The first weekend of the 2016 NCAA Tournament is in the books and it might have been the best four days we’ve seen in terms of giving the audiences what they want and appeasing the network honchos who need good ratings.
The first round gave us a bevy of upsets and high-seed victories. Friday, especially, was everything we hope the NCAA Tournament’s first round will be. Saturday and Sunday, meanwhile, thinned the herd of mid-majors and set up a second weekend that is almost all chalk and power conference teams.
While we mourn Northern Iowa’s epic collapse and Stephen F. Austin’s last-second loss, two double-digit seeds were able to survive long enough that they’ll get the chance to play in Sweet 16. Perhaps ironically, it’ll be against one another.
The No. 10 Syracuse Orange face the No. 11 Gonzaga Bulldogs for the right to make it to the Elite Eight. Win there and either team would become just the fourth double-digit seed to advance to the Final Four since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1979. They’d join the 1986 LSU Tigers, 2006 George Mason Patriots, and 2011 VCU Rams.
Coincidentally, all three of those teams were 11-seeds, which bodes well for Gonzaga’s chances. As for Syracuse, they’ll have to deal with the fact that 1o-seeds are 0-7 in regional final games since 1985.
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 20, 2016
Before we get that far, however, it’s worth acknowledging that while two double-digit seeds in the Sweet 16 might look strange, it’s actually off the average. We’ve gotten used to seeing at least three, if not more, at this point of the tournament in recent years.
In the early years of the expanded tournament, a double-digit seed making it to the Sweet Sixteen was still truly a cinderella run. It only happened four times in the first six years.
After that, however, double-digit teams started cementing their spots beyond the first weekend. Since 1983, there have only been two years when a double-digit didn’t make it this far (1995, 2007). Since 1985, at least two of the 10-or-higher seeds have made it this far in 23 of the 32 tournaments.
The greatest year in the history of double-digit seeds had to be 1999, when five of them advanced this far. Alas, all but one of them lost in the Sweet 16 and the other one, 10-seed Gonzaga, lost in the Elite Eight.
2013 is no slouch either as it’s the only tournament to have three teams seeded 12 or lower in the Sweet 16: 12-seed Oregon, 13-seed La Salle, and 15-seed Florida Gulf Coast.
Speaking of FGCU, they’re the only 15-seed to ever make it this far. Two 14-seeds have managed to survive this long (Cleveland State in 1986, Chattanooga in 1987) and five 13-seeds have made it (Richmond in 1988, Valparaiso in 1998, Oklahoma in 1999, Bradley in 2006, and Ohio in 2012).
So what can we expect from here in 2016?
Well we know for a fact than a 10-seed or 11-seed will play in the Elite Eight. That’ll make them the tenth double-digit to do so in the last 20 tournaments. The chances either will make it to the Final Four, especially with a 1-seed still looming in their bracket, are slim, but certainly not unheard of.
Bigger picture, we can look at the trends and stats to help remind us that the gap between the low seeds and high seeds is smaller than it was back in the early 80’s. There’s a lot of different factors for that but the simple truth is that double-digit seeds believe they can win NCAA Tournament games (except maybe 16-seeds) and the proof is in almost every NCAA Tournament played.