It’s The Upsets That Make March Madness

You can spell March Madness without upset. But could you hold March Madness without upsets? Well, you could, but it just wouldn’t be the same, because it truly is the upset the put the madness into March. If the form charts always held, if the favorites forever advanced, what would be the point of holding the tournament? And more significantly, if every outcome was a sure thing, then why wager on the NCAA Tournament?

This isn’t the case, though, and thank goodness for that. There will be upsets. You can bet on that. In fact, upsets are what make people tune into the tournament, and if you can accurately gauge when those upsets are ripe to happen, it can make you a lot of money. Upsets occur in every round of the tournament, including the championship game, where betting the underdog has paid off in three of the last four years.

In the past six NCAA Tournaments, 42 teams seeded 10th or lower have won their opening-round March Madness game. That’s seven per year. That fact of life aside, you know what is Rule No. 1 to remember? Don’t get carried away when betting upsets. There are times when playing the upset is pure fool’s gold.


For example, don’t roll the dice with a 16 seed. They are 0-132 in tournament play, though Princeton came perilously close to delivering the ultimate shocker in 1989, losing by a point to Georgetown. But a 15 seed? Now you’re talking. They are 8-124, so yeah it can happen as it did two years ago when Middle Tennessee State stunned Michigan State. 

If you’re looking to play a 15 seed to win over a two seed, history shows us from the eight victories they’ve amassed that there are certain traits to seek out in such an upset. In all eight upsets, the 15th-seeded club shot more free throws, so look for a matchup where the two seed is prone to committing fouls and the 15 seed is lights out from the charity stripe. Florida Gulf Coast hit 30 of 44 free throws in their 2013 upset of Georgetown.

The ideal 15 seed to back is a veteran, senior-laden squad that maintains a high field goal percentage and tends to take more high-percentage shots. They play stout defense and are most comfortable in a low-scoring game. They often come to the Mid-Atlantic Conference (three-for-15 as a 15 seed) but never from the Ohio Valley Conference (0-for-11 as a No. 15). And don’t bet against a top 25 team as a two seed. The 15th seed is 1-7 against these ranked teams.

One upset that you can almost make book on before the tournament starts is that a No. 5 seed will fall to a 12th-seeded squad. It’s happened in nine of the past 10 NCAA Tournaments and at least two 12 seeds have won in six of the past 10 years. Last year, it was pesky Middle Tennessee State again penning the upset story against a Big Ten opponent, toppling fifth-seeded Minnesota 81-72 in the South Regional. The Blue Raiders dominated the boards (37-24) against the Golden Gophers and committed just eight turnovers. 

There are always clues that are there to be unearthed which can lead you down the path toward solid and wise choices when seeking out an upset winner. The 8-9 matchup is difficult to describe as an upset because it is not uncommon for the nine seed to be favored in these games. But the 7-10 showdowns are games that are always ripe for upset possibilities. If you stack up the records and statistics of a 10 seed, they often aren’t all that different than what you’ll find listed next to the six and seven seeds.

In 2016, the Syracuse Orangemen drove all the way to the Final Four as a 10 seed, an NCAA Tournament first. If you are looking for a team to ride a long way as an upset wager, you can’t do any worse than rolling with No. 10. Since 1985, when March Madness was first expanded to 64 teams, more 10 seeds have reached the Sweet 16 (20) and Elite Eight (eight) than nine seeds (five and two). 


Eight years prior to Syracuse, 10th-seeded Davidson charged all the way to the regional final before falling 59-57 to Kansas, the eventual NCAA champions. Of course, the Wildcats were carried along by a pretty fair guard, a fellow who goes by the name Steph Curry. You might have heard of him.

The 10-seed is a dangerous foe. More often than not, they are small-conference championship clubs, frequently facing the third or fourth-best squad from major conferences. Say what you will, whatever level it’s at, the same amount of intestinal fortitude and character is required to capture any conference championship in a win or go home scenario.

It might even be tougher the lower you go down the NCAA food chain because those schools know without that conference title, there will be no March Madness for them. They are basically already playing NCAA Tournament games in their conference tournament because a loss means their March Madness hopes are dashed. 

Ten seeds are often powerful squads. Consider the example of 10th-seeded Wichita State, authors of a 64-58 upset of No. 7 Dayton in last year’s tournament. The appropriately-named Shockers really didn’t shock anyone who did their homework. Wichita State was 30-4 and came into March Madness riding a 15-game winning streak, 14 of those victories being achieved via double-digit outcomes.

