Reviewing the Historical Performance of Four Seeds (Since 1985)

Submitted by saveferris on March 18th, 2013 at 3:08 PM

So now that the brackets are out and Michigan has drawn a 4 seed in the South Region, I thought I'd take a look at how 4 seeds have fared in tournaments past, going back to when the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.  Surprisingly, Googling "Historical Performance of Seeds in NCAA Tournament" yields a plethora of data that just begs to be analyzed statistically and have conclusions drawn over which one can agonize.  I wish the news were better.


The News Is Bad?  How Bad?

In the 28 years since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams, squads seeded fourth have won grand total of 167 games for a per tournament average of 5.96 wins, give or take 2.06 wins.  Essentially this falls in line with confirming chalk.  If you're a 4 seed, you're a great bet to win your first game, a 50/50ish bet to win your 2nd, and then you're probably ewww.  This probably doesn't come as a surprise, since if you're a 4 seed coming out of the first weekend, you're probably facing the 1 seed, and beating a one seed is hard.


So It's Hopeless Then?

Well no, it's not hopeless.  Being a 4 seed is definately better than being a 5 or higher;  as the numbers show that fortunes for teams not seeded in the Top 16 of the tourney fall precipitiously.  For all the romance that media-types assign to "Cinderellas" in the tounament; runs like George Mason or Villanova are very much the exception. 

Since 1985, 11 four seeds have advanced to the Final Four in 10 separate NCAA Tournaments (The 1990 Tournament saw 4 seeds Georgia Tech and Arkansas both advance to the Final Four).  Of those 11 teams that managed to make it the Final Four, 2 of them advanced to the Finals (Syracuse 1996, Arizona 1997), with only Lute Olsen's 1997 Arizona Wildcats having the stuff to find themselves hoisting the championship trophy.

The only precedent we have to lean on, but there is a precedent


Only One Champion In 28 Seasons?  That Sounds Pretty Hopeless.

Well, it does occur to me that this only has any real meaning if there is something to compare it against, say the 1 - 3 seeds.  This sounds like a perfect opportunity for a...

Chart?  Chart

  1 Seed 2 Seed 3 Seed 4 Seed
Final Four Appearances 46 25 14 11
FF Success Rate 41% 22% 13% 10%
Championships Won 17 4 4 1
Champ. Success Rate 61% 14% 14% 4%

Lest we forget, one of those four 3 seeds is 1989 Michigan, woo!

So yeah, big surprise here.  One and two seeds make up 2/3rds of all the teams that have appeared in the Final Four and have won 75% of all the titles since 1985.  This can mean one of two things.  One, that the Selection Committee is very good at seeding teams based on their relative strength or two, the path of the one and two seeds is conducive for advancing.  Personally, I tend to think it's more Door #2 than Door #1.  The real takeaway from this with regards to Michigan 2013 is that the distinction between a 3 and 4 seed seems to be pretty small.

[EDIT:  I would like to point out the anomaly that while 2 seeds appear in the Final Four about half the rate of 1 seeds and twice the rate of 3 and 4 seeds, they only come away with a quarter of the titles, a disproportionately low number.  Y U no pull your weight in the Finals two seeds?]


So What Does This All Mean For Our Guys?

Well, I'd rather see us as a 3 seed personally, and was a bit miffed to find us slide from a predicted 2 seed to a 4 based upon one loss to Wisconsin (F#*k, Wisconsin), but then I think the Selection Committee has undervalued the competitiveness of the B1G in general with the brackets.  I am looking forward to seeing  Michigan play some non-Big Ten competition.  I think we'll be pleasantly surprised at how good we suddenly look again, assuming the guys haven't completely lost their confidence.

Still, Michigan has it's work cut out for it as the four seeds have historically had tough sledding in the NCAA Tournament.  I do take some comfort in the words of my old Econ professor who liked to remind his class that, "past performance is no guarantee of future earnings".  Here's to a deep, entertaining, and trend-bucking tournament run from the 2013 Wolverines.  Go Blue!


Blue Durham

March 18th, 2013 at 3:39 PM ^

Not sure I understand your last chart.

Since 1985, there have been 28 NCAA tournaments, thus 28 champions.  Your chart of 1-4 seeds shows 21 champions, implying that there have been 7 champions of seeds 5 or lower, almost as many as 2, 3, and 4 seeds combined. 

If that is right, it would seem like it would be better to be a lower 6 or 7 seed than a 4 seed, which seems to contradict what you say about fortunes falling precipitously after the 4 seed.

Blue Durham

March 18th, 2013 at 4:01 PM ^

Yeah, I just looked it up.  Villanova (1985) was an 8, and Kansas (1988) was a 6.  By my count, there have been 17 #1-seeds that have been champions, 4 2-seeds, 4 3-seeds, 1 4-seed and 2 seeds lower than 4 since 1985.  That totals 28 champions - which adds up for the number of years.


March 18th, 2013 at 8:31 PM ^

I think the good news is that we've had more unlucky breaks than lucky breaks this year.  A free throw or 1 inch swing on the last shot against Indiana and no half court bomb against Wisconsin and we are a 2 seed.  I know being young hurts, but young players are also streaky.  Maybe Nik and GR3 and Mitch will get that confidence that you only get when you're too naive to know better.


March 19th, 2013 at 3:06 PM ^

If I were to extrapolate from your chart, does that mean Michigan has a 2.5% chance of getting to the final four and a 1% chance of winning it all?


March 19th, 2013 at 4:17 PM ^

I would direct you to the last paragraph of the column and suggest that the chart can't be extrapolated in that way.  What I think you can glean from those numbers is that as you are seeding teams from 1-64, the amount of uncertainty of relative strength increases the further you get away from the top, which is why when we get to the bottom half/quarter of the top 16 we see win totals start to tail off and earlier upsets happening with more frequency.

What this doesn't take into account is relative strength from tournament to tournament.  If you want to maximize your chances of winning a National Championship, then try to get a one seed and then actually be one seed material.  Since not all one seeds are created equal, some years you see lots of fluctuation in which seeds advance and others it's pretty much chalk. 

The encouraging part for Michigan this season is that I think this tournament field definately seems to be more level than others, so this year being a 4 seed playing against a 1 seed Kansas may not be as daunting as that match-up in tournaments prior.  I foresee a lot of chaos in how this years tourney plays out.

Blue Durham

March 19th, 2013 at 5:15 PM ^

If I am doing my math correctly, I think you're half right.

There are 28 years and 4 of each seeds, so there are a total of 112 4-seeds in those years.  1 of those 4-seeds won the tournament, so 1/112, or a little less than 1% of all of the 4-seeds won the championship.

For the final 4, 11 of the the 112 4-seeds made it, so that would be 11/112, or 10% chance.  And yeah, I would probably put Michigan's chances at around that.


March 21st, 2013 at 10:24 AM ^

I agree that the path for a #1 or #2 seed is much more conducive for more advancing.  Although with the parity and balance in college bball now it might not be as conducive as it was 10, 15, 20 yrs ago.  Assuming you're the ncaa has done a decent job seeding, if you're a 4 seed playing a 5 seed in the second round, you're matched up with a team that is relatively your equal.