| Sat 10/03/2018 - 06:41 EST

NCAA March Madness: Breaking Down When Upsets Happen

NCAA March Madness: Breaking Down When Upsets Happen

Factors to Consider in Predicting Upsets

It's plausible to know nothing about the tournament and still create a better bracket than all the pundits and hardcore fans. That's how unpredictable the tournament is... and how little everyone really knows. While one strategy is to randomly select upsets, a better way is to systematically break down the tournament itself and to find the right spots to call an "upset".

Before getting into breaking down the categories for an upset, the official NCAA website defines an upset when a winning team is at least two seeds lower than the loser. This eliminates all the #8 vs #9 or #4 vs #5 matchups from being labeled as upsets.

With that in mind, we look at a few categories you can look into for an upset...

The History and Statistics of Seeds

As much as we like to rag on the press for overrating or underrating teams, they do a decent job in seeding them. Historically, the higher the seed, the less chance of an upset.

Here is how often upsets happen in the first round of March Madness based on match-ups:

  • #1 vs #16: 0.0%
  • #2 vs #15: 6.06%
  • #3 vs #15: 15.9%
  • #4 vs #13: 19.7%
  • #5 vs #12: 35.61%
  • #6 vs #11: 37.12%
  • #7 vs #10: 38.63%

While no #16 seed has outright defeat a #1 seed, several of them have come close to doing so. In 1989, two #16 seeds came within the final possession of defeating the massive favourites. And most recently in 2014, Weber State lost to Arizona by only nine points. In history, 15 games were decided by a single point. 

So while it is inadvisable to pick the #16 team to win outright, putting some money on them to cover the spread might be the wiser play especially when #1 seeds will usually have spreads of over 20 points.

Now that we have an idea where upsets usually happen, we have an idea of where to focus most of our attention to and can break down individual games based on match-up. When doing so, there are three main categories to look out for.

Match-Up Category 1: Adjusted Efficiency Margins 

March Madness 2

If you don't know Ken Pomeroy, you should. His advanced statistical analysis on college basketball is a must-review, especially during the Madness. The one key metric to look out for here is a team's Adjusted Efficiency Margins (AdjEM). This magic number determines just how good a team has been playing based on their expected margin of victory.

Upsets usually happen when an underdog with an AdjEM over ten plays a favourite an AdjEM under 25. Games with match-ups like this end with an upset 35 per cent of the time or one in every three games. This is a solid starting point in picking upsets.

Match-Up Category 2: Rebounding

March Madness 1

Rebounding is one of the key metrics in siding with a team. As a rule of thumb, the better rebounding team should be leaned on especially if this is the offensive rebounding category. Teams who pound the offensive glass are able to gain extra possessions and extra scoring opportunities and if they likewise clean up on defensive boards, they stop scoring opportunities from their opponents.

This allows teams to better dictate the game's tempo and is paramount to a team's defence. While scoring margin is another key stat, defence and rebounding are usually what win high-pressure situations. Teams have to be able to capitalize on missed shots on both ends. 

Match-Up Category 3: Turnovers

March Madness

Partnered with rebounding, the ability to force turnovers and avoid them is essential to winning. Like rebounding, winning the turnover battle ensures the team is maximizing their possessions. This is the part of "defence wins championships" that has the most impact outside of defensive rebounding.

Assist-to-turnover ratio is a related stat to look at and is a good indicator of how efficient a team is. Pair this with the team's rank in rebound and turnover margin and you have a team that has a good shot at not only pulling an upset but reaching the Final Four.

Best Sportsbooks for NCAA March Madness

You can bet that Canadians everywhere will flock to these online sportsbooks to place wagers to compliment their brackets. Betting can be done before and during games, on individual games, and outright predicting the tournament winner. We reviewed all the best sites so be sure to check them before committing to any book. 

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