Cinderella Wears An 11 Seed

We are a few precious weeks from the NCAA Tournament, with Selection Sunday guaranteed to start arguments throughout the country. How poorly a “mid-major” program is seeded becomes a major bone of contention for fanbases all over the country.

In particular, multiple fanbases assume that a higher the seed is congruent with the likelihood of making a run in the Big Dance. While that is entirely true when it comes to Memphis, UConn, or other non-power conference teams that can earn a five-seed or higher on their own merit, that could not be less true for the rest of mid-major nation.

For this exercise, I took a look at double-digit seeds from programs that were considered mid-majors at the time from the 2000 NCAA Tournament to the most recent edition last spring. Several things flew off the screen, but let’s look at how teams fare.

A #10 seed is a tough opener:

Just to put things into perspective, we are looking at a 17-year sample size of upsets in the tournament. The 10 over 7 upset is the rarest upset by a surprisingly wide margin. Since 2000, there have been only seven instances of a mid-major taking out a seven-seed in the opening round. That is one less than the eight occurrences of a 14 over 3 during that same time span.

  • #10 Butler over #7 Wake Forest (2nd round)
  • #10 VCU over #7 Oregon State (2nd round)
  • #10 Gonzaga over #7 Louisville (Sweet 16)
  • #10 Saint Mary’s over #7 Richmond (Sweet 16)
  • #10 Kent State over #7 Oklahoma State (Sweet 16)
  • #10 Nevada over #7 Michigan State (Sweet 16)
  • #10 Davidson over #7 Gonzaga (Elite 8)

Much of that has to do with the lack of opportunity. For reasons that only they understand, the committee has been reluctant to give a #10 seed to many mid-majors. It tends to be the home for a slightly underachieving program from a power conference with the opportunity to make a deeper run.

While it happens only more often than a 15 over 2 and 16 over 1, it almost always ends in a trip to the second weekend. Only Butler and VCU were unable to get past #2 seeds in the second round. On the other hand, barring a run like Davidson with Stephen Curry, the ride usually ends in the Sweet 16.

#14 and #15 equals a short stay:

In the last 17 years of the NCAA Tournament, we have been able to watch some of the biggest upsets in college basketball history. From Bucknell over Kansas to Georgia State over Baylor to MTSU over Michigan State, we get a great story for the opening nights of the tournament.

After that opening round of magic in taking out one of the top rated teams in the tournament, Cinderella trips, and fall face first down the steps. While losing to a #6 seed is completely understandable, there have been a few opportunities for teams to extend their stay to the second weekend.

40% of the time a 14/15 seed wins in the first round, they end up facing another double-digit seed. MTSU faced #10 Syracuse last season, Mercer faced #11 Tennessee, UAB faced #11 UCLA, and Lehigh faced #10 Xavier. In that game, the underdog (though much less than in round one) is normally boat raced in a game that never looks competitive.

  • #14 Bucknell over #3 Kansas (2nd round)
  • #14 Northwestern State over #3 Iowa (2nd round)
  • #14 Ohio over #3 Georgetown (2nd round)
  • #14 Harvard over #3 New Mexico (2nd round)
  • #14 Mercer over #3 Duke (2nd round)
  • #14 Georgia State over #3 Baylor (2nd round)
  • #14 UAB over #3 Iowa State (2nd round)
  • #14 Stephen F. Austin over #3 West Virginia (2nd round)
  • #15 Lehigh over #2 Duke (2nd round)
  • #15 MTSU over #2 Michigan State (2nd round)

That is what we call wasted opportunities and a significant reason those teams were 14 and 15 seeds heading into the tournament.

Unlucky #13:

Based on logic, it would make sense that teams seem to be more prepared to make a deep run once they hit the 13 seed. Logic does not always apply when talking about the NCAA Tournament. We have seen a #13 seed mid-major take out a #4 seed on 12 different occasions.

Getting to the second round involves defeating a top 16 team in the country according to the selection committee. Many times that team is a blue blood of college basketball like Indiana, Syracuse, Kansas, and even Michigan. Winning that game is a battle that leaves both teams wounded and unable to expend the energy needed two days later for a second round game.

  • #13 Kent State over #4 Indiana (2nd round)
  • #13 UNC Wilmington over #4 USC (2nd round)
  • #13 Tulsa over #4 Dayton (2nd round)
  • #13 Vermont over #4 Syracuse (2nd round)
  • #13 Siena over #4 Vanderbilt (2nd round)
  • #13 San Diego over #4 Connecticut (2nd round)
  • #13 Cleveland State over #4 Wake Forest (2nd round)
  • #13 Murray State over #4 Vanderbilt (2nd round)
  • #13 Hawaii over #4 Cal (2nd round)
  • #13 Bradley over #4 Kansas (Sweet 16)
  • #13 Ohio over #4 Michigan (Sweet 16)
  • #13 LaSalle over #4 Kansas State (Sweet 16)

As you can see, of the 12 times a #13 seed made it to the second round, that team was eliminated. Only Bradley, Ohio, and LaSalle were able to make it to the Sweet 16 to normally face the top seed in the region. Only LaSalle was able to face a #9 seed, but could not hang with Wichita State and fell in the round of 16.

