The March Madness Seeding Conspiracy
The black helicopters are circling…all while the first weekend of games are almost complete.
For the 1st round games on Thursday & Friday, there were quite a number of “upsets”. A casual observer/sports fan will look at a teams seed like Old Dominion at #11 and when they beat a #6 seed, they think it’s some monumental upset. It’s the way we’re conditioned: fans will pull for the underdog. And this drama is what gives the NCAA College Basketball Tournament the TV ratings and the drive behind the “March Madness” label.
So if you’re the NCAA and you have this product that generates so much money for all your schools, why wouldn’t you play around with the match-ups to try to create the most compelling television product? Perhaps they already do.
During the final week of the season, as some conferences were still participating in their conference championships, some news came out about the committees plans this year. They said that they were going to focus very hard this year on the bubble teams. In other words, they were going to go over every detail to make sure that they get the right teams in and don’t leave a more worthy team at home. This was very positive news since there have been previous years when less worthy teams seem to have got in, while other strong candidates were left at home. The selection committee did a great job this year based on the fan and media reactions. Florida getting in as a 10 seed and Wake Forest invited over Virginia Tech were the only real conversation points and they were minimal.
But the seeding this year seemed a bit odd.
There were a number of teams that were on the bubble just a week or two before the selections, that on selection day were as high as 6 seeds.
Take Notre Dame. They were clearly out of the conversation 3 weeks before the selections were made. But a strong run put them not just in the tournament, but as a 6 seed. Marquette had a similar run and too got a 6 seed. Then there was Villanova who lost 5 of their last 6 games, but still got a 2 seed.
On the other end, you had schools like Temple, who won the Atlantic 10 regular and conference tournament championships while remaining ranked virtually all season. The Atlantic 10 was the 6th rated conference in the country this year and all signs pointed to Temple being a 3 seed after their A10 championships. In the rare case of trying to “make the brackets work”, they could have been a 4 seed. But on selection day, Temple was a 5 seed. If Fran Dunphy wants to point fingers at anyone, he can do so to the selection committee who paired (2) conference champions in the 5 vs 12 game.
Fellow Atlantic 10 member Richmond beat Xavier to advance to the A10 final, yet received a 7 seed while Xavier got a 6 seed. If anything, both schools seemed to deserve 6 seeds.
And then there is Cornell. They appeared safe as a 10 seed after a strong regular season in the Ivy league and tough OOC schedule. But instead they were given a 12 seed. St. Mary’s won the WCC, seemed in the tournament even if they had lost the conference championship tournament, yet they got a 10 seed instead of an 8 or 9.
All these examples of team seeds show one thing: while the right teams were invited to the tournament, some teams were grossly over-seeded while others under-seeded.
So what does this mean? Could this be a conspiracy?
It means there were 1st round match-ups of teams that based on their regular season performance and qualifications, should not have been paired to play each other in the first round.
And the result were a number of “upsets”.
By all definitions of the word “upset”, they were all indeed upsets: the higher seeds lost to the the lower seeds, and more importantly, the team that the sports betting oddsmakers had deemed “underdogs” beat the point spread.
Perhaps you think I’m completely off on this so far.
So then lets look at some of the 1st round point spreads:
- Vanderbilt (4 seed) vs Murray St (13 seed): Vanderbilt was 4 point favorite
- Purdue (4 seed) vs Siena (13 seed): Purdue was 4 point favorite *
- Maryland (4 seed) vs Houston (13 seed): Maryland was 8 point favorite
- Wisconsin (4 seed) vs Wofford (13 seed): Wisconsin was 10 point favorite
- Temple (5 seed) vs Cornell (12 seed): Temple was a 4 point favorite
- Texas A&M; (5 seed) vs Utah St. (12 seed): Texas A&M; was 3 point favorite
- Michigan St. (5 seed) vs NMSU (12 seed): Michigan St. was 13 point favorite
- Butler (5 seed) vs UTEP (12 seed): Butler was 2.5 point favorite
- Notre Dame (6 seed) vs ODU (11 seed): Notre Dame was 2 point favorite
- Marquette (6 seed) vs Washington (11 seed): Marquette was 2 point favorite
- Tennessee (6 seed) vs SDSU (11 seed): Tennessee was 3 point favorite
- Xavier (6 seed) vs Minnesota (11 seed): Xavier was 4.5 point favorite
- Richmond (7 seed) vs St. Mary’s (10 seed): Richmond was a 1 point favorite
- Oklahoma St (7 seed) vs Georgia Tech (10 seed): OSU was 1.5 point favorite
- Clemson (7 seed) vs Missouri (10 seed): Clemson was 1.5 point favorite
- BYU (7 seed) vs Florida (10 seed): BYU was 5 point favorite
- Texas (8 seed) vs Wake Forest (9 seed): Texas was 4.5 point favorite
- Florida St (8 seed) vs Gonzaga (9 seed): point spread was 0
- UNLV (8 seed) vs UNI (9 seed): UNLV was 1 point favorite
- California (8 seed) vs Louisville (9 seed): point spread was 0
After examining these point spreads, it’s easier to see some trends:
- Some teams were clearly over-seeded while others under-seeded:
Vanderbilt was only a 4 point favorite versus Murray St. That should not happen with a “power seed”, a team in the 1-4 seed spot. So Vanderbilt losing that game can hardly be considered a huge upset. The Purdue 4 point spread was based on a few factors. The first being the loss of Purdue’s top scorer…and an under-seeding of Siena.
