NCAA Tournament Upsets: How Do They Happen?

So I was racking my brain on what my first post of the New Year, first post in a week’s time, and first college hoop-only post (as a Steelers fan, my NFL season is over; but I will roll out some NFL playoff predictions tomorrow).  This post fits all of those three things and shouldn’t disappoint.  With college hoop, few watch the beginning, but everyone watches the end.  So the end is where we’ll begin.  Confused yet?

I was reading Matt Norlander‘s every-morning post – the Wakeup Call – today and was guided to Luke Winn‘s fantastic Power Rankings column today, where I found something interesting in the Notre Dame section.  Luke’s write-up for the Irish referenced KenPom.com rankings for Offensive Efficiency (OE) and Defensive Efficiency (DE).  In the interest of word count, I’ll summarize:

Luke said that Notre Dame’s OE was top-10 but their DE was sub-50.  In the two recent instances where that was the case come Tournament time, the Irish suffered upset losses in the early rounds.  It got me thinking (quotes forthcoming although I didn’t say it aloud to myself), “does this happen to all teams with these rankings, or did Luke just stumble into a coincidence with two Notre Dame teams?”

For the purposes of the exercise below, I went back three years to the 2012, 2011, and 2010 NCAA Tournaments and expanded the criteria to Top-50 teams in OE and DE.  Below is a chart showing upsets from the last three tourneys.  Despite knowing that an 11-seed can be (and has been) favored over a 6-seed before, I’m defining “upsets” as teams seeded 6th or better losing in the Round of 64 or losing in the Round of 32 to a team seeded 7th or worse.

The gray-shaded cells represent Round of 32 games while all others are Round of 64 contests.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

If you’ve been to the blog before, you’ll know I’m a visual learner (that’s my nice way of saying I need to color-code charts to help myself better read data).  Here is the chart color-coded and showing what the colors mean:

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

OK, so that’s a lot of color splattered about.  What does it all mean?  I’ve taken the liberty of looking into each possible color-vs-color matchup to see the results.  To make this easier, I sorted by cell color of the losing team.  The additional charts on the right are sorted by losing team color and by winning team color.  They show the percentages of how often teams from each classification are the “upset-ee” or the “upset-er.”

Tourney Upsets by Matchup

If you’re anything like me, you’re probably at the point where I should tell you how this information can actually be useful.  What I noticed was that teams with top-50 offenses but not defenses seem to make more appearances in the Tournament than teams of the opposite traits.  They also happen to be the teams that suffer upset losses the most often.

This seems to make sense as it suggests that the teams suffering upset losses have an obvious flaw.  However, teams with the opposite traits (sub-50 DE and top-50 OE) didn’t suffer as many upset losses as supposedly solid teams in the top-50 of both categories.  So we can say that when picking upsets in our brackets, we should target teams who struggle defensively.

But what about the winning teams in the upset games?  The “red” teams and “blue” teams show up nearly three-quarters of the time, suggesting that as long as a team is strong on one side of the court, they have a chance to pull the upset.

So let’s look into the crystal ball and see which teams could end up being upset or pulling off an upset.  Below is a chart of every team that falls into the “red” or “blue” classifications from above, sorted by projected seed in this year’s Tournament (this is obviously not a science at this point in the year but is to be used as a reference point to show which teams will be victims and which will be surprise winners).

2013 Teams

From that list, we can disqualify a number of teams (for being on the “bubble,” for being in the 7-10 seed range, or for basically having no shot at making the Tournament outside of an auto-bid).  Here are the teams I could see being ripe for an upset:

  • Illinois
  • NC State
  • Missouri
  • Butler

Here are the teams I could see winning as double-digit seeds:

  • Colorado State
  • St. Mary’s
  • Murray State
  • Bucknell
  • Akron
  • Davidson
  • Lehigh
  • Tennessee
  • Memphis (please don’t suck me in with your crazy athleticism again)
  • Middle Tennessee
  • Ole Miss

We’ll monitor these teams throughout the season – particularly the ones in the first list above as I’ve been down on teams like Illinois and NC State since the beginning of the year.

With that, welcome back to College Hoops season.  In the next few weeks, I hope to do some or all of the following: a “reset” article catching up the many football diehards that are just getting into CBB for the year, Conference Previews for the bigger leagues, and another version of Planting the Seeds.  So bookmark me and come back often!

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One comment on “NCAA Tournament Upsets: How Do They Happen?
  1. [...] may recall a post I made way back in the beginning of 2013 where I examined how NCAA Tournament upsets happen.  In the interest of keeping this post relatively short, please [...]

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