Putting Out the Vibe Random observations from my day-to-day life

March 26, 2011

The history of NCAA Tournament upsets

Every year I hear people say “the upsets this year destroyed my bracket.” While some years this is probably valid, most years these people (who are probably just trying to justify the hundreds of hours they spent filling out their bracket) are just making excuses. Nonetheless, I’ve always wondered what the real upset history in the NCAA Basketball actually is. Unfortunately, since the modern 64 team bracket structure just began in 1985, it really only makes sense to go back that far. So on my flight last Thursday, I did just that (and throughout the process felt a lot like Douglass Bates)…

A lot of people focus most of their bracket destruction excuses on the first round upsets. While this is perhaps the most memorable round of upsets, I will also consider the subsequent rounds and the total upsets in the entire tournament to evaluate just how prevalent upsets are from year to year. Additionally, since a nine seed defeating an eight seed is technically an upset, albeit not a large one, I will also consider the magnitude of the upsets in a given year by summing the total upset differential of all of the upsets which occurred.
 

 
1st Round
2nd Round
Sweet 16
Elite 8
Final 4
Championship
 
TOTAL
 
Average
Upset
Differential
#
Upsets
Total Upset
Differential
#
Upsets
Total Upset
Differential
#
Upsets
Total Upset
Differential
#
Upsets
Total Upset
Differential
#
Upsets
Total Upset
Differential
#
Upsets
Total Upset
Differential
#
Upsets
Total Upset
Differential
1985
7
33
6
37
1
3
2
7
1
6
1
7
18
93
5.17
1986
6
38
8
43
2
13
1
10
0
0
1
1
18
105
5.83
1987
9
45
5
23
2
11
2
6
0
0
0
0
18
85
4.72
1988
5
29
6
26
2
7
2
3
1
4
1
3
17
72
4.24
1989
12
54
1
1
4
9
1
1
2
3
0
0
20
68
3.40
1990
7
35
9
53
4
15
2
8
0
0
0
0
22
111
5.05
1991
9
57
0
0
4
12
1
2
2
3
0
0
16
74
4.63
1992
8
36
3
16
1
4
2
6
1
2
0
0
15
64
4.27
1993
6
36
4
12
1
4
1
1
0
0
0
0
12
53
4.42
1994
9
29
5
28
2
5
2
2
0
0
0
0
18
64
3.56
1995
8
48
2
4
2
6
2
3
0
0
0
0
14
61
4.36
1996
9
37
3
18
1
4
2
5
0
0
0
0
15
64
4.27
1997
7
39
6
26
1
3
0
0
1
3
1
3
16
74
4.63
1998
9
47
5
21
1
1
2
3
1
2
0
0
18
74
4.11
1999
12
50
7
44
3
8
1
1
0
0
0
0
23
103
4.48
2000
3
11
9
45
4
13
3
5
0
0
0
0
19
74
3.89
2001
13
65
3
16
2
8
2
3
1
1
0
0
21
93
4.43
2002
7
43
5
34
3
15
0
0
1
3
0
0
16
95
5.94
2003
8
30
6
26
2
2
3
5
1
2
1
1
21
66
3.14
2004
4
18
7
33
2
7
2
3
2
2
0
0
17
63
3.71
2005
8
38
6
28
3
8
1
3
0
0
0
0
18
77
4.28
2006
9
51
5
27
2
7
4
15
0
0
1
1
21
101
4.81
2007
5
13
5
10
0
0
2
2
0
0
0
0
12
25
2.08
2008
8
42
3
14
2
8
0
0
0
0
0
0
13
64
4.92
2009
10
46
1
1
2
2
2
3
1
1
0
0
16
53
3.31
2010
10
48
4
25
2
8
2
4
0
0
1
4
19
89
4.68
2011
6
30
4
31
5
13
3
18
0
0
0
0
18
92
5.11
 
Total
214
1048
128
642
55
183
44
101
15
32
7
20
463
2026
Average
7.93
38.81
4.74
23.78
2.22
7.26
1.74
4.41
0.56
1.19
0.26
0.74
17.44
76.19
 
Average Upset Differential
4.90
5.02
3.27
2.53
2.13
2.86
4.37

NCAA Tournament Graph

NCAA Tournament Graph

NCAA Tournament Graph

 

My Qualitative Observations:

