Set Up for an Upset

We are currently in the midst of the Sweet Sixteen round of March Madness, and there have already been several upsets in the past two rounds.  Specifically, the games that caught viewers off-guard were Virginia vs. Michigan State and Villanova vs. North Carolina State.  These games knocked out the top two seeds in the East Region, and could possibly lead to an unexpected team winning it all.  Although it was apparent from the beginning that Villanova was not the most talented team in the East, many (including myself) thought they had a decent shot at making it to the final four.  Yet they were eliminated from the tournament even before the Sweet Sixteen.  This brings me to the question: how common are upsets in Rounds 2 and 3 in the tournament, and is this year’s tournament above or below average?  To clarify, the rounds in question are the ones with 64 and 32 teams, respectively; I counted the play-in round as the first.

I looked at tournament data for the most recent ten tournaments, and tallied the number of upsets.  I divided the upsets into “big” upsets, meaning that there was more than a four-seed difference in the teams seeding, and “small” upsets, in which there was a seed difference of four or less.


It seems as though the total number of upsets so far has been on par with years past, yet there have been slightly more “big” upsets this year.  It’s also important to note that bigger upsets are more likely to happen in the earlier rounds than in the later rounds, since teams are matched up with their opposite ranks in the beginning of the tournament.

I also looked at how many times the top 3 seeds in each region were knocked out of the tournament before reaching the Sweet Sixteen.  This would mean a number 1 seed upset by an 8, 9 or 16 seed; a number 2 seed upset by a 7, 10, or 15 seed; or a number 3 seed upset by a 6, 11, or 14 seed.


This year’s tournament has already seen more top-seeded teams eliminated than average in the past years.  These teams are #2 Kansas, #3 Baylor, #1 Villanova, #2 UVA, and #3 Iowa State.  Personally, i think that upsets and the uncertainty of the game are one of the most positive aspects of the tournament.  No one wants to watch a number one seed crush any team in its path (unless you happen to be an avid fan of the team, I guess).  Everyone loves a Cinderella story – underdogs winning in March Madness add a necessary element of excitement while watching the game.

-Charlie Elwart