When looking at the match-ups of say a 5 vs 12 game, the spread should never be below 5 points. What that means is that the teams in those 5 and 12 spots are not differentiated enough. It’s clear that one of (3) things is occurring: either the 5 seed should be lower, the 12 seed should be higher, or both.
The same situation exists with the 6 vs 11 games. Notre Dame was only a 2 point favorite to beat 11 seed ODU. This is the point spread of a typical 8 vs 9 game, not a 6 vs 11. Notre Dame was overseeded at the 6 spot and ODU likely underseeded as an 11.
The 7 vs 10 games had match-ups with point spreads that resemble the typical years 8 vs 9 seeds. You had two games with a 1.5 point spread and another that was only a single point.
- There appears to be some of the power conference bias over “mid-majors:
As I mentioned last Sunday when the selections came out, there was a disturbing trend. 4 games were scheduled that pitted non-power conference
at-large teams against other schools outside the power conferences. So instead of “favorites” 5 seed Temple, 5 seed Butler, 7 seed Richmond and 8 seed UNLV playing 12, 10 and 9 seeds from the at-large pool of power conference schools, they instead had to play other “mid-major” teams. When that happens, only half the teams advance another round to earn their conferences an extra revenue share. It’s a quick way to eliminate half the “spoilers” and ensure that 4 power conference teams have an easier path to advance to the cha-ching rounds.
- The over-seeding/under-seeding issue is responsible for a number of what people are calling huge “upsets”…although only Ohio vs Georgetown had a point spread that was greater than 4 points.
So here’s a running tally on all these so-called huge upsets in the first round:
Georgetown (3 seed) vs Ohio (14 seed): Georgetown was 13.5 point favorite
Temple (5 seed) vs Cornell (12 seed): Temple was a 4 point favorite
Notre Dame (6 seed) vs ODU (11 seed): Notre Dame was 2 point favorite
Marquette (6 seed) vs Washington (11 seed): Marquette was 2 point favorite
Richmond (7 seed) vs St. Mary’s (10 seed): Richmond was a 1 point favorite
Oklahoma St (7 seed) vs Georgia Tech (10 seed): OSU was 1.5 point favorite
Clemson (7 seed) vs Missouri (10 seed): Clemson was 1.5 point favorite
Texas (8 seed) vs Wake Forest (9 seed): Texas was 4.5 point favorite
Florida St (8 seed) vs Gonzaga (9 seed): point spread was 0
That’s (12) 1st round upsets…but only 1 was by an underdog getting more than 4 points.
I’m writing this half tongue-in-cheek tonight. But it’s clear to me that while the best teams got in the tournament, the match-ups were not set to reward some of the better seeds. And since technically, no lower seeds were favored by oddsmakers to beat higher seeds, the seeding wasn’t completely a mess. It just could have been done better to reward some of the higher seeds that had 1st round games that looked more like 2nd round match-ups. And CBS got what it wanted: 12 teams with higher numbers next to their names on the TV beat 12 teams with lower numbers. So even Aunt Edna May who doesn’t follow basketball, saw that there was an “upset”.
And on the day when everyone is shocked that #1 seed Kansas lost to #9 seed Northern Iowa (Kansas was a 12 point favorite), it should also be known that the #10 St. Mary’s upset of #2 Villanova…for all it’s glory…Villanova was only a 4 point favorite. Go figure.