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The Madness of March

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Why this tournament is so appropriately named.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-South Regional Practice Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

March Madness. It’s one of those phrases that upon hearing, an individual immediately conjures an image or play in their mind. Maybe it’s Bryce Drew’s epic buzzer-beating three from the wing for Valpo in 1998? Perhaps it’s Laettner’s shot, or Chris Webber’s timeout? Or maybe it’s Janice in accounting bragging about how she won the big office pool by letting her cats pick the winners?

Whatever that image is for you, the underlying reason that caused it is the same for us all: the NCAA Tournament is a hotbed for upsets.

Why is this tournament so crazy? For starters, basketball in general is a high variance sport. A ticky-tack call on an illegal screen can send 20% of your starting lineup to the bench with foul trouble. Your opponent can strike it rich in the three point lottery. Or your best shooter can simply have an off day.

But it’s deeper than that.

The NCAA Tournament is a one and done setting with games played in arenas that sometimes aren’t even built for basketball, often by teams with one day’s rest/prep. It’s a bunch of 19-22 year olds playing on an enormous stage while also dealing with mid-terms, girlfriends, and NBA draft stocks. After a 4.5 month long regular season, the outcomes of these 67 games played over three weekends are often dictated by matchups, the luck of the draw, and which team gets hot for a couple weeks.

In short, the NCAA Tournament is an incredibly exciting and dramatic spectacle...and also a terrible way to determine the best team in college basketball. Alas, it’s our terrible way to determine the best team, so cherish it we will.

Florida State is returning to the madness for the first time since 2012. We will find out the Seminole’s draw later today, but it’s likely to be a 3 or 4 seed—both of which would earn FSU “protected” status in terms of geographical placement. But does it really matter what seed a team gets?

Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, number 1, 2, or 3 seeds have won 28 of the 32 titles. 87.5% of the last 32 titles were won by seeds that make up just 17.6% of the bracket.

Now, obviously a big part of why the teams seeded this high win the most titles is because those were the teams that performed the best during the regular season. However, it’s also because the pathway for these teams—particularly in the early rounds—is significantly easier.

You see, not only is there typically a substantial difference in the quality of a 1 seed compared to a 4 seed, there is also a substantial difference in the quality of a 16 seed compared to a 13 seed.

Historically speaking, 1 seeds have a 100% chance of advancing to the second round. That drops to 94% for 2 seeds, and then all the way down to 84% for 3 seeds. By the time you get to a 5 seed, it’s just 64%.

The numbers are even more staggering for the second round. One seeds, which get to face either an 8 or a 9 seed, win 87% of second round games. That falls to 68% and 60% for 2 and 3 seeds, respectively, and just 57% and 52% for 4 and 5 seeds.

Think about that for a second. If you’re a 1 seed you have an 87% chance of making the Sweet 16. If you’re a 3 seed, you only have a 50.4% chance of advancing to the second weekend. And if you’re a 5 seed (so, in theory, a top 20 team in the country), the chance you survive and advance beyond the second round is just 33.28%. (Here’s a link to all the percentages if you’re so inclined)

Now, it should be noted that these are based on historical trends. As we know, individual matchups can change these odds greatly. That’s why the name of the game for every program in college basketball is simple: make the NCAAT as often as possible, with as high a seed as possible, and eventually the bracket will break your way.

Of course, even the most consistently elite program in the country is no stranger to the whims of March. Kansas—appearing in the Dance for the 28th consecutive season—just won it’s 13th Big 12 regular season championship in a row. A staggering achievement. Over the 12 years preceding this one, the Jayhawks have earned a 1 or a 2 seed nine times, been a 3 seed two other times, and a 4 seed once.

And what does Kansas have to show for their nearly annual perch atop the brackets? The same number of first round losses as Final Four appearances.

In total, Kansas’ 12 year breakdown looks like this:

  • First round losses: 2
  • Second round losses: 3 (once as a 1 seed)
  • Sweet 16 losses: 2
  • Elite 8 losses: 3
  • Final Four loss: 1
  • National Championship: 1

Kansas has earned a 1 or 2 seed in 75% of the last 12 years, and they have failed to advance beyond the Sweet 16 seven times out of those dozen years.

Welcome to Madness.