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Still Working on Your Bracket? We Have Last-Minute Tips From Cats Stats

March Madness Arena
Photo: Tim Cowie

Every March the madness begins -- and basketball fans set out to craft the elusive perfect bracket. With a little help from Cats Stats, Davidson's student-driven sports data analytics group, you might not achieve perfection (the odds of landing on the perfect bracket are estimated to be as low as 1 in 9.2 quintillion and as "high" as 1 in 128 billion) but you'll probably go further than that colleague who always somehow wins the office pool.

Cats Stats grew out of "bracketology" methods Prof. Tim Chartier developed to assist college basketball fans. Chartier and his students now have worked with the NBA league office, two fantasy draft sites, and five professional NBA, NFL and NASCAR teams.

Wildcat vs. Wildcat

We concede that "Wildcat" may not be the most unique nickname -- out of the 351 NCAA Division 1 men's basketball teams -- 2.8 percent share the Wildcat as a mascot. To the UC-Santa Cruz Banana Slugs, we tip our hats.

This year's South Region gives fans a destruction of Wildcats. (For real! We looked it up. That's the correct way of saying "many Wildcats."). Boise, Idaho, in particular hosts eight teams for first-round play -- with three of them waving a Wildcat banner.

What are the odds? The odds of two Wildcat teams meeting in the first round are exceedingly small, even if we are conservative with our calculations. As the South region is configured, with Davidson a 12, Kentucky a 5 and Arizona a 4, the odds of having that many Wildcats in a first-round matchup is six percent. If you consider having another Wildcat in the same region (which is Kansas State as a nine in the South region), you have a phenomenon you're likely only to see once every 100 years.

About That 5-12 Game

As the 12-seed in the South, Davidson will take on 5-seed Kentucky -- and because of that, the Cats quickly became a popular pick to win. The 12-5 games are frequently singled out as the most likely "upsets" in the tournaments.

And with good reason: Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, a 12 seed has upset a 5-seed 47 times.

But as Jason Feldman '18 writes on the Cats Stats blog, the 12-5 upset label "isn't a thing." His research shows that the only teams that reliably outperform their seed are Power 5 teams (ACC, Big 10, Big 12, SEC, Pac-12) with 12 seeds -- which usually means a team that stumbled late in the season or in the conference tournament. Small schools playing as a 12 seed, win the game about 33 percent, whereas Power conference 12 seeds win about 55 percent. Either way, 33 percent is nothing to shake a stick at.

The Massey method in March MATHness has Davidson with the best odds as the 5-12 upset of the 2018 tournament. Note, ESPN found the same result! Go Cats!

One other note regarding 12 seeds: Of those 47 teams that won the first round, 27 lost in the second round (57.4 percent), 19 lost in the Sweet 16 (40.4 percent), and one lost in the Elite Eight (2.1 percent). Two seeds make it to the Elite Eight 46 percent of the time.

General Bracket Tips

  • Picking a longshot to get to the final four? Might want to think twice: Since 1985, the average seed to reach the Final Four is 2.79, while the average seed to win the National Championship is 2.03
  • Over the last 10 years, the average seed to reach the Final Four is 3.3, while the average seed to win the National Championship is 1.9.
  • Over the last 5 years, the average seed to reach the Final Four is 3.65, while the average seed to win the National Championship is 2.4.