In looking for big underdogs last season, I looked at the statistics of underdog teams that win in the first round and how they differ from those that lose. There were some pretty noticeable differences, and Georgia State stood out among the rest as a team to keep an eye on.
This year, I’m taking a different, more statistically sound approach. I’ve gone back through every NCAA Tournament since 1985—when the field expanded to 64 teams—so you don’t have to, and looked at the average margin of victory of every seed.
From that, I calculated each seed’s expected win probability based on historical margins of victory. For example, the average No. 13 seed has lost by 9.4 points per game, which translates to an expected win probability of about 18.8 percent.
To look for potential upsets, I compared the expected win probability for each team in this year’s field to the average expected win probability for that team’s seed. That’s a complicated way to say I found teams that were better or worse than the average team seeded the same as them.
The graphic shows every underdog team in the field compared to the average team of that seed. The grey line represents an average team, and the further above that line a team is, the better they are than you would expect from that seed.
Every team in the grey box at the top is actually a statistical favorite, with above a 50 percent probability of winning in the first round. Of course, none of those teams is ranked lower than a No. 11 seed, and Wichita State will have to win an extra game just to get to the First Round. So to find real, Georgia State-level upsets, we’ll have to look lower.
All the No. 12 seeds this year are surprisingly weak, as all are worse than an average No. 12 seed and only Yale even comes close to average. The other three are all at least 12 percent worse than expected.
My big upset prediction this year is No. 13 seed Hawaii, coming in at 9.9 percent better than average, by far the best of any team seeded 12 or lower. Although they have just a 28.7 percent chance of beating Cal, they’re the best of the low-seeded teams.
At 27-5, the Warriors have the sixth-best winning percentage in the country, and none of their five losses has come by double digits. They nearly upset Oklahoma back in December, and they do an amazing job of getting the the free-throw line thanks in large part to 6-foot-11-inch forward Stefan Jankovic.
Hawaii will match up with California in the first round, which has struggled immensely away from Berkeley this season. The Golden Bears are 23-10, sure, but went just 5-10 in road and neutral court games. They’ll struggle to score against the stiff Hawaii defense, and they’ll fall in the First Round for the fourth time in six trips to the tourney. Book it.