March Madness History Lessons - East
It’s March, and you’re looking for any advantage you can find to fill out the perfect bracket. Gone are the days when just knowing the magic word KenPom was enough to give you a leg up in your bracket pool.
Everyone knows about the Four Factors, and even ESPN articles and shows are digging into the numbers that matter now. The future is here, and there are a thousand advanced statistics right there at everyone’s fingertips.
This series of articles will look at each region through the lens of the past. History doesn’t always repeat itself- after all, it’s called March Madness for a reason- but it does give a lot of good predictable measures. Be sure to check out this South article for the methodology to the Madness.
North Carolina has the most 1 seeds in modern tournament history. And 1 seed UNC has historically been one of the safest best in March. UNC won the title in ‘93, ‘05, and ‘09 all as a 1 seed, and the team has gone 44–8 in the modern era as a 1, averaging exactly four wins per appearance. In other words, 1 seed UNC averages a Final Four berth. Not bad.
As a 1 seed under Roy Williams, UNC has won the whole thing twice and lost to 1, 2, and 2 seeds. The school’s worst loss ever as a 1 seed was to 9 Boston College in 1994. Their next worst were to 3 and 4 seeds… that had already made it to the Final Four. Basically, 1 seed UNC is a really good bet; if and when you pick them to lose will dictate your entire bracket.
Roy Williams is 25–0 in the first round, and 16 seeds are 0–124. Sorry Florida Gulf Coast; your rematch with former coach Andy Enfield (now at USC) will have to wait. Roy does have an ugly second round history at 16–9 with losses as a 1, 1, and 2 seed but those were all back in his days at Kansas. Williams teams are 40–8 in odd numbered rounds with a week to prep. They’re just 21–14 with one day to prep, still good but not as strong in the even rounds.
North Carolina is very, very good as a 1 seed. You better have a really good reason if and when you pick them to go down.
USC does not have a great history as a low seed, just 1–5 as a 7+ seed. Coach Andy Enfield has only been in one previous tourney but made it a memorable one with Dunk City’s Sweet 16 run for Florida Gulf Coast. Providence had a couple of memorable runs, Rick Pitino’s Final 4 team in 1987 and the God Shammgod Elite 8 team in 1997. The Friars are 0–7 otherwise and actually lost just two years ago to UNC by 2 points as a 6–11 underdog. Coach Ed Cooley is without a tournament win at 0–2. One of these coaches will get a win, but don’t count on them getting two, especially in Raleigh.
Indiana as a 3–6 seed is 11–10 in their history. That includes losses to six different double digit seeds- but all of those were 2001 or before. Coach Tom Crean is 9–8 in the tournament with upset losses to 9, 10, and 12 seeds. He’s just 5–7 outside of that Dwyane Wade Marquette Final 4 team in 2003. Indiana won the Big Ten regular season and probably deserved better than a 5 seed and a brutal draw, but here we are and they don’t have a great history.
Chattanooga had a memorable Sweet 16 run as a 14 seed in 1997 but is 0–6 otherwise. Rookie coach Matt McCall is new here but did work under Billy Donovan at Florida and then under Will Wade, the new VCU coach. Chattanooga was one of very few 1 seeds to win their conference tournament and that probably led to an overseed here. And don’t expect too much from the SoCon. That memorable Chattanooga run was the last SoCon team to win a game other than Steph Curry’s Davidson run in 2007, and just three SoCon teams out of 40 have ever won a tourney game. There’s a story brewing here, but Indiana should survive and give us that IU-Kentucky game we all want.
And yes, it will be Kentucky. There’s plenty of of fun Cinderella parallels with Stony Brook in their first ever tournament; their name alone calls to mind the town of Storybrooke from Once Upon a Time. But Cinderella has run into a buzz saw in Kentucky, a team as good and as hot as anyone in the nation.
This is the Kentucky era of college hoops. Every year they send a slew of players to the NBA. Every year they reload, usually struggle early on, round into shape, and hit peak form right as March rolls around. You may not love coach John Calipari, but he’s a fantastic recruiter and an even better coach, turning a bunch of 18-year-olds into one of the teams to beat every year.
The early struggles sometimes leave UK as a lower seed than they ought to be. Have you learned yet to ignore that seed number? Calipari’s UK teams have played in five tournaments. They are 19–4 with a Final Four appearance in four of those five years, including as a 4 and 8 seed, all in the last six seasons.
And don’t expect an upset. Cal’s only real notable upset was a 2–10 loss at UMass in 1994. In the last 12 years at Memphis and UK, Cal’s teams haven’t lost to a team lower than a 3 seed other than the title game against 7 UConn.