  • 1985: As a number eight seed, the 1985 Villanova Wildcats remain the lowest seeded team to ever win the tournament. They also caused the largest Final Four upset in tournament history over number two seeded Memphis (upset differential of six) and the largest championship upset in tournament history over number one Georgetown (upset differential of seven).
  • 1985–1987: At the onset of the 64 team structure, Navy was good at basketball. Weird. Since these first three years, they have never made it back to the big dance. The highlight of these appearances was 1986 when Navy advanced to the Elite Eight.
  • 1986: The largest Cinderella team in tournament history (by inflicting the most total upset differential on its opponents) was number 11 seeded LSU in 1986. LSU defeated number six Purdue, number three Memphis, number two Georgia Tech, and number one Kentucky, on its way to the Final Four. LSU’s defeat of Georgia Tech was also the largest sweet 16 upset in tournament history. In this year, number 14 Cleveland State had a memorable run in the fairly new 64 team tournament structure, defeating number three Indiana and number six Saint Joseph’s. Little Rock had a memorable first round win over number three Notre Dame. This was also the season that the NCAA officially adopted the 19’9” three point line.
  • 1987: A memorable run from number 14 seed Austin Peay, who defeated number three Illinois in the opening round.
  • 1990: The year with the most severe overall upsets in tournament history was 1990, when the total seed differential of all upsets totaled 111. In 1990, the total number of upsets (22) was only one upset shy of the all time high, which occurred in 1999. 1990 also saw the most second round upsets (9) in tournament history. Although this number of second round upsets also occurred in 2000, the total second round upset differential in 1990, 53, makes this the most severe second round of upsets in tournament history.
  • 1992–1993: Michigan’s Fab Five made unsuccessful runs at two championships prior to ruining Michigan’s basketball program and Weber’s timeout. Who knows what would have come from a third Fab Five season, rather than a sort-of-fab four in 1994.
  • 1993: The total number of upsets in 1993 (12) is tied for the least all time. This number also occurred in 2007.
  • 1997: During my freshman year at the University of Minnesota, I tried to be a gopher fan. I really did. However, their underperforming football and basketball teams made being a Minnesota sports fan exhausting. During my review, it was strange to see Minnesota (1) make a run to the 1990 Elite Eight, (2) make a run all the way to the 1997 Final Four, and (3) be a 1997 one seed. I realize that it recently became “tubby time” up north, but I don’t expect to see this ever happen again in my lifetime. Perhaps this is like my name coming up in the Green Bay Packers season ticket waiting list (currently 62,139th) and my kids can expect to see it happen in their lifetime.
  • 1999: The most upsets in tournament history (not factoring in seed differential) occurred in 1999 with a total of 23 upsets.
  • 1999–2001: From 1999 to 2001, Gonzaga busted brackets like it was their job, defeating six teams for a total upset differential (difference in seeds) of 33.
  • 2000: The fewest first round upsets in tournament history occurred in 2000, with only three. In this year, the smallest first round total upset differential, 11, also occurred and Wisconsin, the greatest team in the history of college basketball, advanced to the final four.
  • 2001: The most first round upsets in tournament history occurred in 2001. That year, 13 upsets occurred in the first round for a total upset differential of 65 (this is also the largest first round upset differential in tournament history). The average seed differential in these 13 first round upsets was 5.0.
  • 2002: The largest average upset differential in tournament history occurred in 2002. Each upset this year averaged a seed difference of 5.94.
  • 2006: Davidson’s 2006 Final Four run was the second largest infliction of upset differential on its opponents in tournament history (a total seed difference of 27), behind only 1986 LSU. This was also the year that the NBA began requiring high school players to wait one year after graduation before being eligible for the draft, encouraging more players to pursue one-and-done college careers.
  • 2007: The least upsets in tournament history occurred in 2007, with only 12 (12 upsets also occurred in 1993, however, they were more severe). This year also yielded the least severe upsets in tournament history, when the total upset differential (difference in seeds) was a mere 25 and the average upset was by a seed difference of only 2.08.
  • 2008: The only year that all number one seeds made it to the Final Four.
  • 2009: The three point line was officially lengthened from 19’9” to 20’9.”
  • 2011: The most severe round of elite eight upsets in tournament history occured (considering total seed differential). Both VCU and Butler’s cinderella runs were memorable, but are still not as large of a seed differential as occured during LSU’s 1986 run and Davidson’s 2006 run.
     
  • 1985–1991: Although known today mainly for its buffets and Celine Dion concerts, Las Vegas used to have a basketball team. I was merely a young warthog at the time, so I don’t remember these years, but UNLV appeared in every tournament from 1985 through 1991 and advanced to the final four in 1987, 1990, and 1991.
  • 1991, 1993, 1997, 2001: The largest upsets in tournament history occurred four times in the first round 15 seed versus the two seed matchup (upset differential of 13). The games included Richmond over Syracuse (1991), Santa Clara over Arizona (1993), Coppin State over South Carolina (1997), and Hampton over Iowa State (2001). In tournament history, no 16 seed has ever defeated a one seed in the first round.
  • 1986, 1988, 1990, 2000, 2004: More second round upsets occurred in these years than first round upsets.
  • 1986 and 2006: The largest Elite Eight upsets in tournament history (both 11 seeds over one seeds for an upset differential of 10), occurred. The games included George Mason over Connecticut (2006) and LSU over Kentucky (1986).
  • 1986–2000: While Bob Knight wasn’t throwing chairs at Indiana, he was making an impressive run of tournament appearances. These included a 1987 National Championship, three Sweet Sixteens (1989, 1991, and 1994), a 1992 appearance in the National Semifinals, and a 1993 Elite Eight appearance. Later, while coaching Texas Tech, knight made four more appearances in the tournament in 2002, 2004, 2005, and 2007.
  • 2001-Present: Bo Ryan, the winningest coach in Big Ten history (among coaches with more than 5 years experience) with a 71.4% winning percentage, hasn’t missed the tournament since becoming the head coach at Wisconsin 10 years ago. Prior to Ryan, the badgers had only been to the tournament seven times in their history.
     

With upsets seeming fairly consistent since the inception of the 64 team tournament structure, contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t seem as though the selection committee has gotten worse at their job (although they stiffed Colorado pretty badly in 2011).

In all the years that I’ve finished last in my own pool, I think the less time I spend trying to predict upsets the better I do. These people will probably always beat me anyway.

My data and graphs spreadsheet is available here.

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