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No. 16 Seeds Are Due*

It’s the sort of statistic that seems ripped from pages of the Washington Generals media guide. Since the men’s NCAA Tournament went to a 64-team format in 1985, No. 16 seeds are winless: an imperfect 0-124 record.

No. 16 seeds can be pretty bad basketball teams, of course. Often, they’re teams from small conferences that won automatic bids by winning their conference tournament in a series of upsets after having barely cleared .500 during the regular season. (Small-conference teams that win both the regular season and their conference tournaments will usually wind up with No. 13, 14 or 15 seeds instead.) Furthermore, No. 16s have the misfortune of being matched up against No. 1 seeds, which are theoretically the four best teams in the country.

But being bad is one thing; going 0 for 124 is another. My hunch is that No. 16 seeds have been unlucky not to have pulled off at least one upset.

Consider that in the 1998 women’s NCAA Tournament, No. 16 seed Harvard (those plucky upstarts) beat No. 1 seed Stanford. And in the men’s tournament, several No. 16 seeds have come close to winning. Two of them, Princeton and East Tennessee State, lost by a single point in 1989 to Georgetown and Oklahoma, respectively. The next year, No. 16 seed Murray State took Michigan State to overtime before losing by four.

Meanwhile, plenty of No. 15 seeds have won. Well, not plenty, but seven of them have upset No. 2 seeds. And No. 14 seeds have beaten No. 3 seeds 20 times. These results suggest that 16-versus-1 upsets ought to be possible, especially because there isn’t always a whole lot of daylight separating teams from one seed to the next. As its choices this year made clear, the selection committee is not infallible. Sometimes a team gets seeded as a 16 when it should probably have been a 14 or 15. Sometimes a No. 1 seed should have been a No. 2 seed. If a No. 15 seed can beat a No. 2 seed, then surely a 15-seed that’s mis-seeded as 16 can beat a 2-seed that’s mis-seeded as a No. 1.

But we can be more precise about this. In building our NCAA Tournament forecasts this year, we developed an Elo ratings system for college basketball. Although our forecasts for this year blend Elo with several other computer ratings, we can run Elo-based projections for past tournament games going back as far as we like.

Here, then, is how Elo would have forecast every past 1-versus-16 matchup on the day it was played. Once we figure out the No. 1 seed’s odds of winning each game, we can simply multiply the probabilities to figure out their cumulative odds of winning all 124. It’s a long table, so scroll down to the bottom for the punch line.

