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The Dreaded 5-12er

 

Breaking down the toughest pick on the bracket

  

By Adam Hoff

 

Nothing says “filling out your bracket” like the mind-bending 5-12 matchups.  We all know the statistics and are aware of the likelihood that anywhere from one to three of the plucky #12 seeds will emerge victorious during the Tourney's first two days.  The question is … which teams will it be? 

 

Many a bracket gets beat up in the early going because of this game.  Anyone who knows anything about basketball fully understands the upset bug that strikes #5 seeds everywhere, and most pool participants try to pick the upsets accordingly.  If you're like me, you usually pick the wrong upsets, wind up missing all of the 5-12 games, and crumpling your bracket into a wad of tear-stained paper … or something like that. 

 

In an attempt to make sense of this particular brand of madness, I dissected the 20 “5-12 Showdowns” that have taken place in this millennium.  The #5 seeds come out ahead 12-8, but it's been 8-8 over the past four years after order was briefly restored in the 2000 Tournament.  (Of course, two of those victories for #5 seeds came in overtime, including the Mike Miller Game when Florida beat Butler by one at the buzzer.)  #12 seeds won three of four in 2002, 2003 featured the four games decided by a grand total of 14 points, and last year saw the underdogs turn in their largest average margin of victory ever, as Manhattan and Pacific rolled up a pair of wins by a combined 23 points.  So nothing much has changed - the lower seeds are still inexplicably struggling with this matchup.  So ... how does any of this help you fill out your bracket?  It doesn't, which means we have to dig a little deeper and employ a particular strategy.

 

Strategy #1: Scoring Margin.

 

One way to approach things is to assume that some of these wild upsets have been flukes (albeit nearly two decades of consistent, reoccurring flukes) and that eventually some of the last minute heaves will stop falling and the big names will quit choking.  Based on margin of victory, the #5 seeds have won their 12 games by an average of 11.2 points per game, while the #12 seeds are only winning at a 6.18 clip.  Take out the Manhattan win over Florida last year and the Missouri-over-Miami game in 2002 (the Tigers won by 13, igniting their season-saving run to the Elite Eight) and that margin drops to 3.8 in the other six games.  It's obvious that the underdogs have less margin for error, but I’ll let you decide whether that means anything to you. 

 

Strategy #2: Repeat Players.

 

There are a handful of teams that have actually been seeded in this position enough times in the past few years to develop a track record.  For instance, if you see BYU as the #12 seed ... run.  They are 0-3 in this decade as a 12.  Florida is an unpredictable team when they show up on the "five line."  In 2000 they took their #5 seed all the way to the title game, but are 0-2 over the last three years, getting crushed by the Jaspers last year and losing to the only college team I've ever seen that couldn't dribble (Creighton) in double OT in 2002.  Conversely, both Syracuse and UConn are 2-0 as five seeds.  This is all great information, except none of these teams are seeded #5 or #12 this year, so it doesn't help much.

 

Strategy #3: Go by the Conference. 

 

This is something worth considering when you examine the conference breakdown over the past five years.  Here is how each league has fared in this matchup since 2000:

 

Conference

Record

Record as a #5

Record as a #12

ACC

0-1

0-1

-

A-10

0-1

-

0-1

Big East

5-2

5-2

-

Big 12

2-0

1-0

1-0

Big 10

3-1

3-1

-

C-USA

1-1

1-1

-

Horizon

1-2

-

1-2

Pac-10

-

-

-

SEC

2-3

2-3

-

WAC/MW

1-5

-

1-5

WC Mids*

3-2

-

3-2

Others

2-2

-

2-2

*(Mid-Major teams from West Coast conference of WCC, Big West, and Big Sky)

 

As for how this can help us this year, it’s hard to say.  It might mean that Alabama is in trouble due to the poor track record of the SEC; however, they are playing a team from the Horizon league (UW-Milwaukee) and their winning percentage is even worse at 1-2.  While all three Horizon games were incredibly close (would you believe that all three games were decided by a single point?), the telling stat – the W/L column – says that the Panthers only have a 33% chance of winning.  Putting that up against the SEC’s 40% mark, the end result still narrowly favors ‘Bama.  Villanova is part of the mighty Big East and gets to play the worst conference on the board in the Mountain West (0-4) … advantage, Wildcats.  Old Dominion’s Colonial Conference hasn’t been in this matchup, so whether they start from scratch or get put into the “other” category (.500 winning percentage), Michigan State still comes out ahead as part of the Big 10 (.750).  Finally, the ACC and A-10 both have identical (and incomplete) records at 0-1.  Obviously, this all takes place in a vacuum, but the end result is that we’ve found little to justify taking a #12 seed based on this method. 

