When Northern Iowa’s Paul Jesperson’s heroic half court heave kissed off the window and through the net, it didn’t just complete an unforgettable upset for the 11th seeded Panthers over the 6th seeded Texas Longhorns. It also capped a historic first two days of the NCAA Tournament where the Davids of the world stood tall and conquered Goliath.
Northern Iowa joined the likes of #15 Middle Tennessee, #14 Stephen F. Austin, #13 Hawaii, #12 Yale, #12 Little Rock, #11 Wichita State, #11 Gonzaga, #10 VCU, and #10 Syracuse.
If you’ve been thinking to yourself the past couple days that this year’s tournament has been a special kind of madness compared to previous years, you’re right. The 2016 NCAA Tournament set a record with ten double digit seeds upsetting their opponents in Round One.
Since the tournament expanded in 1985 to 64 teams and four regions of 16 teams a piece, we’ve never seen a first round like this one with so many upsets. This year’s tournament record of ten 10+ seeds and higher emerging victorious surpassed the previous mark of nine set in 2001 and equalled in 2012. That 2012 tournament featured two #15 seeds upsetting #2 seeds with Norfolk State beating Missouri and Lehigh upsetting Duke. Unfortunately for this year’s Cinderella hopefuls, just three of the double digit seeds advanced to the Sweet 16 in both years.
The chalkiest first round of the NCAA Tournament came in 2007 when just two double digit seeds won – #11 seeds Winthrop and VCU.
Are these upsets a trend? Conventional wisdom says it certainly should be because college basketball is in a much different state in 2016 than it was 31 years ago. The depth of talent has increased a great deal and the elite conferences aren’t as dominant as they used to be over their mid-major and small-conference brethren. When you also factor in the fact that more of the top players leave college after their freshman season, it means there theoretically should be much more flux and inconsistency in the tournament from one year to the next and much more upset potential.
Does the data bear that out? The numbers tell a fascinating story…
First, the scatterplot of upsets over the years shows a gradual increase over time. (For those of you that aren’t stats geeks, look at how flat the black line of best fit looks over the blue dots of data). The correlation coefficient is only .137, which means there’s a fairly low positive correlation between year and double digit upsets in the first round.
It’s a trend that’s growing, but perhaps not as highly over time as you might imagine given how the state of college basketball has evolved.
However, here is where it gets really interesting. Check out the average number of 10+ seed victories in the Round of 64 by decade.
1980s: 5.4 upsets per year
1990s: 5.7 upsets per year
2000s: 5.5 upsets per year
2010s: 7.6 upsets per year
The amount of first round upsets were very stable from 1985-2009 with the average number of upsets by decade barely moving over the years. However, in the 2010s, the number of average upsets per year have jumped up dramatically. In fact, in five out of seven years this decade, there have been at least seven double digit upsets in the first round of the tournament. There were only eight of those years from 1985-2009.
So when you’re filling out your bracket for next year, it might be wise to be aggressive in picking those rare Round One upsets. Not just because the data backs it up, but because you get to brag to your friends and co-workers about nailing an upset special.