With one of this year's 1-16 games in the books (Gonzaga's 66-46 win over South Dakota State), shockingly, that still holds true. That first matchup was actually the one our Bracket Challenge Game users were most sure would go the way of the underdog, ...
No. Thought we’d get that out of the way right off the bat.
The idea to look at the tightness of 1-16 games in the NCAA tournament came from noticing a trend in our Bracket Challenge Game. Over the past six years, players have been picking 16 seeds to upset 1 seeds more and more.
This year, 5.04 percent of brackets in our Bracket Challenge Game picked a 16 seed to make history and take down a 1 seed. A handful of brackets (0.71 percent) even believed that all four 16 seeds would pull off the upsets. They were wrong.
We probably don't need to remind you, but as crazy as March Madness is, no 16 seed has ever beaten a 1 seed. Ever.
With one of this year's 1-16 games in the books (Gonzaga's 66-46 win over South Dakota State), shockingly, that still holds true. That first matchup was actually the one our Bracket Challenge Game users were most sure would go the way of the underdog, as 2.72 percent of all brackets picked the Jackrabbits to win.
So, in the face of all this overwhelming negativity, why were people picking the ultimate underdogs more and more? Does history tell us we're getting closer to seeing a 16 seed win? Or is everyone picking their brackets based on the Gambler’s fallacy, thinking that after 32 years, we're due?
Here’s what the data has to say:
No. The answer is still no. In fact, there’s almost no pattern here at all.
Overall, the average margin of victory — or loss — for the 128 1 vs. 16 games since 1985 (the first year the bracket included 16 seeds) is 24.73 points.
Yet users in our Bracket Challenge Game have gotten bolder over the years, with as many as 6.2 percent of all brackets picking a 16 seed to upset a 1 seed in 2015:
When you look at the two sets side by side, the lack of correlation is fairly apparent.
But, if you really squint closely at the first chart, a "trend" does become evident: For the first 16 years of the 16 seeds' existence, the average margin of victory was 24.77 points. For the past 16 years, the average margin has been 24.69 points. That’s a whopping 0.08 points, for those keeping score at home.
At that rate of steady improvement, it will be 4,938 years before the 16 seeds bring the margin down and break even. Just a cool five millennia from now. (Yes, we know, that trend is not statistically significant enough for us to infer anything from it. We're trying here, OK?)
Here are a few more (actually useful) bits of information from the history of 1 seed vs. 16 seed:
Only 15 games have been decided by less than 10 points, the most recent one in 2014: Arizona’s 68-59 win over Weber State.
No game has been decided by one possession since 1996. That’s longer than most of the 2017 tournament’s players have been alive.
In fact, in the past 10 years, almost three times as many 1 vs. 16 games have been decided by more than 30 points (11) than fewer than 10 points (four).
The closest any game has come has been one point. It’s happened twice, and both games were in the 1989 tournament. The first was Georgetown’s 50-49 win over Princeton. The Hoyas would go on to lose to No. 2 Duke in the Elite Eight. The second game was Oklahoma’s 72-71 win over ETSU. In the very next round, the Sooners demolished No. 9 seed Louisiana Tech 124-81 (43 points!), before losing to 5-seed Virginia in the Sweet 16.
On the other side of the coin, the biggest blowout in the matchup's history was in 1998, when Kansas bullied Prairie View for a 110-52 win. That 58-point margin remains the largest in any tournament game since the tournament expanded in 1985, but Kansas would lose the next game to No. 8 seed Rhode Island 80-75.
The closest any one tournament has been for 1-16 games was 1989, when those two games were decided by one point, and the margin of victory for the 1 seed was just 10.5 points over the four games.
The year of the biggest blowouts took place nine years later in 1998, when the average margin was 42.25 points thanks to wins of 88-52, 99-60, 99-63 and 110-52.
North Carolina A&T has been the 16 seed the most of any team, facing off against a No. 1 seed five times (1985, 1986, 1994, 1995, 2013). No team has been the 16 seed four times, though 15 teams have held the bottom seed thrice.
The MEAC has sent 14 teams to the tournament as a 16 seed, the most of any conference.
The highest scoring matchup took place in 1987, UNC’s 113-82 win over Penn.
The lowest score in a 1 vs. 16 game is 99 points, which has happened twice — Georgetown’s 50-49 win over Princeton in 1989, and UCLA’s 70-29 win over Mississippi Valley State in 2008. Slightly different games there.
If you haven't gotten the message, it’s simple: Don’t follow the pack. Don’t pick a 16 seed to upset a 1 seed. Just ... don’t. Well, not until the year 6955, at least.
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