NCAA Tournament: Does Distance Traveled Play a Role in Upsets?

Picking an upset in the NCAA Tournament is tough, but are there ways to make it easier?

March is upon us once again, which means we're just a few weeks from getting our brackets set on fire. Before we get to that point, though, there might be a way to prevent this fate.

An upset is the most fun, exciting outcome to root for during the NCAA Tournament, unless, of course, it's happening against your favorite team. The first weekend always has its crazy moments that nobody saw coming, but if we had a general idea of what seed matchups yielded the most upsets or were aware of other factors that have come into play in the past, maybe your bracket won't end up in the trash can as early this year.

Using NCAA Tournament results from 2002 through 2015, let's try to find some helpful tips for picking upsets.

Which Seeds Pull Off the Most Upsets?

Over the years, certain upsets have been much more common to look for than others. Conventional wisdom says to look for the best 12 seed over 5 seed upset, which is statistically accurate. 

Over the past 14 tournaments, a 12 seed has knocked off a 5 seed 24 times, which is 43 percent. Although this is the most frequent type of upset, the 11 over 6 upset (22) and the 10 over 7 upset (20) should not be overlooked. Teams seeded ninth have even had less success in the first round than 12 seeds, only taking down 8 seeded teams 22 times in their last 56 attempts.

The 12 seeds are typically automatic qualifiers from mid-major conferences that have proven to be the best throughout the season, or one of the last qualifying at-large teams. In the past five seasons, teams that have played in the First Four game have gone 5-5 in the first round, and have included two Sweet 16 teams (2014 Tennessee and 2013 La Salle) and one Final Four team (2011 VCU).

Is Distance Traveled a Reliable Factor?

In 2002, the NCAA started placing teams into regional pods in order to cut down the amount that teams had to travel. 

According to the  2015-16 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship Principles and Procedures for Establishing the Bracket, the committee assigns teams to a location that will keep them in or as close to their areas of natural interest as possible. The teams are assigned a seed between 1 and 16 and put in order from 1 to 68. In that order, teams get slotted into the closest available first and second round sites.

After the four top seed lines are placed in their regions, the teams from the 5 through 16 seed line are placed according to the S-curve, which is similar to the way a snake draft works in fantasy sports. On occasion, this system can allow for lower seeded teams to be placed closer to home than a higher seeded team.

For example, if Notre Dame ends up a 6 seed and the closest available location to be placed is Brooklyn, New York, they could end up playing an 11 seed playing closer to home, such as Temple. If this is the case, would Temple have a better chance of upsetting Notre Dame than they otherwise would?

Results over the past 14 tournaments show that 5, 6, and 7 seeds are more likely to be upset when traveling a further distance than their first-round opponents. In 90 such cases, the lower seeded team has won 44 percent of the time. In the 78 games where the lower seed must travel a further distance, their success rate drops to 33 percent.

As shown in the table below, the difference in distance traveled seems to be slightly more relevant in games where the teams are seeded more equally.

Seed Record Win Pct. # of Upsets Traveled Lesser Distance Pct of Wins
10 20-36 .357           13 65%   
11 22-34 .392           13 59%
12 24-32 .428           14 58%

A Cinderella is typically a double-digit seeded team that makes the Sweet 16, or a 7 seed or lower that reaches the Final Four. 

Interestingly enough, in the three most recent cases, 2015 Michigan State, 2014 Kentucky, and 2014 Connecticut, none of them averaged 500 miles traveled for the first two rounds. 

In 2014, the 8-seeded Kentucky traveled to St. Louis and Indianapolis, and 7-seeded Connecticut played in Buffalo and New York City. In 2006, 11-seeded George Mason won their first two games in Dayton before winning their next two games 15 miles from home in Washington, DC, including a victory over top-seeded Connecticut. 

Even Stephen Curry’s 2008 Davidson team entered the tournament as a 10 seed, yet marched through the first weekend in their home state of North Carolina on their way to the Elite Eight.

Since 2007, there have been five tournaments where double-digit seeds that made the Sweet 16 by traveling less than 500 miles from campus. The Cinderella team is not in the field every year, however, if your strategy is to set yourself apart by inserting a dark horse into the second weekend, distance traveled can certainly play a role.

Is There Actually a Formula for Picking Upsets?

The short answer, unfortunately, is no. There's no easy way to pinpoint exactly who will be upset in a given year, but there are certain variables you can look toward to help decide which matchups you're going to pick. 

Knowing the most common seeds to score upsets is a good start, and taking distance into consideration could also point you in the right direction. Also, keeping an eye on lower-seeded teams that are hot or higher-seeded teams that are limping into the tournament can help your efforts. Since 2008, there has been at least five upsets in the first round and an average of seven per year.

The upsets will happen, but some of the equation behind picking them is being lucky enough to pick the right ones.