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Andy Wittry | | March 13, 2021

Here's how to pick March Madness upsets, according to the data

How to tell when you've picked too many upsets

Dust off your crystal ball because it's time to get ready to make this year's March Madness selections.

Whatever your sweet spot is for predicting upsets in the NCAA tournament, there is one important question that applies to every fan: How many upsets should I pick?

We examined the last 35 NCAA tournaments since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985 and crunched the numbers for each round. Now we're here to encourage you to make as many upset picks as possible without going overboard.

First, let's set some ground rules. We defined an "upset" as when the winning team in an NCAA tournament game was seeded at least two seed lines better than the losing team. There are too many common matchups where the difference in seeding is only one seed line (e.g. the 8/9 game in the first round, the common 4/5 game in the second round, and a 1/2 matchup in the Elite Eight), so it seems to take away from the spirit of an "upset" to say that a No. 9 seed beating a No. 8 seed is an upset.

Using this definition of an upset, in 28 of the last 35 seasons there have been between 10 and 16 upsets in the NCAA tournament. The annual average is roughly 12.2. There have been as few as four upsets (2007) and as many as 19 (2014) but the sweet spot is obviously somewhere in between.

If you're a calculated risk taker, try for 16 upsets. That's happened four times (1990, 1999, 2002, and 2010).

If you want to play it somewhat safe (i.e. "How many upset picks is too few?") then nine is a good number to try to hit. There have only been three years in the last 35 NCAA tournaments in which there were fewer than nine upsets in a single NCAA tournament. The 2007 tournament was the only year in which there was fewer than eight.

Here's the full breakdown.

  Avg Least Most
Total Upsets 12.7 4 (2007) 19 (2014)
First Round 6.1 2 (2007) 10 (2016)
Second Round 3.6 0 (4 occasions) 8 (2000)
Sweet 16 1.7 0 (5 occasions) 4 (1990)
Elite Eight 0.5 0 (10 occasions) 2 (3 occasions)
Final Four 0.2 0 (24 occasions) 2 (2014)

So, to answer the first question posed earlier, 20 upsets is probably too many (and six is probably too few). Now, on to an equally important question: Where should those upset picks be made? Looking at the averages listed above, your number of upset picks should roughly be half as many as there were in the previous round, given both the number of games per round and the quality of teams that advance each round.

Here's a breakdown for the first round of each upset based on seed lines, the number of times such an upset has occurred since 1985 and the percentage of the time such an upset has happened.

No. 10 seed over No. 7 seed 55 39.3%
No. 11 seed over No. 6 seed 52 37.1%
No. 12 seed over No. 5 seed 50 35.7%
No. 13 seed over No. 4 seed 29 20.7%
No. 14 seed over No. 3 seed 21 15.0%
No. 15 seed over No. 2 seed 8 5.7%
No. 16 seed over No. 1 seed 1 0.7%

The individual matchups for upsets, in terms of seeding, become less common after the first round, based on the results of the first-round games. But if we combine some of the seed lines within individual four-team pods (e.g. a No. 7/No. 10 seed upsetting a No. 2 seed, or a No. 6/No. 11 seed upsetting a No. 3 seed, etc.), it'll provide a clearer picture for how many upsets you should pick in your bracket.

Related: 7 signs you're picking too many upsets | Print your NCAA bracket

Teams seeded No. 7 or No. 10 have upset a No. 2 seed 43 times in the last 35 years (1.2 per year), and No. 6/No. 11 seeds have beaten No. 3 seeds 45 times (1.3 per year), so history tells us you should probably pick at least one No. 2 seed and one No. 3 seed to lose in the second round. Eighteen times a No. 1 seed has lost in the Round of 32, which means that roughly once every other year a No. 8 or No. 9 seed knocks off the top seed in its region.

Second Round upset Frequency
6 seed vs. 3 seed 28
7 seed vs. 2 seed 25
10 seed vs. 2 seed 18
11 seed vs. 3 seed 17
8 seed vs. 1 seed 13
12 seed vs. 4 seed 12
9 seed vs. 1 seed 6
13 seed vs. 5 seed 3
14 seed vs. 6 seed 2
15 seed vs. 7 seed 1

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