This year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament gave us some of the most incredible upsets we’ve ever seen. Loyola made it to the Final Four as an 11 seed and University of Maryland Baltimore County became the first 16 seed to beat a 1 seed. So was it the most upset-filled tournament ever? And where does it rank all time?
I went back through every NCAA Men’s Tournament since the field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985 to determine in which years it had been the most upset prone. I did this by going through each round and averaging the seeds of each team.
If there were no upsets, you would expect the averages to be as follows:
Round of 64: 8.5 (this will always be the same)
Round of 32: 4.5
Sweet 16: 2.5
Elite 8: 1.5
Final Four: 1
Championship Game: 1
The further a round deviates from this expected value, the more and the bigger the upsets.
The first step is to make all the calculations for every round of every tournament. So it would be easier to visualize, I did this in batches of five.
The first few years of the 64 team format produced some of the most parity ever seen in the tournament. My guess is this was because they really hadn’t figured out how to seed teams yet so there wasn’t the same consistency we see today. Villanova won in 1985 as an 8 seed, which remains the highest seed of any champion.
1986 had the most upset driven Sweet 16, Elite 8 and Final Four of the group, however, with 10 seed Villanova, 11 seed LSU, 12 seed Depaul, and 14 seeds Cleveland State and Arkansas – Little Rock all making it to the Sweet 16, and LSU making all the way to the Final Four. This Sweet 16 is actually the most upset-driven that’s ever been seen, with an average seed of 5.56 in that round.
The 1990 Tournament would give 1986 a run for its money, with a Sweet 16 that included 11 seed Loyola Marymount and 12 seed Ball State advancing to the semifinals of the Same Region. Loyola Marymount would be joined in the Elite 8 by 10 seed Texas, and only one 1 seed, eventual champions UNLV, made the Final Four.
1991 saw a 6 seed Michigan make a run to the championship game only to lose to Duke by 20. But that season’s wins were vacated so does it even matter?
Michigan had no better luck in 1993 as they lost in the Final Four to North Carolina when Chris Webber forgot they were out of timeouts.
The tournaments in the late 90s weren’t particularly interesting from an upset perspective.
1997 saw the 4 seed Arizona Wildcats win it all, the highest seed to win it in the decade, while 1999 saw five double digit seeds make the Sweet 16. If you’re looking for the craziest tournament ever, you won’t find it here.
The 2000 Tournament presents a strong case as one of the craziest years ever based on it’s group of Final Four teams, which included two 8 seeds in North Carolina and Wisconsin. They were joined by 1 seed Michigan State and 5 see Florida. The weird thing about 2000, however, is that with an average in the round of 32 of 4.84 it had the least upset-prone first round in the history of the 64 team format. Of the 32 games played, only 3 upsets occurred.
Otherwise, these years mostly saw a fair amount of first round upsets only for most of those lower seeded teams to immediately lose.
2006 brought us one of the most fun tournaments in recent memory as George Mason made the run to the Final Four as an 11 seed (sound familiar)? Sadly, they were then pummeled by Florida who were on their way to the first of back-to-back championships. On the other end of the spectrum, 2007 has the lowest-seeded combination of Elite 8 teams (four 1s, two 2s, two 3s), 2008 had a Final Four of entirely 1 seeds (the only time this has ever happened) and 2009 had the lowest-seeded group of Sweet 16 teams ever.
Of all these groups, this one may be the most fun. In 2012 we had one of the craziest first rounds with two 15 seeds, Norfolk State and Lehigh, pulling huge upsets. Sadly, the rest of 2012 was incredibly predictable
The place to really look in these years is the Final Four, specifically the 2011, 2013, and 2014 editions.
2011 brings us the highest seeds on average for the Final Four, which included 3 seed UConn (the eventual winners led by Kemba Walker), 4 seed Kentucky, 8 seed Butler (looking to avenge losing to Duke the year before) and 11 seed, and the story of the tournament, VCU.
2013 saw the magical run of 9 seed Wichita State, with the Final Four also featuring a matchup of 4 seeds in Michigan and Syracuse.
2014 owns the distinction of highest-seeded matchup ever in a championship game as a 7 seed took on an 8 seed. This becomes much less exciting when you find out the teams involved were UConn and Kentucky. Doesn’t feel as Cinderella-y when your supposed Underdogs are blue-bloods.
Finally, we have the four most recent Tournaments. 2016 earns the distinction as having the most upset-heavy first round in Tournament History, with the higher (worse) seed triumphing in 13 of the 32 games. Other than that, this year’s Tournament certainly stands out. 2018 saw the highest-seed group of Elite 8 teams ever thanks to the trio of Loyola along with 9 seeds Kansas State and Florida State. I expected 2018 to score higher in the first round thanks to the UMBC upset of Virginia, but there weren’t all the many other upsets (Buffalo beating Arizona being the only real shocker). Loyola’s trip to the Final Four helps 2018 continue to score well.
Is 2018 the craziest tournament of all time? That’s incredibly hard to quantify.
One metric I tried was to add up the total differences between the average seed in each round and the expected average seed value (discussed in the intro). The problem with this is as the Final Four, championship game, and champion all have expected values of 1, an unexpectedly high seed in any of those round has a disproportionate effect on the result. While this may make some sense, the result is that 2014 is the runaway winner on the back of that 7 vs 8 UConn and Kentucky title game.
On a more subjective level, an 11 seed has only made it to the Final Four four times, and this year’s occurrence was partnered with two 9 seeds in the Elite 8 and a 16 beating a 1 for the first time ever. I think that’s pretty hard to top.
2011 also has a strong argument as you saw two Cinderella stories of sorts, VCU and Butler make it to the Final Four and a 4 seed in UConn win it all.
Here’s those three years compared on the same graph:
Admittedly, the case for 2018 is made weaker by the National Championship Game matchup of a 1 and a 3 seed, but it has the other two candidates beat through the first three rounds.
One definitive conclusion I can make is that recent history has given us some incredibly entertaining college basketball.
For my money, I can’t remember a tournament ever making be stare at my TV in disbelief at what I had just witnessed more than this year. VCU’s run was great in 2011 but they didn’t put up as good a fight in the Final Four as Loyola. And in 2011 Butler had been there the year before and was a less talented squad without Gordon Hayward.
For me, the 2014 Tournament only makes this group on paper. The other teams in the Final four that year were Florida, a 1 seed, and Wisconsin, a 2 seed.
In the end, I think UMBC and Loyola are two of the greatest stories in the history of the NCAA Tournament, and to have them in the same year was special. Thus, I’ll say that in my opinion this year was the craziest, most memorable NCAA tournament of all time.
I’d love to hear other people’s opinions, whether you draw a different conclusion from my data or feel I’ve overlooked a certain tournament. Please feel free to discuss in the comments below.
Admittedly, I should have entered all the seed numbers into excel first, but instead I wrote them all down and calculated the averages manually. This was both a complete waste of time and necessitated far, far to much checking of my math.
If you’d like to check out my data you can find it here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1OupOuGfwFYGmen4BUjIlyxzJbboZQMLvvebDU7DUEmo/edit?usp=sharing