Which Conferences Are Most Apt for Upsets During March Madness?


One of the things that makes the NCAA tournament so compelling, why it is called March Madness, are the inevitable cinderella stories of major upsets by no-name mid-major or low-major colleges against the big boys of the “BCS” or “power” conferences. While everyone loves to watch the underdog to pull off the upset, we always hope it won’t be against our team.

However, I have been watching the NCAA tournament since I was a little kid and over the years I have begun to notice a pattern on WHO is more likely to be the victims of upsets. While it was just a hunch all this time, I always felt like the Big East and Big Ten were more suseptible to the upset than the other major conferences. So, I decided to do a little investigating to see if this anecdotal evidence actually holds up.

I compiled a list of every major upset in the NCAA tournament from 2006 to 2011. I defined a “major” upset as being a game when a team with a lower seed beats a team 5 or more seeds above them. While 5+ seeds is admittedly arbitrary, when I thought about it, I concluded that a 10 beating a 7 in the first round or a 4 beating a 1 in the Sweet 16 is not really a major upset. On the other hand, an 11 beating a 6 (or higher) in the 1st round or an 8 beating a 1 in the second round seemed more significant. In the end, there were 39 games out of a total of 387 games (roughly 10% of all tournament games) that ended as a major upset under this criteria.

So, let’s take a look at the list of every major upset in the last six NCAA tournaments, then below that I will show how each conference has faired in this category and provide my analysis as to why some conferences may be more prone to the upset than others;

2011#13 Morehead State#4 LouisvilleBig East1
2011#11 Virginia Commonweath#6 GeorgetownBig East1
2011#11 Virginia Commonweath#3 PurdueBig Ten1
2011#11 Marquette#6 XavierAtlantic 101
2011#11 Marquette#3 SyracuseBig East2
2011#11 Gonzaga#6 St. John’sBig East1
2011#10 Florida State#2 Notre DameBig East2
2011#8 Butler#1 PittsburghBig East1
2010#14 Ohio#3 GeorgetownBig East1
2010#12 Cornell#5 TempleAtlantic 101
2010#12 Cornell#4 Wisconsin Big Ten2
2010#11 Washington#6 MarquetteBig East1
2010#11 Washington#3 New MexicoMWC2
2010#11 Old Dominion#6 Notre DameBig East1
2010#10 St. Mary’s#2 VillanovaBig East2
2010#9 Northern Iowa#1 KansasBig 122
2009#13 Cleveland State#4 Wake ForestACC1
2009#12 Wisconsin#5 Florida StateACC1
2009#12 Western Kentucky#5 IllinoisBig Ten1
2009#12 Arizona#5 UtahMWC1
2009#11 Dayton#6 West VirginiaBig East1
2008#13 Siena#4 VanderbiltSEC1
2008#12 Villanova#5 ClemsonACC1
2008#10 Davidson#2 GeorgetownBig East2
2008#10 Davidson#3 WisconsinBig Ten3
2008#7 West Virginia#2 DukeACC2
2007#11 Winthrop#6 Notre DameBig East1
2007#11 Virginia Commonwealth#6 DukeACC1
2007#7 UNLV#2 WisconsinBig Ten2
2006#14 Northwestern State #3 IowaBig Ten1
2006#13 Bradley#4 KansasBig 121
2006#13 Bradley#5 PittsburghBig East2
2006#12 Texas A&M#5 SyracuseBig East1
2006#12 Montana#5 NevadaWAC1
2006#11 Wisc-Milwaukee#6 OklahomaBig 121
2006#11 George Mason#6 Michigan StateBig Ten1
2006#11 George Mason#3 North Carolina ACC2
2006#11 George Mason#1 UConnBig East4
2006#7 Georgetown#2 Ohio StateBig Ten2

On this chart, 16 of the 39 major upsets occurred against Big East teams (41%). In fact, the Big East accounted for twice as many major upsets (16) as the next highest conference, the Big Ten (8). On the low end of the scale, the Pac-10 did not suffer a single major upset in this six year time period and the SEC only suffered one.

Now, some Big East defenders will say that this is because they send so many more teams to the NCAA tournament than any other conference, so it is natural to expect them to be the victims of the inevitable upsets more often than other conferences. So, let’s look at some normalized data to account for the sheer number of teams and/or games they play in the tournament.

 Total UpsetsUpsets/BidUpsets/Game
Big East1633.33%15.84%
Big Ten822.86%15.09%
Big 1239.38%5.88%
Atlantic 10212.50%10.00%

Looking at the data above, one thing really sticks out at you. Fully 1/3rd of all Big East teams can expect to be upset by a team 5 or more seeds below them in any given year. That is a rate 11% higher than the Big Ten, almost 15% higher than the ACC, and as I mentioned before, the Pac-10 has not suffered a single major upset in this time span.

Even accounting for the fact that the Big East plays more total games any other conference, they still come out with the highest rate of upsets per game played of any conference. Nearly 16% of all games any Big East team plays in the NCAA will end up as an upset by a seed 5 or more slots below them. In other words, for every six games a Big East team plays, one of them will be a major upset.

So, what does this all mean. My opinion looking at this and the myriad of other statistics I have analyzed is that Big East teams are far more likely than other conferences to have their teams over-seeded. Being over-seeded certainly allows for potentially easier games in the first two rounds (thus the nearly 60% overall winning percentage), but it also means teams who are not as good as their seed are more ripe for upsets that fit into the “major” category. In other words, a team who really should be seeded #8 who is beat in the 1st round wouldn’t be considered a major upset. But, if they instead get seeded #6 and get beat in the 1st round, it goes into the “major” category.

But, while some people may complain about “Eastcoast Bias”, it actually only seems natural for the seedings to end up as they do. The Big East and Big Ten play in the Eastern and Central time zones where their games are played at convenient times for most people in the country. They are centered around large population centers, thus it makes sense for the media to hype those teams up for ratings purposes. As much as I think the NCAA selection committee tries to do the best job they can to be fair in seedings and avoid bias, how can they subconsciously ignore the lofty AP Rankings, ESPN hype machine, and all that goes along with the Big East? It’s like the study that found that referees are more likely to call close plays for the home team. Those referees are dedicated professionals doing their best to be fair. But, when the roar of the crowd gets going and the plays are tight, it is hard to suppress your emotions.

I also think the Pac-10 has been a victim of under-seeding. One reason the Pac-10 has never suffered a major upset is that usually they are not playing many teams 5+ seeds below them. The Pac-10 has been suffering from “low-seed syndrome” the last few years. The average seed that Pac-10 teams have had the last six years is 6.5 and that includes 6 double-digit seeds out of 28 total bids. But, even so, it is certainly impressive how Pac-10 teams have taken care of business on the floor given their limitations to maintain an overall 47% winning percentage and to send 11 of its 28 bids (40% of its bids to the Sweet 16).

In my fourth and final post in this series, I will examine PASE data (performance against seed expectations) to determine once and for all which conferences and teams are over-performers and under-performers in the NCAA tournament.