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NCAAB: History of Upsetting the Two-Seed

by March 31, 2020

With March Madness canceled for 2020, we have time to look back on past tournaments to find useful nuggets for next year. Maybe you think, “next year is the year I have a perfect bracket.” While the odds of picking a perfect bracket are infinitely small, there is no better feeling than identifying the right upsets and winning your bracket pool.

As we mourn a lost 2020 tournament, I will look at both the past and the future. With work, you will be able to predict the correct first-round upsets, Cinderella teams, and decide the most important choice of all: who will hoist the championship trophy next season.

Let’s examine the history of No. 2 seeds, and what it has taken to upset these elite teams in recent years.

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Upsetting the Two Seed

Last year was the first time since 2009 that every No. 2 seed made the Sweet 16. Over the past six years, 14 out of 24 two-seeds made it past the first weekend. That is ten of the nation’s best teams falling early. So what does it take to pull an upset? We analyze each two-seed upset before the Sweet 16 in recent years, and what it took to bring these giants down.

All statistics per Kenpom.com

2018: No. 2 UNC lost to No. 7 Texas A&M, No. 2 Cincinnati lost to No. 7 Nevada 

UNC (26-11)
North Carolina relied on their biggest strength: offensive rebounding. During the season, the Tar Heels lost five of their six worst offensive rebounding (OR%) games. Against Texas A&M, they were held to the lowest percentage of the season at 17.3%.

The Tar Heels shot 6-for-31 (19.4%) from three that game, their second-lowest percentage on the season. Unsurprisingly, A&M ranked 40th in defending the three and 18th in defensive effective field goal percentage (eFG%). UNC let a lot of shots fall as A&M shot 21-for-36 (58%) from inside the arc.

Looking holistically, seven of UNC’s losses came to teams in the top 50 in defensive eFG%. Texas A&M ranked 18th in that category, speaking to why North Carolina struggled from both outside and inside the arc. The Tar Heels shot just 20-for-47 (42.6%) on two-point attempts, their sixth-lowest percentage of the year.

An interesting statistic to note is that UNC rarely forced turnovers that season, ranking 301st in defensive turnover percentage (TO%).

Cincinnati (31-5)
The Bearcats were really good at…well, everything. Cincinnati ranked second in defensive efficiency, offensive rebounding percentage and defensive 2P%. In addition, they ranked 20th in defensive turnover percentage. Unfortunately, Nevada ranked first in the nation at ball control, with only a 13.5 TO% on the season.

In this upset, Nevada showed their elite ball control as they held turned the ball over on just 3.1% of their possessions. Cincinnati’s next lowest opponent’s TO% all season was 12.3%.

The Bearcats depended on three-point shooting throughout the season. Their lowest 14 3P% games accounted for all their losses, with only two wins over a top 80 team in that batch. Cincinnati had a bad draw as the Wolfpack ranked 14th in the nation at defensive 3P%. Nevada was also outstanding from two-point range, shooting 24-for-43 (55.8%). This was the second-highest FG% on two-point attempts that the Bearcats allowed all season (Nevada ranked 83rd in 2P%). 

2017: No. 2 Duke lost to No. 7 South Carolina, No. 2 Louisville lost to No. 7 Michigan

Duke (28-9)
When analyzing Duke’s record, turnovers were their biggest X-factor. The Blue Devils lost their four games with their highest TO%. This includes the South Carolina game that saw the Blue Devils turn the ball over on 24.2% of their possessions. If we look at how South Carolina ranked fifth in the nation in defensive TO%, it’s obvious why Duke struggled.

Duke also depended upon three-pointers. Six of their losses came from their lowest ten 3P% games, and their four wins came against sub-30 ranked teams. Duke did not force turnovers either, ranking 253rd. On the season, Duke ranked 47th in the nation in defensive efficiency, while South Carolina’s defensive efficiency ranked third. 

Louisville (25-9)
The Cardinals were talented top-to-bottom, but they ranked 232nd in FT% at 68.6. In addition, their free throw attempt to field goal attempt ratio (FTA/FGA or FTR) ranked 220th in the country. Thus, they did not drive and draw fouls much.

Louisville was incredibly dependent on the three. Nine of their losses came in their lowest 11 games in 3P%. The other two games were against Southern Illinois and Evansville, teams that ranked 149th and 153rd, respectively. Louisville lost their lowest three FTR games, including a 19.7% rate against Michigan. This means Michigan was careful not to foul, and the Cardinals did not hit shots.

Louisville could not force many turnovers, which impacted their losses as well. In the nine games where their opponent had the lowest TO%, Louisville lost six of them. Their game against Michigan was last with the lowest opponent TO%, at nine. Michigan had elite ball control, with the 4th best TO% in the nation. To be fair, Michigan shot well too as they went 22-for-40 (55%) from inside the arc.

2016: No. 2 Xavier lost to No. 7 Wisconsin, No. 2 Michigan State lost to No. 15 Middle Tennessee State 

Xavier (28-6)
The 2016 Musketeers depended upon the two-point shot. Their lowest 12 rated games in 2P% included all six of their losses. The other six games were against sub-40 ranked teams. Wisconsin ranked 42nd in the nation at defensive 2P% and limited Xavier to a 44.7% clip from inside the arc.

