On Sunday the NCAA Selection Committee will release this year’s Tournament brackets and create the structure within which the teams will compete. Teams will be placed in one of sixteen seedings spread across four so-called “regions,” for a total of sixty-four competitors. How teams are seeded dramatically influences their chances of victory in the Tournament. Teams seeded sixteenth may dream of becoming the first of their kind win a first-round game against a top-seed, but probably none will do so. Those top seeds should be feeling optimistic as they begin their paths through the Tournament. Eight of the past thirteen Tournaments have been won by a top seed.
Here is a comprehensive look at the performance of all 832 competitors, representing 216 schools, that have participated in the thirteen Tournaments between 2002 and 2014. (Play-in games are excluded.)
Of the 156 teams seeded fourteenth or lower, only one has managed to advance to the Sweet Sixteen, along with three others from the ranks of the thirteens. Teams seeded tenth through twelfth, and those seeded seventh, have fairly similar records. Just over a fifth of them (22%) survived their two first-round contests and advanced to the Sixteen. When applied to the upcoming Tournament, we should expect to see three teams advance from those four seedings.
If I were a college basketball coach, I would be very disappointed to find my team seeded eighth or ninth. These teams face each other in the first game, with the survivor usually losing to the one seed in the next round. In terms of advancing to the Sweet Sixteen, the odds are better as a twelve seed than they are as an eight or nine!
While the 8/9 matchup is usually seen as a “pick ’em” choice between equally matched opponents despite the seedings, empirically that has not been the case over the past thirteen Tournaments. Eight seeds hold a 30-22 edge over teams seeded ninth in first-round games played since 2001 though that margin is not “statistically significant” by conventional standards.
The survival rates for teams rated sixth or higher rise quickly along with their seedings, but it is the top-seeded teams whose performances really stand out. About a third of the teams seeded first (18 of 52) advanced to the Final Four, and eight of them went on to win one of the thirteen Championships awarded since 2001. Many of those victories came at the expense of teams seeded second in the semifinals and finals. Only one team seeded second, Connecticut in 2004, has won a Championship since 2001, while three Championships were captured by teams seeded third. Last year’s remarkable victory by Connecticut as a seven seed rounds out the list of Champions between 2002 and 2014.