The fate of undeserving and disrespected seeds

Seeding is the key attribute that most people rely on to fill out their bracket. When a four seed plays a 13 seed in round one, who among us isn’t predisposed to consider the four seed a prohibitive favorite, whether we’ve seen the teams play or not? But the fact is, some teams get higher seeds than their playing quality warrants, while others get lower seeds. Every year, about half of the top teams get either undeserving or disrespected seeds.

I base that claim on differences between the seeding and possession-based efficiency numbers of the top 15 to 20 teams over the last decade. That’s as far back as KenPom’s numbers go. So, for instance, if a top seed is ranked fifth in KenPom efficiency, then I’m suggesting they should’ve gotten a two seed. Conversely, if a four seed is ranked eighth by Pythag, then they were really a two seed in disguise.

The operative question for bracketeers is how undeserving and disrespected seeds perform in the tourney. You would expect undeserving seeds to fall short of expectations while disrespected seeds exceed them. Is that the case?

To answer this question, I looked at two sets of teams:

  • Undeserving: Teams seeded one through four whose seeding is better than their Pythag ranking.
  • Disrespected: Teams seeded two through five whose seeding is worse than their Pythag ranking. (A one seed can’t be seeded worse than its Pythag.

There have been 66 teams in the last 10 years who were undeserving of their lofty seed.  Just five of them have reached the Elite Eight…and only one has taken home the championship.  That was UConn in 2011. The Huskies had a three seed, but their #17 Pythag ranking suggested that they could’ve been a five. Overall, these 66 squads should’ve notched about 151 wins in the dance; they only got 122. Their PASE is an underachieving -.442. Moreover, just 19 of the teams beat expectations, for a SOAR of 28.8%.

Now let’s look at the disrespected seeds. There have been 45 teams in the past decade whose efficiency numbers were better than the seed they got saddled with. Nine of them made the Final Four and two of them cut down the nets—Uconn in 2004 and Florida in 2006. The second-seeded Huskies were the second most efficient team heading into the dance and should’ve had a top seed. The third-seeded Gators were ranked eighth in Pythag, but only garnered a three seed. Overall, the 45 disrespected seeds should’ve won 72 games; they actually won 91. For their efforts, they achieved a +.374 PASE and 44.4% SOAR.

The numbers are telling.  Just 7.6% of undeserving seeds reach the Final Four, while 20% of disrespected seeds get there. And the undeserving fittingly underachieve while the disrespected overachieve—both at significant rates.

Last year’s dance offers a nice little microcosm of the fates of the undeserving and disrespected. Six teams were undeserving of their seed based on efficiency numbers: top seed Kansas, two seeds Miami and Georgetown, three seeds Marquette and New Mexico and four seed Kansas State. What happened? Of these six, only Marquette beat expectations. Miami didn’t really embarrass themselves either, fractionally missing expectations. But the other four teams were more than a game under seed-projected wins. Kansas lost to Michigan in the Sweet 16 while Georgetown, New Mexico and Kansas State all suffered big first-round upsets.

On the other hand, there were three teams whose Pythag suggested they should’ve been higher seeded. That was Michigan, Florida and Wisconsin. The Wolverines overachieved massively, getting to the finals as a four seed. And the third-seeded Gators also beat expectations, coincidentally losing to Michigan in the Elite Eight. Wisconsin went out as a five seed in the first round to Mississippi. (I could go on here about how the Badgers efficiency numbers are always unusually high…and their style of play doesn’t seem suited of the tourney…and how Bo Ryan never seems to beat teams he shouldn’t, but Badger fans will probably do that for me in the comments.)

Before leaving the topic of undeserving and disrespected seeds, I thought I’d list the top three most skewed seeds of the last decade. Here are the most egregiously undeserving seeds—and their tourney fates:

  1. 2010 three New Mexico was #33 in Pythag (so they should’ve been a nine seed) – they got upset in round two by an 11 seed.
  2. 2006 three seed Gonzaga was #30 in Pythag – they got beat in the Sweet 16 by a two seed, narrowly falling short of expectations.
  3. 2008 four seed Vanderbilt was #26 in Pythag – they got upset in the opening round by a 13 seed.

And here are the most disrespected seeds—none of whom defied expectations:

  1. 2006 four seed Kansas was #2 in Pythag – they got upset by a 13 seed in round one.
  2. 2010 four seed Wisconsin was #3 in Pythag (here we go again) – they got upset by a 12 seed in round two.
  3. 2011 four seed Texas was #4 in Pythag – they got beat in round two by a five seed.
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2 Responses to The fate of undeserving and disrespected seeds

  1. Bullets-and-Blazers!! says:

    This is one of the reason why we can’t generate a perfect bracket. Look at last year’s biggest upset: 14 Harvard over 3 New Mexico (15 FGCU over 2 Georgetown was understandable). How did Harvard, whom suspended two top scorer from academic dishonesty, manage to defeat a balance New Mexico team? Can anyone elaborate on that? Then in 2009, you have a great offensive squad in #4 seed Wake Forest going down to #13 seed Cleveland State 84-69, failing to crack 70 points! If you can spot these crazy matches, then you should generate a near-perfect bracket.

    • ptiernan says:

      I agree with your basic premise that some upsets are flat-out inexplicable. There are hardly any numbers (save TO differential) to foretell whole VCU Final Four run. But your choice of the New Mexico upset as a head scratcher isn’t a good one. For one thing, the Mountain West is notoriously bad in the dance…as is Steve Alford. And the Pythag numbers didn’t suggest that the Lobos were a very strong three seed.

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