#12 seed is upset city, but not ELITE:

In the last 17 seasons, we have seen 19 mid-major programs break through with wins over #5 seeds. It is the upset that gets all the love due to the regularity in which it happens. Surprisingly, there are many times when a mid-major is also the team falling in that scenario, most notably Montana over Nevada, Stephen F. Austin over VCU, and Western Kentucky over Drake.

  • #12 Utah State over #5 Ohio State (2nd round)
  • #12 Tulsa over #5 Marquette (2nd round)
  • #12 Manhattan over #5 Florida (2nd round)
  • #12 Pacific over #5 Providence (2nd round)
  • #12 Montana over #5 Nevada (2nd round)
  • #12 Western Kentucky over #5 Illinois (2nd round)
  • #12 VCU over #5 Wichita State (2nd round)
  • #12 South Florida over #5 Temple (2nd round)
  • #12 Stephen F. Austin over #5 VCU (2nd round)
  • #12 Harvard over #5 Cincinnati (2nd round State)
  • #12 North Dakota State over #5 Oklahoma (2nd round)
  • #12 Yale over #5 Baylor (2nd round)
  • #12 ULAR over #5 Purdue (2nd round)
  • #12 Gonzaga over #5 Virginia (Sweet 16)
  • #12 Butler over #5 Mississippi State (Sweet 16)
  • #12 Milwaukee over #5 Alabama (Sweet 16)
  • #12 Cornell over #5 Temple (Sweet 16)
  • #12 Richmond over #5 Vanderbilt (Sweet 16)
  • #12 Western Kentucky over #5 Drake (Sweet 16)

The problem with the #12 seed is the almost guaranteed meeting with a #1 seed in the Sweet 16. Six teams (Milwaukee, Cornell, Richmond, WKU, Butler, Gonzaga) made it to the Sweet 16 and faced off versus a #1 seed. None of the four were able to hang with the blue bloods of college basketball, ending their run in the round of 16.

The best seed for a long run is #11:

While the #11 seed does not get the love of the media darling #12 seed, it is the best way to make a long run in the big dance. Of the 19 times since 2000 that saw a mid-major beat a #6 seed in the first round, five ended in the Sweet 16 or further.

  • #11 Pepperdine over #6 Indiana (2nd round)
  • #11 Georgia State over #6 Wisconsin (2nd round)
  • #11 Wyoming over #6 Gonzaga (2nd round)
  • #11 Central Michigan over #6 Creighton (2nd round)
  • #11 UAB over #6 LSU (2nd round)
  • #11 Milwaukee over #6 Oklahoma (2nd round)
  • #11 Winthrop over #6 Notre Dame (2nd round)
  • #11 VCU over #6 Duke (2nd round)
  • #11 Dayton over #6 West Virginia (2nd round)
  • #11 Dayton over #6 Providence (2nd round)
  • #11 Wichita State over #6 Arizona (2nd round)
  • #11 Northern Iowa over #6 Texas (2nd round)
  • #11 Gonzaga over #6 St John’s (2nd round)
  • #11 Old Dominion over #6 Notre Dame (2nd round)
  • #11 Gonzaga over #6 Seton Hall (Sweet 16)
  • #11 Southern Illinois over #6 Texas Tech (Sweet 16)
  • #11 Dayton over #6 Ohio State (Elite 8)
  • #11 George Mason over #6 Michigan State (Final Four)
  • #11 VCU over #6 Georgetown (Final Four)

That is only the beginning of the story as #11 seeds have gotten further than any other double-digit seed in NCAA history. Dayton rode a win over in-state rival Ohio State in the opening round in route to the Elite 8, but that is nowhere near the best.

The only two times we saw a double-digit seed make the Final Four during this time span, it happened with #11 George Mason (2006) and VCU (2011).

There are a multitude of reasons for the #11 seed to make a long run: momentum from a First Four win, not facing a #1 seed until the regional final, being talented enough to go on a run, and under-seeding. Many times, a very good #11 seed is a mid-major that is ranked below several power programs despite being the better team. That actually turns into a benefit rather than another reason for an early flameout.

Currently, Middle Tennessee is the only #11 seed according to ESPN’s bracketology. They are set to face #6 Creighton, #3 Florida State, #2 Oregon, and #1 Gonzaga. That is possibly the best route to the Final Four that the Blue Raiders could imagine.

On the off-chance that MTSU ends up in Phoenix, remember the power of the #11 seed.

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