How much does March Madness seeding really matter?

Let’s pick apart NCAA tournament seeding. No, I’m not talking about the selection committee and its choices … there is nothing tangible you can do in your bracket about that once it’s released, so why argue about it? What we can do, however, is evaluate which teams got a historic bump as a result of the seed line they landed on.

All of the attention is paid to that top line and I expect this season to be no different given the vulnerability of top-5 teams all season long, so let’s start there. In the history of the bracket, 120 No. 1 seeds have advanced to the Sweet 16 compared to 89 No. 2 seeds. To put that difference of 31 appearances into context: The difference between 2-seeds and 4-seeds is 23. If you take it a few steps further, No. 1 seeds have 66 Final Four appearances, nearly as many as No. 2, 3 and 4 seeds combined (67). So there may not be much difference in skill between the top-eight teams in this tournament, but it’s tough to deny that seeds matter, and it’s not just the battle for the top seeds.

Understanding that not all score differentials are created equal, I’m using a six-point final difference as my threshold for a “coin toss” game. In general, a bounce here or there could swing the result in two-possession games, so I’m going to throw them out. Is that fair? Not exactly, as it stands to reason that good teams find a way to win those games. But I don’t want to look at “coin toss” games for teams that I’m picking to win into (and beyond) the second weekend, and I assume you’re with me.

As expected, the number of clear wins (defined as a game decided by at least seven points, a non-“coin toss” victory) is almost perfectly correlated with each of the “favored” seeds (seeds 1-8) when evaluating the first week of the tournament during the past decade. The intrigue comes as we break down the differential in such wins by seed over that stretch as we try to get a feel for which seemingly minor seeding decisions have the greatest bracket impact:

  • 1-seed vs 2-seed: 13 more clear victories

  • 2-seed vs 3-seed: 12 more clear victories

  • 3-seed vs 4-seed: 2 more clear victories

  • >>> 4-seed vs 5-seed: 17 more clear victories

  • 5-seed vs 6-seed: 4 more clear victories

  • 6-seed vs 7-seed: 1 fewer clear victory

  • 7-seed vs 8-seed: 6 more clear victories

As you can see, the difference between the 1-seed and 2-seed is significant, but so is the difference between the 2-seed and the 3-seed, and the spread between No. 4 and No. 5 is even greater! There will be no shortage of coverage when it comes to trying to label 12-seeds poised to knock off 5-seeds, but what is often missing from that analysis is what it means moving beyond that upset. The all-time difference in number of 4-seeds making the Sweet 16 compared to 5-seeds (+19) is nearly the same difference that exists between No. 2 and No. 4 seeds (+23), and yet there is rarely any fanfare over which team ends up No. 4 and not No. 5. Don’t make that mistake. There is so little talent separation among of the top 30 or so teams in the country that the draw is going to be as important this year as any … watch out for the 4-seeds!

In other news, the committee released its top 16 seeds Saturday afternoon. Some teams that were not listed that I like to make a move and do damage when the official bracket is released:

  • LSU (rebounding)

  • Creighton (edge on the free throw line)

  • Iowa (offensive efficiency)

  • BYU (passing)

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