Wichita State was also shooting 40.7 percent from three-point range, good for third in the nation, and rated out as the fifth-best defensive team in the NCAA. Analyzing that data, it would have been madness not to bet on the Shockers.

Another factor to take into consideration when seeking out an upset wager includes whether the favorite is a team that’s played poorly on the road and built its record via a powerful home-court presence. There’s no home-court advantage in the NCAA Tournament. 

You also want to back teams that score the basketball. The vast majority of teams seed 11th or lower who pulled off NCAA Tournament upsets ranked in the top 50 in scoring offense in the nation. Since the 2002 tournament, 13 of 16 upset makers fit into this category. On the other hand, higher-seeded teams that rely on offense and aren’t skilled at defending tend to be very susceptible to the upset.

Lower-seeded teams that have elite talent in their lineup are also dangerous. We mentioned Steph Curry and Davidson earlier, but in that same 2008 tournament, current New York Knicks shooting guard Courtney Lee led the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers on a Cinderella run to the Sweet 16. A higher seed won’t succeed at shutting down a player with an NBA-caliber skill set, so they need to be a potent enough squad to outscore him.

George Mason’s magical ride to the Final Four in 2006 as a No. 11 seed was sparked by stellar defense. The Patriots rated 17th in the NCAA in defensive efficiency. They came into the tournament on an 8-2 roll and were an experienced bunch, all three of their top scorers were seniors. 

Another off the wall trend? The longer the name, the more likely it is they will hang around for a bit. We’ve already mentioned Middle Tennessee State a couple of times, and Florida Gulf Coast. Virginia Commonwealth and Stephen F. Austin are other mouthfuls who’ve proven a handful in past tournaments. That being the case, you might want to keep an eye on the College of Charleston, LIU Brooklyn, UNC Greensboro, and South Dakota State.

Go to school on the Ivy League. Last year, 12th-seeded Princeton gave No 5 Notre Dame all the Fighting Irish could handle before falling 60-58. It was the seventh time in eight years the Ivy League champs had either won their first game or lost by a bucket. Twelfth-seeded Yale toppled No. 4 Baylor in 2016. Cornell won two games as a 12 seed in 2010. Harvard won as a 14 seed in 2013 and as a 12 seed in 2014. And who can forget Penn’s amazing run to the Final Four in 1979?

If you are deeply embedded into analytics, researchers at the University of Illinois recently released a paper quantifying the 15 key elements required for a March Madness upset to occur. If you want to delve more deeply into their analysis, it’s all here. And once the tournament seedings are announced, they intend to reveal all their upset picks at the same site.

The bottom line when picking your March Madness upsets is to recognize that they will happen, but also to remember not to get carried away and get mad about picking upsets. Follow the advice above, do your research and your homework and you will become the Upset Whisperer. The games to play will speak to you.

Upsets are what make March Madness worth watching, and worth wagering on each year. But it's wise to remember that midnight generally strikes for Cinderella by the second round. Very few first-round upset winners will repeat the beating in Round 2.

Solving The Madness

Looking to determine which upsets to play in this year's NCAA Tournament? You'll find all the odds and other pertinent data at any one of our partner sites below.

Kansas (20-3, 9-1 Big 12)

Kansas has been so solid this season. They don't have a bad loss and have been defeated just once since Christmas. Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike have formed a formidable duo and freshman Christian Braun has excelled. Udoka Azubuike is the best shot-blocker in the league and can shoot from the free-throw line. 

Baylor (22-1, 11-0 Big 12)

The Bears the hottest team in the country, winning 21 consecutive games. Jared Butler and Mark Vital have been key to the team's success. But they're not alone. MaCio Teague, Devion Mitchell and Freddie Gillespie complete the starting lineup, with Devonte Bandoo as a sixth man. The team's physicality and ability to drive into the paint will cause everyone problems this season. 

Gonzaga (25-1, 11-0 WWC)

The Bulldogs have failed to live up to expectations in recent weeks. But having rolled through the WCC, they'll fancy themselves in 2020. On offense, Gonzaga has the likes of Killian Tillie, Filip Petrusev, Drew Timme and Corey Kispert to turn to this March. The Zag's defense is where they've come undone this season and will be of concern to Mark Few.