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When to bet on March Madness upsets?

Author: americangambler | Last Updated: December 6, 2020

Looking For March Madness Sleepers

Everyone loves a Cinderella story. It’s why decades later, people still wax on about the New York Jets in Super Bowl III and Villanova’s stunning upset of Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA men’s basketball championship.

More than any competition, upsets drive the narrative of the NCAA Tournament. They are what puts the madness into March Madness.

What Upsets Are Worth Playing?

Over the years, there have been some epic and utterly shocking outcomes. Just two years ago, the University of Maryland-Baltimore County Retrievers became the first No. 16 seed to topple a 1 seed when they sent Virginia packing.

However, the reality is that playing an extremely low seed to win is a foolish wager. Research was conducted by on every tourney since the 64-team field was introduced in 1985. Since that time, eight times a 15 seed has beaten the two seed. That works out to 5.7 percent of the time. 

In the 14-3 matchup, the number jumps to 21 but again that’s only a 15 percent upset rate. The 4-13 contests have resulted in 29 upsets (21.7 percent). 

After that, it gets a little more attractive in terms of wagering on upsets. The 12 had taken out the five 50 times (35.7 percent). An 11 dropped a 5-seed 52 times (37.1 percent). And the 10 won over the seven in 55 games (39.3 percent).

That’s almost a 4-in-10 chance of an upset. So the best play to make is clearly to choose a 10 seed to win against a seven seed.

When To Play NCAA Tournament Upsets

Perhaps not surprisingly, the majority of upsets occur in the opening round of the March Madness games. At that stage, higher-seeded teams figure to be fighting the nerves a little bit more, since it’s the first game. And lower-seeded teams often take the approach that they have nothing to lose.

On average, there have been 6.1 first-round upsets per year since 1985. That number goes down with each round – second (3.6), Sweet 16 (1.7), Elite Eight (0.5), and Final Four (0.2). 

How Many Upsets Should You Expect?

On average, there are 12.7 upsets per NCAA Tournament. The most were 20 in 2014 and the fewest were the four upsets during the 2007 tourney. In 28 of the last 35 March Madness competitions, there have been between 10-16 upsets. 

So if you’re putting together a bracket for the NCAA tournament, you should factor in a minimum of 10 upsets. On the other hand, playing 20 upsets would be too many.