On the other side of the ball, Xavier ranked 160th in defensive 2P%. In the 11 games where their opponents had the highest 2P%, Xavier lost every game, including to Wisconsin. In that game, the Badgers shot 17-for-32 (53%). Wisconsin ranked 255th at 2P% but turned it on against Xavier.

Michigan State (29-6)
The Spartans’ loss to Middle Tennessee State was one of the tournament’s all-time biggest upsets. Michigan State was horrible at forcing turnovers, ranking 343rd in the nation with a 14.2% turnover rate. The Spartans dribble-drive was rarely used as they rated 328th in the nation at FTR.

Speaking to their weaknesses, the Spartans were solid at defensive 3P%. However, they struggled when other teams had high figures at 3P%. Of the six games where teams had their highest 3P%, Michigan State lost five. This includes when Middle Tennessee State shot 11-for-19 (57.9%) from beyond the arc. That percentage was the best any team shot against the Spartans all year. Michigan State’s offense in this game was not the problem, as they shot 63% from two and 45% from three. However, they let up 90 points, the second-most they allowed all year.

2015: No. 2 Virginia lost to No. 7 Michigan State, No. 2 Kansas lost to No. 7 Wichita State

Virginia (30-4)
Overall, the 2015 Cavaliers team did not force turnovers and had a low FTA/FGA, ranking 248th and 232rd at each, respectively. Virginia was and always will be an elite defensive team. However, when they faced a team with a good offense (like Michigan State, who ranked 14th in offensive efficiency, North Carolina, who ranked 11th, or Duke, who ranked 3rd), Virginia lost. Michigan State’s 29th-ranked 3P% showed as they shot 6-for-12 (50%).

The Cavaliers also lost to teams that didn’t allow a high 3P%. This is important, as Virginia shot 2-for-17 (11.8%) from three against Michigan State, a team that ranked 44th in the nation at defensive 3P%. Virginia lost three of their final five games, so they did not have momentum either.

Kansas (27-9)
The Jayhawks were not great at forcing turnovers, ranking 268th in the nation. Kansas depended on the two a lot as their eight lowest games in 2P% consisted of six losses. Against Wichita St, Kansas shot 14-for-36 (38.9%) from two and 6-for-21 (28.6%) from three.

Wichita State was also really good at minimizing turnovers and steals, ranking sixth and second in the nation for each, respectively. Kansas ranked 185th in the nation for TO% and had a 20% turnover percentage against Wichita State. The 13-point margin of victory by Wichita State over KU speaks to the importance that turnovers had on the game.

Wichita shot 10-for-20 from three-point range in that game, which was the second-best three-point percentage a team shot against Kansas all season. Even if you move that number to Wichita State’s average 3P% on the season at 35% (which would be 7-20 for the game), the Shockers still would have won by four.

2014: No. 2 Kansas lost to No. 10 Stanford, No. 2 Villanova lost to No. 7 UConn 

Kansas (25-10)
The 2014 Kansas team was yet another squad that couldn’t force turnovers, ranking 292nd nationally. Kansas was consistently bad at defending the three, ranking 240th in the nation in opponents 3P%. Stanford, meanwhile, was good at shooting the three, ranking top-80 in the nation. In the Jayhawks’ seven lowest 3P% games, they suffered five losses with the other two coming against sub-100 ranked teams.

Kansas shot 5-for-16 (31%) from three against Stanford. Fun fact: Stanford did not make a single three this game (0-for-9). However, the Cardinal still went 21-38 (55%) from inside the arc. Kansas lost their lowest five games in offensive efficiency, including this one.

Villanova (29-5)
Villanova was better at forcing turnovers, ranking 60th. However, they were quite bad at defending the three, ranking 231st. The Wildcats depended a large amount on the deep shot, as they were seventh in the nation for 3PA/FGA with 44.8%. This amounts to almost half of their shots being three-point attempts. This was an issue since they ranked 117th in the nation at 3P%.

UConn was ranked 15th in the nation at defensive eFG%. This showed against Villanova, as the Wildcats had their lowest eFG% all year against UConn. Villanova turned the ball over a fair amount at 22.6%, their lowest of any game they lost. UConn shot 45% from three, but Villanova still lost by 12. If that percentage came down to 6-for-20 (30%), UConn still would have won by three.

Concluding Thoughts

So what does it all mean? What it comes down to is the lower-ranked teams matching up well with the higher-ranked teams’ respective weaknesses or strengths. Texas A&M was solid at offensive rebounding, something that UNC depended heavily on to win. South Carolina’s ability to force turnovers matched up well with how Duke struggled at ball control.

Overall, turnovers are important. Every turnover has a potential for a six-point swing. Team A could have the ball and potential to make a three-point shot, but instead, they turn the ball over, and Team B comes down to score an and-one. That means two turnovers have the potential for a 12-point swing, which is big at any point in the game.

Of course, there is always going to be luck in predicting how any given team will shoot that day. For example, how can one predict Middle Tennessee State shooting 57.9% from beyond the arc?

With the hindsight of ten different No. 2 seeds getting upset before the Sweet 16 in the last six years, trends emerge. Once this year’s potential No. 2 vs. No. 7 matchups come to light, look at how well each team controls the ball or forces turnovers. If a team depends on any one stat to win games, that’s a warning sign as well. In addition, for optimal bracket success, take a deep dive into how well teams matchup to the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents. 

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Ryan Coleman is a featured writer at BettingPros. For more from Ryan, check out his archive.

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