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Taking Another Look at the 5-12 Matchup

Once again breaking down the toughest game on the bracket
By Adam Hoff
The tournament is upon us once again, so that means it is time to update the 5-12 research from a year ago. If this looks familiar, well, that is because I wrote this column last year. As Jerry said when Elaine called him out for using a joke from the ‘80’s, “It was a good bit then and it is still relevant today.” (And now I’ve even used the same joke two years in a row.)

Anyway, 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 challenge is trying to figure out which teams will accomplish the feat. 

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 28 “5-12 Showdowns” that have taken place in this millennium:

The 5 seeds come out ahead 17-11, but it's been 13-11 over the past six years after “order” was briefly restored in the 2000 Tournament when the 5 seeds made it a clean sweep.  (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 2004 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. 2005 featured 5 seeds ‘Nova, Michigan State, and Georgia Tech winning tough matchups, with Alabama getting rolled up by deadly UW-Milwaukee. And last year we had 5 seeds Washington and Pitt drubbing Utah State and Kent State, respectively, while 12 seeds Montana and Texas A&M took down Nevada and Syracuse. (Those last two games were particularly odd because they featured mid-major vs. mid-major in one matchup and power conference vs. power conference in the other.)

Given this information, it is important to try to find some rhyme and reason as to what is going on in the 5-12 matchup. There is added importance when you factor in the extra points many pools are giving based on the seed of the team you accurately pick to win. Here are some ways of going about it. We will give teams points for each category in which they are a match.
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 17 games by an average of 11.2 points per game, while the 12 seeds are only winning at a 6.9 clip.  Take out the Manhattan win over Florida in 2004 (Jaspers won by 15) 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 5.3 in the other nine games.  It's obvious that the underdogs have less margin for error, but I’ll let you decide whether that means anything to you. 

Edge: 5 seeds all get 1 point.

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 as fast as you can.  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 five years, getting crushed by the Jaspers in ‘04 and losing to the only college team I've ever seen that couldn't dribble (Creighton) in double OT in 2002.  Conversely, UConn is 2-0 and Syracuse 2-1 as five seeds.

This is a really weird year for looking to the past, as only Old Dominion has played a game in their current slot. They were a 12 seed in 2005 and lost to Michigan State as the Spartans went on to the Final Four. Meanwhile, we have some serious role reversals going on elsewhere as Butler is 1-1 as a 12 (both one-point games) but is now a 5, and Illinois is 1-0 as a 5 but is now a 12. I don’t think this helps us.

Edge: Last year this gave the edge to Syracuse over Texas A&M which worked out … not well. So it is probably for the best that it doesn’t play a large role this year. I suppose this bodes well for Butler against ODU, as the former has battled valiant as the underdog and is now the favorite, while the latter lost its only game in this situation. So call it a slight edge to Butler under #2.

Butler1 point.
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:
ConferenceRecordRecord as a #5Record as a #12ACC1-11-1-A-100-2-0-2Big East7-37-3-Big 123-01-02-0Big 104-14-1-C-USA1-11-1-Horizon2-2-2-2Pac-101-01-0-SEC2-42-4-WAC/MW1-70-11-6WC Mids*4-3-4-3Others2-4-2-4*(Mid-Major teams from West Coast conference of WCC, Big West, and Big Sky)

Midwest Region – The Horizon is 2-2, but has never had a 5 seed, so Butler is tough to read. Old Dominion is even tougher, as they fall into the “other” category, which hasn’t fared well, but is a complete catch-all. Still, any trends that can be pulled from this data favor Butler1 point.

West Region – Last year in the West we are able to use conference records to predict a big win for Pitt, which worked out well and kept me from picking Kent State in my brackets, as many were doing. This year we have an ACC team (Virginia Tech) as the 5 against a Big Ten team (Illinois) as the 12. On its face, this is virtually no help, as the ACC is 1-1 as the 5 seed and the Big 10 has never played as a 12. Two things are worth noting, however: the only power conference 12 seeds are 2-0 in that role (Missouri in 2002 and Texas A&M last year). Also, the Big 10 is 4-1 as the five seed in this matchup. Both of those positive stats bode well for Illinois and give them a slight edge here. (Mitigated somewhat by the fact that after Ohio State and Wisconsin, the Big 10 blows.) Illinois – 1 point.

East Region – Arkansas has an edge as the 12 seed for the same reason as Illinois above: a power conference team has yet to lose as a 12 seed in this decade. That said, the SEC is only 2-4 as the 5 seed, squashing any Razorback advantage. As for USC, the only track record there is that UW won last year as a 5, making the Pac-10 1-0. This gives USC a slight edge. USC - 1 point.

