It’s better to be a higher seed in March Madness, right? Well, yes and no.
Let’s start with the yes. No. 1 seeds have performed extremely well historically, capturing 11 of the past 14 men’s national championships and 23 of the 36 since the draw expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Over that time span, the title game has been just as likely to feature two No. 1 seeds as no No. 1 seeds.
Five No. 2 seeds have won the championship, and four No. 3 seeds have done so, but the 2014 UConn Huskies, led by Shabazz Napier, have been the only team seeded lower than third to win the championship since the turn of the century. There’s certainly a lot of madness in March, but when it comes to cutting down the nets in the first week of April, it’s almost always one of the favorites.
The seeds of success for the top teams are planted in the first round, in which no No. 1 seed had ever lost prior to No. 16 UMBC’s upset of No. 1 Virginia in 2018. No. 2 seeds are almost as solid, winning 94% of their opening round games.
The first round is shaky, though, for any team seeded lower than fourth. No. 5 seeds beat No. 12 seeds at just a 65% clip, marginally higher than the 60% rate at which No. 7s beat No. 10s. There have been even more of these medium-level upsets recently, with No. 12 seeds going 23-29 in the first round since 2008, for instance.
By the time Saturday rolls around, the No. 1s still feel relatively secure, but nobody else is safe. No. 2 seeds only win about two-thirds of their second round matchups (regardless of whether they play a No. 7 or a No. 10) and nearly half of No. 3 seeds don’t reach the Sweet 16. By contrast, 85% of No. 1 seeds advance to the second week of the big dance.
In fact, No. 1 seeds are so dominant that they almost entirely block out eighth and ninth seeds from reaching the Sweet 16. This is where being a higher seed is not always better. As you count upwards starting from 1, it gets progressively harder at each seed to make it to the third round. That is, until you get to 10, when the graph surprisingly turns around like Javier Baez getting into a pickle on his way to first base. Amazingly, teams seeded No. 12 make it to the second week of the tournament more frequently than No. 8 and No. 9 seeds combined.
The 2022 Michigan Wolverines might have cost themselves a higher seed in the NCAA Tournament when they blew a double-digit second half lead to Indiana in the first round of the Big Ten tournament. By ending up with a No. 11 seed on Selection Sunday, however, they pushed off a potentially dangerous rendezvous with a No. 1 seed until the Elite Eight, at the earliest. Michigan likely not only improved its odds of reaching the coveted Sweet 16, but increased its expected number of total March Madness wins.
The power of the top seed, and the lopsided 1 vs. 5 matchup looming in the Sweet 16, is so strong that as many No. 11 seeds as No. 5 seeds have made it to the Elite Eight since 1985. Last year, UCLA advanced even further, becoming the fourth No. 11 seed since 2006 to reach the Final Four. FiveThirtyEight’s model gives Michigan an 11% chance of reaching the quarterfinals and a 4% chance of reaching the Final Four. The NCAA tournament is structured to send 67 of its 68 participants home losers, but it at least provides a glimmer of hope for those lucky enough to fall to that No. 11 seed.
The women’s tournament can make no such claim. No. 1 seeds are even more dominant in that event, winning 21 of the last 27 national championships. No team seeded lower than No. 5 has even reached the final since 1994. Even in the first round, there is significantly less madness than in the men’s draw, with favorites faring better in nearly every corresponding matchup.
One oddity present in both tournaments since moving to a 64-team field: No. 9 seeds have a winning record against No. 8 seeds. So, yes, it’s better to be a higher seed. Except when it’s not.