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Daniel Wilco | NCAA.com | March 13, 2022

How to pick a 15-2 upset in the NCAA tournament

Oral Roberts vs Ohio State: Highlights from 2021 NCAA tournament

While UMBC ruined the No. 15 seeds' claim to fame as the worst seed to have won a game in the Round of 64 in the NCAA tournament, No. 15 seeds can still be known as the worst seed to have won more than one game.

And that's something, right?

No. 15 seeds have played 144 first-round games vs. a No. 2 seed. They’ve won nine times (that's 6.25 percent). The first came in 1991, when Richmond took down Syracuse 73-69. In 2021, Oral Roberts shocked No. 2 Ohio State, 75-72, in OT.

Here's the full list:

Year Seed Team Final AP ranking Record Conf Score
1991 15 Richmond NR 22-10 CAA 73
1991 2 Syracuse 7 26-6 Big East 69
             
1993 15 Santa Clara NR 19-12 WCC 64
1993 2 Arizona 5 24-4 Pac-10 61
             
1997 15 Coppin State NR 22-9 MEAC 78
1997 2 South Carolina 6 24-8 SEC 65
             
2001 15 Hampton NR 25-7 MEAC 58
2001 2 Iowa State 10 25-6 Big 12 57
             
2012 15 Norfolk State NR 26-10 MEAC 86
2012 2 Missouri 3 30-5 Big 12 84
             
2012 15 Lehigh NR 27-8 Patriot 75
2012 2 Duke 8 27-7 ACC 70
             
2013 15 Florida Gulf Coast NR 26-11 A-Sun 78
2013 2 Georgetown 8 25-7 Big East 68
             
2016 15 Middle Tennessee NR 25-10 CUSA 90
2016 2 Michigan State 2 29-6 Big Ten 81
             
2021 15 Oral Roberts NR 16-10 Summit 75
2021 2 Ohio State 7 21-9 Big Ten 72 (OT)

So, if you're looking to predict a crazy upset, what should you look for? What does it take for a No. 15 seed to pull off the improbable? We looked at the season stats and box scores from those eight games to find out.

The answer: Free throws and experience matter, but 3-pointers don't always. However, as you'll see below, the most recent 15-over-2 went against previous notions and prior data in a couple areas.

Free throws

The biggest difference in every 15-over-2 upset was free throws. In all nine upsets, No. 15 seeds shot more free throws. In seven, they made more, highlighted by FGCU’s ridiculous line of 30-for-44 against Georgetown.

  PF/G FTM/G FTA/G FT%
No. 15 seed 18.6 18.34 26.56 69.05%
No. 2 seed 22.2 12.89 19.56 65.90%

Even though No. 15 seeds are shooting free throws at sub-70 percent, shooting an average of more than 26 free throws per 15-vs-2 matchup makes a huge difference. On top of that, the nine defeated No. 2 seeds shot fewer free throws and made a lower percentage.

But all the talk about free throws can boil down to one simple stat: In 15-v-2 upsets, No. 15 seeds won by an average of 5.5 points — and hit an average of about 5.5 more free throws.

Experience

It’s one of the most hypothesized theories for why worse-seeded teams pull off major upsets in the NCAA tournament: They’re simply more experienced.

And in the case of 15-vs-2 upsets, the theory proves true. For the most part.

To examine this, we took the level of experience for each player (one for freshman, two for sophomore, etc.) and multiplied it by the minutes that player played in the game. For example, since there are 200 total minutes in a regulation game (40 minutes each for five players), a team composed of all seniors would have a score of 800, while a team of all freshman would have a score of 200.

Through the first eight of these games (full stats were not available for Richmond vs. Syracuse), the No. 15 seeds had an average score of 616.9, while the No. 2 seeds’ score was 565.4. But here Oral Roberts is a major outlier, as ORU took out a very, very, very veteran Ohio State team.

  Arizona-Santa Clara SCAR-Coppin St Iowa St-Hampton Missouri-Norfolk St Duke-Lehigh Georgetown-FGCU MSU-MTSU ORU-OSU*
No. 15 seed 520 618 662 686 609 571 652 525
No. 2 seed 538 529 641 702 494 434 620 817
Difference -18 89 21 -16 115 137 32 -292

*OT game

While raw talent is always a necessity, in high-pressure situations, not many things are more valuable than a player with plenty of minutes under his belt.

3-pointers

Here’s one where popular opinion may prove misleading. Upsets come at the hand of hot sharpshooters, right? Not really in these cases — at least until Oral Roberts.

In the first eight upsets, No. 15 seeds averaged fewer than six made 3-pointers per game, and no No. 15 seed hit more 3-pointers than their No. 2 seed opponent.

  FGM FGA FG% 2PM 2PA 2P% 3PM 3PA 3P%
No. 15 seed 25.3 55.5 45.5% 19.4 37.6 51.5% 5.9 17.9 32.9%
No. 2 seed 24.5 57.0 43.0% 17.5 35.0 50.0% 7.0 22.0 31.8%

Instead, the underdogs opted for more high-percentage shots, shooting an average of 38 two-pointers per game. Only one No. 2 seed had a better field goal percentage than its opponent — 2001 Iowa State. At least through the first eight upsets.

But 2021 Oral Roberts used a different formula than the others. The Golden Eagles shot worse than Ohio State — 43.3 to 35.7 percent — and also finished minus-17 on the glass. However, Oral Roberts made 11 3-pointers to Ohio State's five and went plus-10 in turnovers.

Here are a few more observations from the data:

• Three of the winning No. 15 seeds came out of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, which has sent 12 total No. 15 seeds to the tournament. On the other side of the coin is the Ohio Valley Conference, which is 0-11 as a No. 15 seed.

• Twelve 15-v-2 games have been decided by one shot (three points or fewer). The No. 15 seeds are 4-8 in those games. Oral Roberts came through in 2021 for the upset.

• Only one of the No. 15 seeds who pulled off the upset had a win over a top 25 opponent before the tournament — 1991 Richmond, which beat No. 14 Georgia Tech 73-71 at home in the third game of the season. Combined, the nine No. 15 seeds have a 1-7 regular-season record against the top 25.

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