The Maddest of all Marches?
If you, like me, love sports statistics, this will be like a bag overflowing with full-sized candy bars on Halloween Night. If you like March Madness but not statistics so much, I still think this could be like the fun-size.
Upfront, I’ll say that I don’t know how you can even talk about sports meaningfully without stats. I actually did this once with Larry Bird, but that is the exception. The rule is that numbers tell stories as clearly as words do. Shoeless Joe Jackson’s Batting Average (.356). Joe Montana’s Super Bowl Touchdown-to-Interception ratio (10-0). Kansas’s streak of making the Big Dance (33 years). The final score of the USA over USSR Miracle (4-3).
Those are just a handful of examples out of literally thousands in my head, out of millions that exist. Sports and numbers go together like birthdays and cake. Like basketball and March.
Which leads me to the statistics I want to look at today. The names of the Men’s Final Four teams this year are pretty strong in telling the story:
San Diego St.
Those names almost look like someone randomly pulled four teams out of a hat, instead of the four teams that won four games to get this far. But beyond the names, the statistics tell a novel’s worth of information about how much Madness this March has given us. And my question is, “Is this the Maddest March of All-Time?” Let’s evaluate the numerical data.
Seedings Matter So Much to March Madness Discussion
First the seedings, because this is a huge point of conversation any year when people talk about brackets and picks.
The Final Four teams have a cumulative seeding of 23 (4+5+5+9). Believe it or not, this is NOT the record for the highest total. In 2011, anchored by 8-seed Butler and 11-seed VCU, the Final Four teams had a 26 total cumulative seeding. But this year is second, coming in just ahead of 2000’s 22 and 2006’s 20. By this metric, it wasn’t the maddest March ever, but it was close.
This was also not the first year that zero 1-seeds made the Final Four. It had happened twice in the 64+ team era, not surprisingly both years mentioned above–2006 and 20111. However, this was the first year no 1s made it to the Final 8. So this data nugget is a mark in the box for this being the maddest of all Marches.
Also in favor of this year on this note is that this is the first year ever that no Top-3 seed made the Final 4.
A third thing that speaks to unprecedented Madness this year in the early rounds was the fact that for the first time, both a 16 and a 15 made the 2nd round. 15s had won ten times before2, while 16s had that one, glorious victory by UMBC in 2018. But no 15 won in 2018, so this was a unicorn year for bottom two seeds.
Interestingly, despite the previous two paragraphs, 2023 didn’t even come close to the highest cumulative seeding for Sweet 16 and Elite 8. This is fascinating to me in light of why I’m writing this article in 2023, but 2021 set the record for the highest cumulative seeing for the Final 16 teams with 91. In 2022 it was the Final 8 teams that set the highest cumulative seeding record with 473. This year those numbers were 78 and 37. So again, not even close4.
Yet what this year has going for it that those years did not is the aforementioned Final 4. In 2021 the championship was two 1-seeds in Baylor and undefeated Gonzaga. In 2022 the Final 4 consisted of four true bluebloods in Villanova, Kansas, Duke, and UNC. So after madness for three or four rounds, the last two years settled down. This year it never did. Three of these teams had never made the Final 4.
This hasn’t happened in 53 years, well before the modern era. And it’s not just first-timers. Two of them are from non-Power 5 conferences. Either FAU or San Diego St will be playing for the title Monday. Who in their right mind saw that coming?
In 2006 and 2011 you had teams like UCLA and Kentucky in the mix. This year, aside from UConn none of these teams had any semblance of this kind of run. Ever. Florida Atlantic had zero tourney wins before this year. Miami and San Diego St. had one Elite 8 between them in their histories. Even UConn, with its four championship banners, isn’t exactly like the bluebloods from the 2022 Final Four. Since their championship in 2014, they had won but one single tournament game and had missed the tournament completely half of the time. That just isn’t like Duke, UNC, and Kansas. So even they were a bit surprising to see in the National Semifinals.
Busted Brackets are As American As Apple Pie
This was all proven in the national bracket challenges. In one national bracket challenge, zero people got all 8 of the Elite 8 teams correct. Only 0.007% got 7 of the 8. 40% got zero correct and over 80% of entries got two or fewer Elite 8 teams correct. In the CBS one, there were nearly 4 million entries and only six got all four Final Four teams correctly. If you are going to be the Maddest of all Marches, you have to humble the masses picking the brackets.
