions.
Sure, there are exceptions. Those five teams don’t account for every national championship, of course, but when’s the last time we saw a real sleeper take the title? Are March Madness upsets as common as we think?
If you’re trying to uncover your ‘Cinderella’ or surprise team for the 2023 version of March Madness, this guide can give you an idea where to look.
How Often Do 16 Seeds Beat 1 Seeds?
First up, how many times have 16 seeds beaten 1 seeds?
For years, this was the white whale of sports upsets. No matter what surprising event happened… Leicester City winning the Premier League, the Cubs finally winning the World Series… a 16 seed beating a 1 seed in the first round of March Madness remained the impossible quest.
Then UMBC came along in 2018. The tiny school from Maryland (it stands for University of Maryland, Baltimore County) matched up with 1 seed Virginia from the powerful ACC.
After 33 years of clean sweeps in 1 vs. 16 matchups, UMBC finally cracked the code. They turned a 21-21 tie at halftime into a 15-point lead within five minutes of the second half and never looked back.
UMBC’s 74-54 victory is the best-known March Madness upset of recent years, and while the Retrievers would lose to Kansas State two days later, they remain the only No. 16 seed to topple a 1 seed.
Overall, 1 seeds have a 147-1 record against 16 seeds since the Tournament went to 64 teams in 1985.
It could happen again, but don’t try to predict something so unlikely on your bracket.
FanDuel Sports SPECIAL OFFER
How Often Do 15 Seeds Beat 2 Seeds?
This scenario is somewhat more common, as 10 teams seeded 15 have defeated a 2 seed in March Madness history.
Richmond was first in 1991, upending No. 2 Syracuse 73-69 to create what was, at the time, the largest upset in March Madness history in terms of pure seeding difference.
Others followed, and the past two years have each seen a 15 seed topple a 2 seed – Oral Roberts defeated Ohio State in 2021, while Saint Peter’s beat Kentucky just last year.
Overall, 2 seeds have a 138-10 record against 15 seeds since the Tournament went to 64 teams in 1985.
On average, it happens once every 3-4 years. But six of these occasions are in the past decade. If you have a good feeling about a 15 seed, you can view it as a longshot play. However, be sure to pick against a 2 seed who’s unlikely to advance very far.
Here are the stats on other first-round matchups since 1985, when the Tournament went to 64 teams:
- 3 seeds have a record of 126-22 against 14 seeds (85.1%)
- 4 seeds have a record of 117-31 against 13 seeds (79.1%)
- 5 seeds have a record of 94-54 against 12 seeds (63.5%)
- 6 seeds have a record of 91-57 against 11 seeds (61.5%)
- 7 seeds have a record of 90-58 against 10 seeds (60.8%)
- 8 seeds have a record of 72-76 against 9 seeds (48.7%)
How Often Do Double-Digit Seeds Make the Sweet 16?
Upsets happen every year in March, but there’s a difference between a one-off victory and becoming a Cinderella team. It’s not until the Sweet 16 – the second weekend of Tournament play – that teams are taken seriously as contenders for the Final Four or national title.
We looked all the way back to 1985 for teams with seeds of 10 or lower who qualified for the Sweet 16 – meaning they pulled off victories in consecutive games where they were not expected to advance.
We’re using 37 years of data, so multiply that by 16 and you get a total of 592 teams who’ve qualified for the Sweet 16. Of those teams, 87 of them (14.7%) were 10 seeds or lower.
BetRivers Sports SECOND CHANCE
Another way to put that is in an average year, about 2.5 teams seeded 10 or lower make it to the Sweet 16.
So it makes sense to pick a couple Cinderella teams to go to the Sweet 16. Which teams should you pick?
Of the 87 double-digit seeds who made the Sweet 16, only 20 of those teams seeded 10 or lower won and advanced to the Elite Eight. Of those teams, 17 of the 20 were either a 10 seed or an 11 seed. No team has ever gone past the Sweet 16 as a 13 seed, a 14 seed, or a 16 seed.
In 2002, Missouri made it to the Elite Eight as a 12 seed, with Oregon State doing the same in 2021.
Just last year, Saint Peter’s became the first 15 seed to make the Elite Eight.
How Often Do Cinderella Teams Make the Final Four?
