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Day 1 Of March Madness Was Weirdly Normal

The first day of March Madness was anything but mad. Better-seeded teams went 14-2 on the day, and even the “surprises” were relatively easy to see coming: The higher-seeded teams’ two losses came at the hands of Middle Tennessee State (the South’s No. 12 seed) and Xavier (No. 11 in the West), both of which were among the most popular upset picks of the first round. (Our March Madness predictions had each game as a toss-up.) All told, the NCAA hadn’t seen a chalkier opening day since 2000, when the superior seeds went 15-1 after the tournament launched.


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That kind of normalcy is not why we tune in to the tournament! Annoyed that I watched 12 consecutive hours of basketball with so little chaos to show for it, I started to wonder whether we have overblown expectations of unpredictability in March Madness. Are most days actually like Thursday, but we only remember the last-second shots and the scrappy Cinderellas?

No — Thursday really was different.

OPENING DAY 2017
SEED EXPECTED UPSET RATE GAMES EXPECTED UPSETS ACTUAL UPSETS
9 50% 2 1.0 0
10 39 1 0.4 0
11 36 1 0.4 1
12 36 4 1.4 1
13 20 4 0.8 0
14 16 1 0.2 0
15 6 1 0.1 0
16 0 2 0.0 0
Total 16 4.2 2
March Madness tipped off with a dose of sanity

Expected upset rates are based on winning percentage in all first-round games for each seed from 1985-2016.

Source: Sports-Reference.com

This year featured 2.2 fewer upsets than expected, which makes it second only to 2000 in terms of uneventful opening days during the tournament’s 64-team era. To get those numbers, I looked at the historical upset rates for each seed,1 taking into account which games were played on Thursday.

But despite their disappointing record, underdogs kept the score relatively close in 2017’s opening-day games. In terms of average scoring margin, this year tied for the ninth-most-respectable showing by worse-seeded teams on an opening day of the tournament — on par with days where fans saw six or seven upsets.

In other words, a lucky bounce here or there could have made all the difference for Thursday’s long shots. Maybe that means good, old-fashioned madness will be restored to its rightful place on Day 2 of the tourney. Then again, analyzing other second-day games using the same method as above suggests that Friday should be less upset-y (3.9 expected upsets) than Thursday was supposed to be. Somebody free us from this prison of predictability!

Footnotes

  1. Starting in 1985, when the NCAA tournament expanded to a 64-team bracket, and going through 2016.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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