And I’ll even throw myself under the bus. Not only did I not get any Final Four teams correct, which rarely happens, but I had three of the actual Final 4 teams losing in the first round. I had Miami at least making it to the Sweet 16.
That was a dumpster fire of an effort, and worse than the average bracket according to ESPN, but it still proves how a person who wasn’t picking based just on seeding numbers or team colors could get this one so wrong. Duke, UCLA, Baylor, and Texas all seemed like reasonable picks. Two were gone by the second round, one by the Sweet 16 and none are left standing now.
Madness Also Means Buzzer Beaters and Exciting Finishes
There is one other major criterion that I think is reasonable to use to evaluate which NCAA March Tournament is the maddest ever: how close the games are. Especially how many buzzer-beaters (or clutch shots late at least) there are.
Since this isn’t as statistic-based I’ll comment more briefly.
This was where the 2006 tournament, one of the others in contention for Maddest March based on seeding upsets, really shined. Tennesee beat Winthrop at the buzzer, Northwestern St. used a last-second three to upset Iowa and Bradley overcame Kansas in a nail-biter that was a huge upset.
That was the first round. There was also a Texas over West Virginia buzzer-beater and one of the truly epic games in March Madness history with UCLA over Gonzaga, which turned out to be Part 1 of a phenomenal trilogy of games between the two in the tournament. 2021 and this year were the other two. LSU and Texas went to overtime in the Elite 8. And then there was George Mason’s incredible victory over UConn to advance to the Final 4.
2011 was also fantastic with Morehead St over Louisville, Kentucky over Ohio St., VCU over Florida St. Butler over Pitt, Florida over the BYU Fighting Jimmers, and UConn over Arizona all being classic games to me.
This year has been about as good. Furman over Viriginia was wild. FAU over Memphis was crazy. Kansas St. over Michigan St. felt like a pro playoff game. And Gonzaga and UCLA did give us an amazing Part III to their rivalry. One advantage this year has is that there were three heart-stopping games in the Elite 8, which is very rare. Neither 2006 nor 2011 saw that.
And another potential advantage on this note for 2023 is how the Final 4 will play out. Because in 2006, the higher seeds won and the games were not very good at all as far as excitement. In 2011, the highest seed in the Final 4 won, and while the two semis weren’t terrible, they weren’t fantastic. And the championship game was the most unsightly exhibition of basketball I may have ever seen.
So 2023 has two things going for it that can top 2006 and 2011 for Maddest March–more exciting games and finishes in the Final 4 and the potential that anyone but UConn will cut down the nets. 5-seeds and 9-seeds have never won a championship. 9 would be the lowest ever. Only four teams in history have won it all lower than a 4-seed and only one of those was since the 1980s.
So I’ll save my final opinion on whether this is the Maddest March ever until after the Championship Game. If FAU wins it will be clinched to me. If Miami or San Diego St. wins we will need some close games. If UConn wins we will need two or three classic games.
What about you? What is your opinion of this year’s Men’s Bracket, whether about stats or not?
- Seeding began in 1979 and no 1s made it in 1980 as well but that was a 48-team field. And actually, logic seems to tell me that it should be harder for no 1s to make it in a smaller field, so I think 1980 should get its due as well as a supremely mad year. ↩
- 15s only won four times from 1985 to 2011 and have won 7 times since. Another way to say that is that 15s went from winning less than 4% of the time, to nearly 15% of the time, basically quadrupling their chances of winning the last 12 years. ↩
- You may think, “Well, of course, St. Peter’s made the Elite Eight as a 15-seed”. But even if St. Peter’s were a 10-seed, the record would have been set. That’s Madness. ↩
- A huge reason for this is that the 5s, 6s, and 7s did extremely well compared to history. 12s over 5s have always been the popular 1st round upset picks because they happen most years. But this year the 5s went undefeated. 6s and 7s both only lost one. So the much-maligned 5, 6 and 7-seeds were a combined 10-2 in the first round. That’s an astronomically high winning percentage compared to most years. ↩
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