Now we’re getting into rare territory.
Only six teams seeded 10 or lower have qualified for the Final Four since 1985.
- No. 11 LSU (1986)
- No. 11 George Mason (2006)
- No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth (2011)
- No. 10 Syracuse (2016)
- No. 11 Loyola Chicago (2018)
- No. 11 UCLA (2021)
What can we learn from this? If you want to take a low seed to make the Final Four…
Don’t Worry About ‘Name Brands’
LSU, Syracuse, and UCLA are storied programs from powerful conferences – but three relative unknowns in George Mason, Virginia Commonwealth, and Loyola Chicago also managed the feat.
Do Pay Attention to Seeding
11 seeds seem to have the sweet spot, as five of these six teams were 11 seeds.
Why? Well, looking at first-round statistics, 11 seeds have about a 39% chance of beating the 6 seed. Then, in the second round, they’re usually playing the 3 seed – a good team, to be sure, but not as daunting as a 1 seed.
In fact, if an 11 seed has to play a 1 seed at all to reach the Final Four, it’s not until the Elite Eight. By then, they’ve had enough success that they no longer see themselves as an 11 seed, but as a team playing well enough to compete with any team.
Do Pay Attention to Free Throw Shooting
Look at college basketball upsets – not just in March Madness, but any time of year – and the most common factor you’ll find is the underdog is able to shoot free throws as often and as well as the favorite.
This makes even more sense during the Tournament, where teams play different styles and every call matters. If you want to pick a team to surprise people and go deep in the Tournament, make sure they shoot a good number of free throws, and shoot them well.
DraftKings Sports SPECIAL OFFER
Who Is The Lowest Seed to Win March Madness?
Unfortunately for Cinderella teams, the Final Four seems to be their Kryptonite. No team with a 10 seed or lower has advanced to the NCAA Championship game.
The lowest seed to qualify for the title game is an 8 seed, and it’s happened three times. In 2014, a group of Kentucky freshmen rode an 8 seed all the way to the final game, where they fell to Connecticut (a 7 seed themselves).
Last year, North Carolina went from an 8 seed to the NCAA Tournament final, losing to Kansas in overtime.
But in 1985, 8 seed Villanova became the lowest seed team to win March Madness when they scored one of the sport’s most famous upsets, beating Georgetown and Patrick Ewing in the final game, 66-64.
Villanova played in the Big East, the nation’s strongest conference that season, and proved their mettle by beating Michigan, Maryland, and North Carolina on their way to the Final Four.
Yet no one gave them much chance against mighty Georgetown, the defending champions and prohibitive favorites to repeat. The Hoyas had lost only twice in 37 games coming into the final, plus they’d already defeated Villanova twice during the regular season.
No matter. The Wildcats shot an unheard-of 79% from the field, stunning the country in capturing the program’s first National Championship behind coach Rollie Massimino. The peak of March Madness upsets/
Of course, today the notion of Villanova as a Cinderella is laughable. They’ve won two more national championships in 2016 and 2018 and qualified for four additional Final Four tournaments.
But the answer to “Who is the lowest seed to win the NCAA Tournament?” remains Villanova, as an 8 seed in 1985.
March Madness Champions By Seed
Here’s a complete breakdown of the number of champions by seed since 1985 (37 years in total):
- 1 seed: 24
- 2 seed: 5
- 3 seed: 4
- 4 seed: 1
- 6 seed: 1
- 7 seed: 1
- 8 seed: 1
So, what does it mean for your bracket?
Pick a 1 seed to win the championship – March madness upsets are fun, and you should definitely pick a few throughout the Tournament. But when it’s time to pick a winner, don’t try to be a hero. Almost two-thirds of national champions come from the 1 seeds.
If you’re determined to go against the 1 seeds… pick a 2 seed or a 3 seed – As you can see, only four national champions have come from a seed lower than 3. And if you can honestly say you predicted any of those outcomes… well, congratulations on winning your bracket!
March Madness is exciting because of its unpredictability. But in bracket pools and sports wagering, the name of the game is predicting outcomes to the best of your ability.
No one’s ever picked every single game of March Madness correctly, but with this information you’re that much closer to identifying 2023’s Cinderella team.