Kentucky is a superstar team with two terrific guards and a bunch of big guys. Ignore the seed; UK is a 1 seed. Can you name four teams you’d pick to beat them right now? All signs point to an epic UNC-UK showdown in the Sweet 16, a match-up made for the Final Four. And for the record, Calipari is 1–0 against Roy Williams and 1–0 against Izzo.
It’s tough to say who to take in that presumed UNC-UK showdown. Game theory would suggest you take the 4 seed Kentucky since more of your opponents will take UNC and it appears to be mostly a coin flip game. You may want to ride Kentucky all the way to the Final Four- or further.
The Tulsa/Michigan play-in is an interesting one. Tulsa’s previous coaches include Nolan Richardson, Tubby Smith, Bill Self… and now Frank Haith. One of these names is not like the others. Haith is 1–3 way underperforming with high seeds from Miami and Missouri, and that outweighs Tulsa’s positive history of four previous wins as an 11–13 seed. This is Michigan’s worst seed ever. As a 7–10 seed previously they have gone 3–5, about on expectation. There’s no great history on Michigan’s side… but there are some other factors. Michigan against Notre Dame would be classic rivalry game, where anything can go, and John Beilein may have a rematch against West Virginia after that. You never know with this Michigan team. They could make a run.
Notre Dame does not exactly have a sparkling history with a 13–16 record including 9–10 this century. The last four times they’ve been a 6 or 7 seed, the Irish have lost in the first round. Coach Mike Brey has been around for all of that. Notre Dame is a fun team to root for but may not be one to believe in.
Stephen F Austin is a trendy upset team. At 27–5 including 18–0 in the conference, it’s easy to see why people like the Lumberjacks. But SFA is only 1–3, the one win a 12–5 upset over VCU helped by a miraculous 4-point play with four seconds left two years ago. The Southland’s only other non-play-in win was 14 Northwestern State over Iowa on a last-second three in 2006. Unfortunately, the Southland just isn’t that good of a conference; they average a 19 point loss over the last decade outside of those two miracle wins.
West Virginia is an interesting mix of over- and underperformance. The school itself is 16–9 over the last two decades, nearly double the expected wins. They’ve only been given a seed better than 5 once, and that 2 seed team made the Final Four in 2010.
And then there’s Bob Huggins. He’s got more history at 29–21 including seven times as a top 3 seed where he went 11–7 and wildly underperformed. His teams should’ve had around 20 wins and instead lost to 5, 6, 6, 7, 8, and 10 seeds. Huggins with WVa is 9–6, slightly better than expected. Huggy Bear is 16–5 in the first round but an awful 7–9 in the next including a quintet of memorable chokes with Cincinnati from 1997–2002. Huggins teams are just 9–11 when he has only a day to prepare; watch out for that round 2 upset.
You may remember Wisconsin and Pitt as those teams that always do the opposite of whatever you picked. Pittsburgh is just 1–6 as a 7+ seed, and coach Jamie Dixon is 12–10 with a history of disappointment. Wisconsin has a history of overperforming but a bit of a misnomer. They are 12–11 as a 5–9 seed, but nine of those wins were against 9+ seeds they lucked into drawing. And that was all under legendary coach Bo Ryan anyway, who retired midseason. New coach Greg Gard has a 6 sentence Wikipedia page.
Xavier has their best seed ever and a chance to make their first ever Final Four (if UNC and Kentucky magically implode). As a top 4 seed previously under Thad Matta and Sean Miller, they went 6–3 with some memorable near misses. Current coach Chris Mack is 6–5 as a trio of 6s, a 10, and a 12. He too has some memorable misses, with three losses by <5 to top 3 seeds. Xavier is always in the mix, and Chris Mack is one of the better up and coming coaches in the league. That 1–3–1 defense is a tough match-up, especially in even rounds with only one day to prep. Xavier could make a real run.
The bottom half of this bracket is a mess. No one stands out much, other than maybe Xavier by default. If you’re looking for a spot to pick a sleeper Elite 8, the bottom half of the East is a good spot to do it- maybe Michigan. And it’s a good spot to take a chance, because your pick is almost certain to go down to the winner of the death match on the top half of the bracket. Whoever you take in that UNC-UK game should head straight into your Final Four- and maybe another game or two after that too.
If you like this article, please comment below or share it with your friends- either now or after you use it to beat them in your pool. Be sure to check out the companion pieces on the South, West, and Midwest. Follow Brandon on Medium or @wheatonbrando for more sports, humor, pop culture, and life musings.