CHANCE THAT NO. 1 SEED WINS …
YEAR NO. 1 SEED ELO NO. 16 SEED ELO THIS GAME CUM. GAMES
1985 Georgetown 2135 Lehigh 1256 99.7% 99.7%
1985 Oklahoma 1963 North Carolina A&T 1544 95.7 95.4
1985 St. John’s 1948 Southern 1636 87.7 83.7
1985 Michigan 2024 Fairleigh Dickinson 1461 98.0 82.0
1986 Kansas 2059 North Carolina A&T 1517 97.1 79.6
1986 Duke 2116 Miss. Valley St. 1607 97.5 77.7
1986 Kentucky 2029 Davidson 1524 95.6 74.2
1986 St. John’s 2006 Montana St. 1540 94.4 70.1
1987 North Carolina 2133 Pennsylvania 1492 98.8 69.3
1987 UNLV 2064 Idaho St. 1506 97.3 67.4
1987 Indiana 2007 Fairfield 1473 98.0 66.0
1987 Georgetown 2015 Bucknell 1481 97.3 64.2
1988 Purdue 2015 Fairleigh Dickinson 1502 97.5 62.6
1988 Oklahoma 2043 Chattanooga 1529 95.7 59.9
1988 Temple 2058 Lehigh 1521 97.2 58.2
1988 Arizona 2003 Cornell 1494 97.7 56.9
1989 Arizona 2117 Robert Morris 1360 99.5 56.6
1989 Oklahoma 2028 East Tennessee St. 1517 96.2 54.4
1989 Illinois 2094 McNeese St. 1509 98.5 53.6
1989 Georgetown 2055 Princeton 1531 96.7 51.9
1990 Oklahoma 2101 Towson 1504 98.6 51.1
1990 UNLV 1989 Ark.-Little Rock 1607 94.0 48.0
1990 Connecticut 2015 Boston U. 1533 96.4 46.3
1990 Michigan St. 2052 Murray St. 1607 94.5 43.8
1991 UNLV 2187 Montana 1592 98.4 43.1
1991 North Carolina 2108 Northeastern 1557 97.2 41.9
1991 Ohio St. 1997 Towson 1530 96.5 40.4
1991 Arkansas 2034 Georgia St. 1448 96.6 39.0
1992 Ohio St. 2038 Miss. Valley St. 1475 98.1 38.3
1992 Duke 2209 Campbell 1345 99.7 38.2
1992 Kansas 2106 Howard 1410 98.9 37.8
1992 UCLA 1959 Robert Morris 1485 97.0 36.6
1993 North Carolina 2147 East Carolina 1480 98.9 36.2
1993 Indiana 2130 Wright St. 1557 97.9 35.5
1993 Kentucky 2066 Rider 1427 98.8 35.1
1993 Michigan 2095 Coastal Carolina 1463 98.5 34.6
1994 Purdue 2036 Central Florida 1373 99.0 34.2
1994 Missouri 2003 Navy 1414 98.3 33.6
1994 North Carolina 2082 Liberty 1450 98.4 33.1
1994 Arkansas 2001 North Carolina A&T 1364 98.9 32.7
1995 Kansas 2049 Colgate 1479 97.7 32.0
1995 Wake Forest 2077 North Carolina A&T 1361 99.1 31.7
1995 Kentucky 2115 Mount St. Mary’s 1443 99.0 31.4
1995 UCLA 2059 Florida Intl. 1313 99.5 31.2
1996 Kentucky 2127 San Jose St. 1577 97.8 30.5
1996 Purdue 2050 Western Carolina 1539 96.8 29.5
1996 Massachusetts 2127 Central Florida 1365 99.6 29.4
1996 Connecticut 2134 Colgate 1466 98.8 29.1
1997 North Carolina 2099 Fairfield 1433 99.1 28.8
1997 Kansas 2194 Jackson St. 1451 99.2 28.6
1997 Kentucky 2181 Montana 1578 97.7 27.9
1997 Minnesota 2023 Texas St. 1423 98.3 27.4
1998 Arizona 2159 Nicholls St. 1521 98.8 27.1
1998 North Carolina 2155 Navy 1464 98.9 26.8
1998 Duke 2135 Radford 1462 98.8 26.5
1998 Kansas 2144 Prairie View 1317 99.6 26.4
1999 Auburn 1988 Winthrop 1438 97.4 25.7
1999 Connecticut 2140 Texas San Antonio 1468 98.6 25.3
1999 Duke 2295 Florida A&M 1248 99.9 25.3
1999 Michigan St. 2112 Mount St. Mary’s 1428 98.9 25.0
2000 Michigan St. 2125 Valparaiso 1470 98.8 24.7
2000 Arizona 1982 Jackson St. 1396 99.0 24.5
2000 Stanford 2092 South Carolina St. 1417 98.4 24.1
2000 Duke 2161 Lamar 1372 99.6 24.0
2001 Duke 2149 Monmouth 1544 98.6 23.7
2001 Stanford 2113 UNC-Greensboro 1459 99.1 23.4
2001 Illinois 2030 Northwestern St. 1475 98.0 23.0
2001 Michigan St. 2105 Alabama St. 1450 98.5 22.6
2002 Duke 2193 Winthrop 1411 99.5 22.5
2002 Kansas 2066 Holy Cross 1561 97.3 21.9
2002 Maryland 2110 Siena 1542 98.3 21.5
2002 Cincinnati 2055 Boston U. 1494 97.8 21.1
2003 Oklahoma 1975 South Carolina St. 1473 97.8 20.6
2003 Arizona 2069 Vermont 1481 98.5 20.3
2003 Kentucky 2149 IUPUI 1559 98.1 19.9
2003 Texas 1919 UNC-Asheville 1272 98.4 19.6
2004 Saint Joseph’s 1941 Liberty 1448 96.5 18.9
2004 Duke 2037 Alabama St. 1339 99.3 18.8
2004 Stanford 2041 Texas San Antonio 1450 98.4 18.5
2004 Kentucky 2085 Florida A&M 1421 99.0 18.3
2005 Washington 1964 Montana 1504 95.2 17.4
2005 Illinois 2132 Fairleigh Dickinson 1475 99.0 17.2
2005 North Carolina 2095 Oakland 1510 98.4 17.0
2005 Duke 2058 Delaware St. 1469 98.3 16.7
2006 Duke 2084 Southern 1431 99.1 16.5
2006 Connecticut 2109 Albany 1531 97.9 16.2
2006 Memphis 1931 Oral Roberts 1629 87.1 14.1
2006 Villanova 2035 Monmouth 1505 97.4 13.7
2007 North Carolina 2097 Eastern Kentucky 1494 98.4 13.5
2007 Ohio St. 2084 Central Conn. St. 1550 97.7 13.2
2007 Kansas 2063 Niagara 1613 95.2 12.6
2007 Florida 2046 Jackson St. 1365 98.7 12.4
2008 UCLA 2074 Miss. Valley St. 1350 99.5 12.3
2008 Kansas 2102 Portland St. 1698 95.5 11.8
2008 North Carolina 2141 Mount St. Mary’s 1563 98.3 11.6
2008 Memphis 2023 Texas Arlington 1442 98.1 11.4
2009 Connecticut 2024 Chattanooga 1503 97.4 11.1
2009 North Carolina 2103 Radford 1520 98.0 10.8
2009 Pittsburgh 2021 East Tennessee St. 1536 96.2 10.4
2009 Louisville 2059 Morehead St. 1534 97.0 10.1
2010 Kentucky 2029 East Tennessee St. 1526 96.5 9.8
2010 Kansas 2161 Lehigh 1514 99.0 9.7
2010 Duke 2059 Arkansas Pine Bluff 1422 98.7 9.5
2010 Syracuse 1986 Vermont 1619 92.6 8.8
2011 Pittsburgh 2008 UNC-Asheville 1594 94.5 8.3
2011 Duke 2117 Hampton 1475 98.7 8.2
2011 Kansas 2117 Boston U. 1570 98.1 8.1
2011 Ohio St. 2115 Texas San Antonio 1523 98.7 8.0
2012 Kentucky 2105 Western Kentucky 1476 98.5 7.9
2012 Syracuse 2054 UNC-Asheville 1619 94.9 7.5
2012 North Carolina 2059 Vermont 1629 96.0 7.2
2012 Michigan St. 2029 Long Island U. 1579 95.7 6.9
2013 Louisville 2124 North Carolina A&T 1451 99.0 6.8
2013 Gonzaga 2032 Southern 1435 98.4 6.7
2013 Kansas 2024 Western Kentucky 1499 97.7 6.5
2013 Indiana 1986 James Madison 1574 94.5 6.2
2014 Florida 2086 Albany 1554 98.0 6.0
2014 Wichita St. 2041 Cal Poly 1539 97.4 5.9
2014 Arizona 2012 Weber St. 1557 95.7 5.6
2014 Virginia 2028 Coastal Carolina 1451 97.8 5.5
2015 Villanova 2086 Lafayette 1499 98.0 5.4
2015 Kentucky 2158 Hampton 1503 99.0 5.4
2015 Duke 2028 Robert Morris 1554 96.4 5.2
2015 Wisconsin 2129 Coastal Carolina 1484 98.9 5.1
Every No. 1 vs. No. 16 men’s NCAA Tournament matchup, ever

