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Wayne Staats | | March 14, 2023

How to pick NCAA women’s basketball tournament upsets, according to the data

Watch the final 4 minutes of 1998's historic Harvard-Stanford 16-over-1 upset

As memorable as all NCAA women's basketball tournaments are, the surprising runs by lower seeds especially stand out. Think No. 12 Quinnipiac making the Sweet 16 in 2017, No. 11 Gonzaga going to the Elite Eight in 2011 or 1998 No. 9 Arkansas going all the way to the Final Four.

As you think about filling out your bracket, don't forget that upsets do happen. We're here to help you on where you can start looking for Cinderella in your bracket — and how many upsets you should have on your mind.

Before we go further, we should clarify that we designated an upset as a difference of at least two seeds. So for the first round, that meant a No. 10 beating a No. 7, a No. 11 beating a No. 6, etc. We also started with 1994, the first year the tournament had 64 teams.

Start with the No. 12 seeds

Hey, history is made to be broken. However, teams seeded Nos. 14-16 are a combined 1-336 in tournament history. Memorably, No. 16 Harvard upset No. 1 Stanford on the Cardinal's home floor in the first round of the 1998 NCAA tournament. But no 14 or 15 seed has won a tournament game. At least not yet.

Even No. 13 seeds aren't piling up success, either, sporting a 10-112 mark since 1994. That said, No. 13 Wright State did stun No. 4 Arkansas in 2021 and Marist made the Sweet 16 in 2007. But if you want your bracket to stand out from the pack with upsets, it's likely best to start picking them at the No. 12 line. Those teams have won 31 games since 1994 — that averages out to a little more than one win per year, on average. Just last season, Belmont and Florida Gulf Coast advance to the second round. And Belmont did it earlier in 2021, downing No. 5 Gonzaga in 2021, while two teams won games in 2016 (Albany and South Dakota State). At least one No. 12 seed has won a game in eight of the last 10 tournaments.

Adding up the math, No. 13 seeds have won around 9 percent of tournament games since expansion; No. 12 seeds own a 24 percent win percentage. So unless you're feeling really lucky or confident, begin at the No. 12 line. That one seed line does seem to make a big difference.

SURPRISING RUN: The lowest seeds to advance to each round in history

Here's how many upsets you should pick

Since expansion to 64 teams for the 1994 tournament, there have been 231 upsets by teams seeded at least two seeds lower than their foe. That comes out 8.25 per year, on average.

The most in a single tournament is 12, and it's happened a few times: 1994, 1998, 2009, 2013 and 2016. The fewest is four from 2008.

As you can expect, a lot of these upsets came in the first round, when you're guaranteed seven upset opportunities in each region (from No. 16 vs. No. 1 through No. 10 vs. No. 7). In total, 107 of the 231 upsets — or 46.3 percent — were in the first round. Furthermore, 39 of those 107 first round upsets, or 36.4 percent, were No. 10s beating No. 7s.

Round Average upsets per year Least Most
Total 8.25 4 (once) 12 (five times)
First 3.82 1 (1997) 7 (1998)
Second 2.5 0 (1999) 5 (2013)
Sweet 16 1.25 0 (7 times) 4 (2016)
Elite Eight 0.52 0 (17 times) 3 (1994)
Final Four 0.15 0 (24 times) 1 (four times)
National title 0.04 0 (27 times) 1 (1997)

If you're looking for the right number of upsets to pick for an entire tournament, aim between 5 and 12. Exactly four upsets have happened only once, while there have been four instances of exactly five.

MEN'S DATA: What the stats say about picking men's tournament upsets

So when do No. 13+ upsets happen?

Only eight teams seeded No. 13 or lower have won a first round game — seven 13s and one 16. Three of the 13 seeds even reached the Sweet 16.

Is there a common thread among these seven? Kind of.

Seven of the eight were AQs and the lone representative from their conference. The one exception was the first: 1994 Texas A&M, then of the Southwest Conference. And those Aggies got to play on their home court because of a Rod Stewart concert at Florida. Really.

Those seven AQs started the NCAA tournament with a combined record of 160-45, good for an average record of about 23-6. In other words, these teams were familiar with winning and didn't suddenly learn to win in March. But perhaps even more notable, these seven went 94-18 in conference play (83.9 percent). So these teams were, more often than not, among the best their conferences had to offer to go up against higher-seeded teams.

Most had experience in the tournament, too:

UPSET WINNER Tournament streak
1998 Harvard Third bid in a row
2000 Rice First bid in program history
2004 Middle Tennessee First bid in a run of 10 out of 11 years
2005 Liberty Ninth consecutive bid
2007 Marist Third appearance in four years during run of 10 out of 11
2012 Marist Won a tournament game for the fourth time in six years
2021 Wright State Second bid in a row (2019, with no 2020 tournament)

What makes any upset shocking is how unpredictable they seem to be. But if you want to try to spot the top contenders when filling out your bracket, find the AQ teams that also dominated their conference and sport a shiny record.

Fill out multiple brackets

Well, if you're unsure, why not improve your chances by filling out more than one bracket? Not sure about a No. 1 or No. 2 seed going down early, or feeling really lucky with a double-digit Cinderella? Then this is the strategy for you. Yes, two of the 2022 Elite Eight matchups were No. 1 vs. No. 2. But there was No. 10 Creighton, facing off against South Carolina. Finding the right combination of 1s and 2s with some surprises sprinkled in is easier to do the more brackets you enter.

Or maybe — just maybe — you think this is the year a No. 15 seed makes history and beats a No. 2 for the first time.

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