April 21, 2024

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Distress alert! How 11 seeds became the new 12 seeds in March Madness

Distress alert!  How 11 seeds became the new 12 seeds in March Madness

Those who care about March Madness — who really care — have noticed a trend in recent years.

In the first 30 years of the modern tournament era (1985-2014), at least one of the 12 seeds won a first-round match in all but three years (1988, 2000 and 2007). Not only has the No. 12 seed won more first-round games than the No. 11 seed (44 to 41) during that span, it has also advanced to the Sweet 16 more often (20 to 17).

That's why, for years, the surprise for those filling out the brackets involved No. 12 beating No. 5 in the first round, and perhaps winning again in the second round… and that's understandable.

Only No. 1-6 and No. 10 seeds have reached the Sweet 16 more times than No. 12 seeds in that three-decade span. This makes it worth picking at least one 12 seed to win a game or two.

It's not that certain anymore. Recent data suggests it may be time to turn your attention to a primer instead.

He plays


NC State Wolfpack Men's NCAA Tournament Preview

Joe Lunardi breaks down his predictions for NC State's NCAA Tournament prospects.

The fall of the 12

After failing to win a first-round match just three times in 30 years, the No. 12 seed has been eliminated in three of the past eight tournaments.

Since 2015, the top 12 seeds are 9-23 against the No. 5 seed (.281 winning percentage), down from their 37% success rate over the previous 30 years.

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Only two of those nine who won in the first round went on to win their next match. The only seeds with fewer Sweet 16 appearances in this span are the No. 13, 14 and 16 seeds.

That's not to say the No. 12 seed can't recapture its mojo, but recent history shows that the people most likely to make noise and advance to the second week of tournament play come from power conferences.

In the past 10 tournaments, the only 12 seeds to reach the Sweet 16 have come from the Pac-12 — Oregon State in 2021 and Oregon in 2013 and ’19 — all of which led to an upset in the conference tournaments to become selection bid stealers Sunday. The last non-power conference No. 12 to advance to the Sweet 16 was Richmond in 2011.

Even when things were good for a No. 12 finish, getting past the Sweet 16 was tough sledding.

Only two No. 12 seeds in history have advanced to the Elite Eight: the aforementioned Oregon State team and Missouri in 2002. They are also the only 12 seeds to have faced a No. 8 seed in that Sweet 16 matchup. The other 20 times they've played a No. 12 seed in the Sweet 16, they've had to face a No. 1 seed, which explains why it's difficult to ask them to go any further.

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New Mexico Lobos Men's NCAA Tournament Preview

Joe Lunardi breaks down his predictions for New Mexico's NCAA Tournament prospects.

11 is the new 12

Cinderella's slipper now fits comfortably on the foot of the No. 11 seed.

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Let's start with the first round, where 11 seeds have a winning record against No. 6 seeds since 2015 (17-15, .531), a notable difference from the previous 30 years (.342).

But how far can the seemingly improbable seed go?

If you're looking for bracketed facts to stick to when making your choice, try the following for size:

Only seeds 1 through 4 have more Sweet 16, Elite Eight or The last four games are the 11th most in the 68-team era (since 2011). Yes, really. Five times in this period of 12 tournaments, several 11 seeds advanced to the Sweet 16, something that had not happened since 1985 before that.

Although it may be surprising to read about the relative success of the No. 11s — five Elite Eight trips, including three that reached the Final Four — we've never seen a single one advance to the title game. It seems like all good things must truly come to an end.

He plays


Oregon Ducks Men's NCAA Tournament Preview

Joe Lunardi breaks down his predictions for Oregon State's NCAA Tournament prospects.

Why this trend could continue

When the tournament field expanded from 64 to 65 to 68, it created more at-large bids. Basically, these extra big teams are the ones you see competing in the top four every year. They are the “final four” to use a bracketology term, and are almost always 11 seeds.

Since 2015, 30 of the 32 overall teams playing in the top four have been No. 11 seeds. One First Four overall team has gone on to win its first-round match in 11 of the 12 tournaments. The past eight who have done so have all been 11 seeds. One of the top four participants has reached the Sweet 16 five times in this span, including twice reaching the Final Four (UCLA in 2021, VCU in 2011). You guessed it: they both had 11 seeds.

That's just 11 seeds from The first fouras nine other No. 11 seeds advanced to the Sweet 16 in the 68-team era (two of whom made it to the Elite Eight).

As you fill out your 2024 March Madness brackets ESPN Men's Championship ChallengeThere are a lot of facts to absorb in the NCAA Tournament. Our ESPN college basketball team has you covered every day of the week in our Big Dance preview.