This data suggests that No. 16 seeds have in fact been pretty unlucky. On average, Elo would have given the No. 1 seed a 97.6 percent chance of winning each individual game; the range runs from 99.9 percent (Duke against Florida A&M in 1999) to 87.1 percent (Memphis against Oral Roberts in 2006). But given 124 chances to pull a rabbit out of their hats, No. 16 seeds “should” have come away with about three victories, according to Elo. Furthermore, the probability of them having gone winless is only about 5 percent. I wouldn’t call the No. 16s phenomenally unlucky — we’re talking about odds of about 20-to-1 against, not 20,000-to-1 against — but this confirms my intuition that they haven’t caught very many breaks.

The good news for No. 16 seeds is that their situation has been improving very slightly. Since the tournament introduced its play-in game in 2001, the average No. 16 to play a No. 1 had an Elo rating of 1504; before that, their average rating was 1470. The play-in games are helpful to the cause of the No. 16 seeds in two ways. First, the truly execrable No. 16s, like Florida A&M in 1999 (which came into the tournament with a 12-18 record in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference), will be routed into the play-in game and will usually lose it instead of wasting one of the 16-seeds’ four opportunities. Second, the play-in winners will have a game of NCAA Tournament experience under their belts. That helps both in real life and for a team’s Elo rating, since Elo weights recent games (and especially recent tournament games) more heavily.

So cheer up, Holy Cross, Hampton, Florida Gulf Coast University and Austin Peay State. Yes, you’re probably going to lose by 30 points. But sooner or later, one of you is going to make history.

Check out FiveThirtyEight’s 2016 March Madness Predictions.


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Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

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