When it comes to picking historic upsets in March Madness brackets, we’re becoming either more optimistic or more reckless.

Over the last five years, there has been a clear and steady increase in brackets with a No. 16 seed selected to win over a No. 1 seed, according to data pulled from all brackets in the Capital One March Madness Bracket Challenge, the official bracket game of the NCAA tournament.

In 2015, 4.11 percent of all brackets had at least one 16 seed picked to beat a No. 1 seed. That number was 1.42 percent in 2011 and has risen steadily since.


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The highest single instance occurred last year as well; 2.57 percent of all brackets in 2015 had Lafayette advancing past Villanova. Lafayette was the highest seeded No. 16 seed (no. 63 of 68 teams) in the 2015 NCAA seed list, but Villanova was a strong No. 1 seed, ranked second in 2015 to Kentucky. Hampton, though, seeded last among 68 teams, was selected in 1.10 percent of brackets to beat that Kentucky team, which was undefeated and the perhaps the most popular Championship pick in the past five years.

Each of the No. 16 seeds in 2015 was selected in at least 1 percent of all brackets. In 2011, not one No. 16 seed team was picked more than 1 percent.

Here’s a look at the numbers.

2015 Matchups Picked
Villanova vs Lafayette 2.57%
Wisconsin vs Coastal Carolina 1.42%
Kentucky vs Hampton 1.10%
Duke vs Robert Morris 1.08%
2014 Matchups Picked
Wichita State vs Cal Poly 1.64%
Virginia vs Coastal Carolina 1.55%
Arizona vs Weber State 1.31%
Florida vs Albany 1.18%
2013 Matchups Picked
Gonzaga vs Southern 1.23%
Kansas vs W Kentucky 1.19%
Indiana vs James Madison 0.73%
Louisville vs NC A&T 0.47%
2012 Matchups Picked
Syracuse vs UNC-Asheville 1.16%
Michigan State vs Long Island 1.04%
Kentucky vs W Kentucky 0.39%
North Carolina vs Vermont 0.39%
2011 Matchups Picked
Kansas vs Boston 0.74%
Pittsburgh vs UNC-Asheville 0.68%
Ohio State vs Texas-San Antonio 0.46%
Duke vs Hampton 0.44%

Why more upset picks here? Hard to say for certain.

Since the field reached at least 64 in 1985, the 16 seed is 0-124 against the No. 1 seed. It is the only seed without a win in this round (the 16 seed has won NCAA Tournament games since the inception of the First Four and play in game).

Perhaps we’re just more and more aware that, one of these years, the number is going to come up for a No. 16 seed against a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and when it does, we’d like to say we called it. (We would not mention, however, how many times we unsuccessfully “called it.")

The No. 15 seed has won seven of its 124 games vs. the No. 2 seed. That probably leads to a sprinkling of No. 16 picks.

Five years is still a relatively short period of time – we don’t dig back into paper brackets here. But we can make some judgments.

For one, we don’t see a significant difference based on school size and assumed fan base. Lafayette and Hampton are very old institutions for example, with significant alumni bases, but so is Vermont (picked at 0.39 percent in 2012). Hampton itself saw in increase in its percentage during its two times as No. 16 in that past five years.

The most likely conclusions? 1. The number of people who pick brackets online is increasing. You’d think percentages would stay constant, but if the growing audience means more casual fans, perhaps that means fans more willing to take this risk or perhaps less aware of exactly how low the probability is. 2. Fans understand that the No. 1 undefeated streak is likely to end at some point, and perhaps want that one bracket line to brag about.

Regardless of all of this, most experts would tell you picking a No. 16 seed is a bad risk-reward equation. Since a No. 16 seed’s advance to the Sweet 16 is unlikely as well, you’re only talking about the potential reward of 1 point. But a No. 1 seed is the most likely NCAA Champion and Final Four participant, so an errant pick here could take you out of the game very early.