Each March, millions of people across the country fill out their brackets, hoping to reach perfection – or at least have the fewest wrong choices – in order to claim bragging rights over friends and family. That’s right, the NCAA Tournament is just around the corner. It’s hard to know what exactly to expect, but by looking at big data from the past 32 years (that’s when the field expanded to its current format of 64+ teams), we think we’ve found some of the most likely upsets. Consider these when you’re filling out your bracket and you just may just get “lucky” and have a leg up on everyone else.
No. 11 Kansas State over No. 6 Cincinnati
The First Four was introduced in 2011. It’s technically a “play-in” round; the eight teams that participate in the four games on Tuesday and Wednesday join the rest of the field on Thursday and Friday. It might seem like a disadvantage to have to play a second game within 48 hours of the first, but a lot of the time, the teams that emerge from the First Four are playing a team that’s been resting for up to a week, or sometimes even longer. That can lead to some rust for the lower-seeded team, while the First Four squad has worked out the kinks in their opening game. The numbers don’t lie, either: since the Final Four debuted six years ago, one team each year – but only one team – that has won its First Four game has won at least one additional game in the tournament. This year, we like Kansas State to make it seven straight years of a First Four team pulling off an upset.
No. 13 East Tennessee State over No. 4 Florida
One strategy some people employ is to “go chalk,” or to pick the lower seed in each matchup. It’s not a terrible idea; after all, a No. 1 or No. 2 seed has won the whole tournament in 25 of 32 chances since the field expanded to its current format. But No. 3 and No. 4 seeds are usually a little more vulnerable. In fact, only four times have the top four seeds in each region made it to the second round. We’ve seen these 13, 14, and 15-seed upsets more frequently in the past couple of years, with nine such upsets since 2013. In these matchups, you want to find an experienced team that also shoots three-pointers pretty well. East Tennessee State fits the bill, so we like them to knock off Florida, especially since the Gators will be without their starting center John Egbunu, who’s out for the season with an injury.
No. 12 Middle Tennessee over No. 5 Minnesota and No. 4 Butler
Most of the time, a higher-seeded team that wins in the first round usually comes back to earth and loses in the second round. 12-seeds, though, have more success than any other higher seed at winning an additional game and reaching the Sweet 16. They’ve done so 43.5 percent of the time. For this selection, you’ll want to choose a team that plays at a slower pace – the fewer possessions there are in a game, the more likely a team is to pull off an upset. And again, senior leadership also helps. That makes Middle Tennessee a strong 12-seed candidate to dance into the second weekend of the tournament.
No. 6 SMU Reaching the Elite 8
A team that keeps on winning when it’s not expected to is often referred to as “Cinderella.” There’s always at least one team that stays at the ball all tournament long, or at least until the Elite 8. That’s usually when the top seeds restore a little bit of order to the tournament, but if you pick the correct Cinderella to advance, your fellow bracket pickers won’t stand a chance of beating you. Since seeding began in 1979, a team seeded sixth or worse has made the Elite 8 in 33 of 38 tournaments, good for nearly 87 percent. The past three years said team has made it to at least the Final Four, with No. 7 UConn and No. 8 Kentucky meeting in the final in 2014, No. 7 Michigan State making the Final Four in 2015, and No. 10 Syracuse going to the Final Four in 2016. That’s actually a great place to look for your Elite 8 Cinderella – a team from a power conference like the ACC or Big 12 that maybe underperformed a bit during the year but is playing well as March Madness begins. This year, we’re fans of the ponies of SMU to pull off a nice run.
Of course, it’s called March Madness for a reason. There will be the occasional tournament that bucks these trends, but it’s a good example of how useful big data is. We’re getting better at harnessing all it can provide – in brackets and beyond. Give it a whirl this March, but keep it in mind for business decisions, as well. You’ll find more confidence in your choices, which will result in reduced costs, lower risk, and stronger operational efficiency.