Top upset victors and victims in the modern tourney era

It’s five days away from Selection Sunday, and you know what that means: it’s nine days away from Bracket-busting, Soul-crushing Thursday. Face it: somebody you penciled in for a deep tourney run will likely lose on the first or second day of the dance. Last year, nearly everyone had Missouri and Duke going at least as far as the Sweet 16. Those were the smart odds. But nobody told that to Norfolk State or Lehigh.

The fact is, there are a number of teams who’ve shown a propensity for springing upsets in the dance—and others with a nagging habit of getting victimized. Before you fill out your bracket this year, you might want to keep the following chart in mind. It shows the top upset victors and victims since the tourney expanded to 64 teams in 1985, measured by subtracting upset losses from upset wins. I count a game as an upset when a team beats an opponent four or more seed positions above them:


The top upset victor, not surprisingly, is Butler. The Bulldogs have sprung six upsets without every being victimized. Four of those upsets came in Butler’s most recent appearance, when the eighth-seeded Bulldogs knocked off two top seeds, a two seed and a four seed on their way to the finals.

The only other team that has scored six shockers in the modern era is Villanova. Like Butler, the Wildcats got four upsets in a single dance—the 1985 tourney, when they won the championship as an eight seed. Villanova’s net “victor margin” is four, however, because the Wildcats have been upset twice. That has allowed Auburn and Richmond to leapfrog Villanova, despite each only having five upsets on their resumes.

Now, let’s look at the right side of the ledger—the list of the top upset victims. It might come as a surprise that Duke, the school many would say it the most successful in modern era, is also the most victimized. The Blue Devils have been upset 10 times. Their tourney history is really a tale of two teams: the powerhouse that amassed a 27-3 (.900) record against Cinderellas in the 80’s and 90’s—and the shaky legend that’s gone just 19-7 (.731) against longshots since 2000. Overall, Duke is 46-10 (.821) in upset games.

For Blue Devil fans looking for a silver lining, you can take solace in the fact that this 82% winning rate against Cinderellas is better than that of the second-place victim, Syracuse. The Orange have two fewer upset losses than Duke, but their record in upset games is just 28-8 (.777)

Take a good look at these two lists. My guess is that we could see these teams with the seed of a Cinderella: Butler, Villanova, Western Kentucky and VCU (though their seed could be too high). As for the victims, these teams will have their reputations on the line again: Duke, Syracuse, Kansas, Ohio State, Georgetown, Florida, Arizona, Indiana, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh. That’s a lot of teams. You’ve got to figure at least a couple of them will go down to darkhorses.

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7 Responses to Top upset victors and victims in the modern tourney era

  1. Ryan Tressler says:

    Too bad C.J. McCollum got hurt in the lehigh-vcu game this year . . . would have been interesting to see them in the tournament again

  2. Michael Moses says:

    Aren’t the teams on the “Top Upset Victor Margins” just the teams that normally have a high seed? Having a higher seed more often means you play more Cinderella teams, and therefore would have more upsets. Maybe a better measure would be how a team does against Cinderellas? Or maybe a PASE stat geared towards games against Cinderellas? Obviously a 1 seed beating a 16 seed doesn’t mean much, whereas a 1 seed beating numerous better seeded Cinereallas (5, 6 and 7 seeds) would mean a lot more.

    The opposite would be true for the Cinderellas. If a school makes numerous tournament appearances as a lower seed (6-12 seed) they’re bound to have a few upsets. Just some thoughts…

    • ptiernan says:

      Agreed on the basic points, Michael. Certainly Duke has faced the most Cinderellas, so they’re likely to have the most upset losses. That’s why I compared them to Syracuse in “rate of upset losses. To be more accurate your PASE approach is probably the right way to go. Alas, the way my data is configured, that’s not a lickety-split query. Thanks for the thoughts.

      • Michael Moses says:

        Sure thing, really enjoy the website. Yes, my idea of a PASE approach for Cinderella games does sound like a difficult thing calculate, but it was just a thought.

    • Michael Hosking says:

      Not all teams with a history of high seeds show up on that list. For example UNC is not highly victimized despite high seeds. Probably also helped that year they were and 8 seed which made the Final Four. (2000, I think)

      • ptiernan says:

        Good point, Michael. NC is actual a -2 on the upset victor/victim ledger. Three upsets sprung, five upsets suffered.

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