South Region – Here we might really have something. On paper and based on what my own two eyes tell me, Tennessee is the clear favorite against Long Beach State and, in fact, a threat to make some real noise in this tournament. However, the conference trends tell a different story. West Coast mid-majors have done quite well as the 12 seed (there was a split last year as Montana won while Utah State lost), going 4-3. The SEC, meanwhile, is 2-4 as the 5 seed, as mentioned above. So we have to give the big edge to the 49ers (or the Dirtbags, as their baseball team is known). Long Beach State – 2 points.
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 at work, 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 knew a whole lot about Old Dominion in 2005 (For instance, what is their team nickname?), yet they became a popular upset pick over a fairly uninspiring Michigan State team. We all know how that turned out, as the Spartans went all the way to the Final Four.  Last year fans took Kent State because they just couldn’t take an uninspiring Pitt team, which didn’t work out well at all (although that actually turned out to be true when they were trashed by Bradley in round two). This year there is a lot of buzz around ODU again, because Butler seems a little shaky these days.

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.  Until Nevada last year and Butler this year, no “mid-major” type team had been a 5 seed in this decade, so know that most of the five line teams are coming from major conferences (additionally, until Texas A&M, Missouri was the only major conference team to appear as a 12). 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, Wisconsin in 2003, Michigan State in 2005, Washington last year) also were all winners in this matchup, with both the Hoosiers and Spartans going very deep into the tournament (UW should have gone deep, but was denied by the refs and Rashaad Anderson in the UConn game). 

Until Alabama lost in 2005 despite tying for the SEC West crown, the only 5 seeds to lose over the previous six seasons had 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 teams from the Big East, a tradition that continued last year with Pittsburgh.

All told, Big East teams ranking third or lower in conference play are a combined 7-3 as 5 seeds this decade.  All such teams from other conferences are 2-6.  So with the exception of that third-place Florida team that went to the Final Four and Georgia Tech in 2005, 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 2.82, while fifth-seeded losers came in over a full place back at 3.91 (even if you include 2006 Nevada as a first place team from the WAC).  If you take out the upset-impervious Big East (although not so upset impervious that ninth place Syracuse could win as a five last year), 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.  Nothing seems to inform us of the quality of a 5 seed more than this stat. Let’s apply this important information.


Butler was the top team in the Horizon, but as we saw with Nevada last year, winning a non-power conference doesn’t seem to help that much. It is far less likely that they are being slighted than teams like Illinois and Cincinnati were when they were five seeds. So this is a draw.

In the West, the Hokies of Virginia Tech were tied for third in the ACC, which doesn’t bode well for them. As mentioned above, 5 seeds from outside of the Big East are just 2-6 when they place third or lower in conference play. Granted, Georgia Tech of the ACC was one of those two victors, in 2005, but this still favors Illinois’ upset chances. Illinois – 1 point.

USC tied for third in the Pac-10, so they are also kind of no-man’s land. Give Arkansas 1 point.

In the South, Tennessee was second in the SEC East and second overall in the conference, so give Tennessee 1 point.
(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 61% 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.  Put another way, if in any year the breakdown goes 3-1 in favor of one of the seeds, it is more likely to be the 5 seeds with the edge.

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 12 seeds 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), MSU reached the Final Four, and seven of the last eight winning 5 seeds all reached the Sweet 16 (the lone exception was Georgia Tech last season).  On average, 5 seeds have won an additional 1.3 games after escaping the opener, while 12 seeds have won only .4 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? 

Edge to all 5 seeds – 1 point each.

The Picks.

All told, here are the recommendations that can be pulled from the data above. We are inclined to pick five seeds based on superior margins of victory and deeper advancement into the tournament after the first round, so there has to be something compelling about a 12 seed. This is reflected by the fact that all the 5 seeds start off with a 2 “point” advantage because of those categories. Therefore, it takes a compelling 12 seed to ever look better than a 5 on paper. But some look worse than others. Here are the point totals for the 5 seeds, which would seem to inform our upset picks:

Butler +4
USC +2
Tennessee +1
Virginia Tech ±0

(For a reference point of what would make a “good” 5 seed, last year Washington was a +4, Pittsburgh was a +3, Syracuse was a +2, and Nevada a +1. Perhaps not surprisingly, Washington and Pitt were the two that won. But more to the point, a score of +1 isn’t looking very good. Of the eight 5 seeds in the past two seasons, this year features two of the bottom three, including the worst.)

In four years of doing this, I've never seen higher than a +5 or lower than a -1, which gives a gradient of five scores along which I place my odds at (approximately) 17 percent intervals. Here are the odds I am placing on each five seed winning:

Butler - 83%
USC - 50%
Tennessee - 33%
Virginia Tech - 17%

From everything I’ve been reading, ODU-over-Butler and Arkansas-over-USC are the popular upset picks in this year’s field, while people are loving Tennessee and feeling pretty good about Virginia Tech as well. But as you can see from culling the data, I feel that Illinois-over-Virginia Tech is the most likely pick and that only Butler looks truly safe. This crop of 5 seeds is looking particularly week, which could mean a 3-1 type tourney for the 12’s. So despite what my eyes are telling me, I will be tabbing Illinois and Long Beach State to win, and will take a long look at Arkansas as well.

Good luck in those brackets.

Adam Hoff is a columnist for the Webby-winning WhatifSports.com. 

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