 

Strategy #4: Conference Standings.

 

It’s unclear whether the majority of people make their upset picks based on the perceived strength of the #12 seed, or the weakness of the #5.  No doubt there is a little bit of both, but my experience leads me to believe that it is usually a reflection of the #5 seed in question that inspires widespread upset mania.  Nobody knows a whole lot about Old Dominion this year (For instance, what is their team nickname?), yet they are becoming a popular upset pick over a fairly uninspiring and bland Michigan State team.  Fans that saw ‘Nova’s back-to-back brick fests against Pitt and West Virginia are jumping at the chance to pencil in the familiar “New Mexico” name in place of the Cats.  Regardless of which viewpoint is most prevalent, it seemed appropriate to examine all of the #5 seeds to get a feel for what “type” of team was winning and losing in this game.  No mid-major has been a #5 seed in this decade, so know that all the five line teams are coming from major conferences (additionally, Missouri is the only major conference team to appear as a #12), and when I think back on the #5 seeds that were “upset,” I usually remember them being overrated teams from conferences perceived to be very strong. 

 

By looking at each team and where they ranked within their own conference, we get a better idea of how good these teams were in retrospect.  For instance, the only teams in this decade to finish at the top of a major conference and still get stuck with a #5 seed were Cincinnati in 2001 and Illinois in 2004.  They were both penalized for the supposed weakness of their conference, but both teams won easily (by a combined 44 points).  The only teams to even finish second in their conference (Kentucky and Texas in 2000, Indiana in 2002, and Wisconsin in 2003) also were all winners in this matchup.  The only #5 seeds to lose over the past five seasons each finished third or lower in their own conference.  Not only that, but the only teams to finish fourth in their own league and still win as a five seed were both teams from the Big East (two of the three winning third place teams were also Big East squads, while the only Big East #5 seeds to lose were both fourth place finishers in the conference). 

 

Put another way: Big East teams ranking third or lower in conference play are a combined 5-2 as #5 seeds this decade.  All other teams are 1-6.  So with the exception of that third-place Florida team that went to the Final Four, if you finished in third place or lower in any conference other than the Big East, you lost as a five seed. 

 

All told, the average conference ranking of victorious #5 seeds was 2.75, while fifth-seeded losers came in a full place back at 3.75.  If you take out the upset-impervious Big East, the numbers are even more jolting.  Teams that won had ranked 1.75 on average in their own conference, while losing teams had finished at 3.50.  Assuming that almost all Big East teams were going to win, we see that winning five seeds have finished twice as high in their conference standings over the past five seasons.  Using that logic, Alabama (First in the SEC West and second overall) and Michigan State (second in Big Ten by a wide margin) look safe, while Georgia Tech (fourth in the ACC) suddenly doesn’t look like a Final Four sleeper anymore.  Who's got the GW Colonials in their bracket?  Didn’t think so.  As for the Wildcats, it’s hard to know what to do with them.  They finished fourth in the Big East, but such placement has only been good for 50% in four tries, so it’s a bit of a draw there.  If you go with this strategy, you’re best bet – believe it or not – is to pick GW over Georgia Tech (bad news for my boys on PTI, as Wilbon and Kornheiser both have the Jackets in the Final Four).

 

(Oh, and by the way, Old Dominion’s nickname is the Monarchs.)

 

Strategy #5: Chalk It.

 

If the previous systems have your head spinning, another approach is to simply pick all of the top seeds and just brace yourself for the inevitable upsets.  Not only are #5 seeds winning 60% of the games in the 21st Century, they are also less likely to get dominated across the board.  Other than the 2002 campaign, teams seeded in the five line have managed at least a split each year.  And that ‘02 tourney wasn’t a complete loss either as the lone survivor, Indiana, sprinted all the way to the national championship game.  Finally, #5 seeds are far more likely to continue winning after the opening round.  The only #12 seed to reach the Elite Eight was an anomaly, as the Major Conference Missouri Tigers got a lucky bid and then got hot.  The only other teams to even reach the Sweet 16 were Gonzaga in 2001 and Butler in 2003.  Meanwhile, two #5 seeds have survived this apocalyptic matchup to go all the way to the title game (the aforementioned Florida and Indiana squads) and the last five winning #5 seeds all reached the Sweet 16.  On average, #5 seeds have won an additional 1.2 games after escaping the opener, while #12 seeds have won only .5 games beyond the first round.  It might be worth punting a few of the early points and picking all favorites. 

 

Then again, what’s the fun in that? 

  

Adam Hoff is a columnist for WhatifSports.com and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers of America.  He can be reached at wis.insider@gmail.com.  Follow his NCAA Tournament Blog at http://wisinsider.blogspot.com.

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