Yes, A 16 Seed Beat A 1. But March Madness Hasn’t Been That Mad.
This men's NCAA Tournament lacked 'trendy' first-round upsets.
This article is part of our March Madness series.
The 2023 men’s NCAA Tournament started with a bang. Within six hours of the round of 64 tipping off, we’d seen an experienced No. 4 seed Virginia collapse in dramatic fashion to No. 13 Furman and the much taller No. 2 Arizona get schooled by No. 15 Princeton down the stretch. By Friday night, we’d lost a No. 1 seed,1 as Fairleigh Dickinson vanquished Purdue in just the second-ever 16-over-1 result, and by the time the dust settled on Sunday, the teams that began with the fourth-, fifth- and seventh-best odds in our model to start the tournament had all fallen — while the school more famous for producing Nobel Laureates than Naismith Award winners had advanced to the Sweet 16.
Except, the opening rounds weren’t actually all that mad overall — we just got some very high-profile doses of March mania. If we look at the last 20-plus years of the men’s event, the number of seeding upsets in the first two rounds in 2023 was actually the fifth-lowest, though the share that were “big” — i.e., No. 13 seeds or worse winning a game — was higher than in any other tournament going back to 2002:
The early upsets of the 2023 NCAA Tournament were top-heavy
Number of total seeding upsets and big upsets (games that involved No. 13 or worse seeds winning against higher-seeded teams), 2002-2023
|Year▲▼||All upsets▲▼||Big upsets▲▼||Big upset share▲▼|
Therein lies the paradox of this NCAA tourney so far. On the one hand, three of the most respected programs in men’s college basketball just exited the tournament before they could so much as sing the first line of “One Shining Moment,” and most of us can attest to the madness in the form of our shredded brackets. But when you stop to consider that there was just one “trendy” first-round upset — i.e., a No. 11 or No. 12 seed beating a No. 6 or No. 5 seed — courtesy of Pittsburgh beating Iowa State, the picture becomes more complicated. In fact, if we try to grade how topsy-turvy the early tournament landscape is, adding up the sum of “big” and “trendy” first-round upsets plus the number of Sweet 16 teams seeded No. 11 or worse, 2023 is tied for the fourth-least “mad” tournament through the first two rounds since 2002.
There were fewer ‘trendy’ upsets in 2023
Lowest combined number of wins for “trendy” or “big” upset picks in the round of 64, as well as Sweet 16 appearances for all teams seeded No. 11 or worse, 2002-2023
|Season||Trendy first-round upsets||Big R1 upsets||Cinderella S16s||Tot.|
And that might be the maddest part of the 2023 tourney. Over the past 20 tournaments, there have been an average of 3.5 trendy upsets per year, and this year we got only one. Speaking as someone who pencils in roughly half the No. 11 and No. 12 seeds to advance at least to the round of 32, the biggest bracket-busters of all might not have been Fairleigh Dickinson or Princeton — they were the middle-seeded teams who hung on against their trendy counterparts.
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