'Bracketology' Tip to Ignore Seedings After Sweet Sixteen

Here’s a tip for March Madness buffs: When making your picks for which teams will advance in the tournament, ignore a team's seeding after the first couple rounds, one computer scientist says.

The 64 teams that make it into the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament are ranked by a 10-member selection committee that seeds college basketball teams based on their performance over the course of the season; they're given slots from 1 to 16 in each of four different regions.

The field is narrowed by half with each round, from 64 to 32, to the Sweet Sixteen, the Elite Eight and finally, the Final Four, or the winners from each region. The two winners of the Final Four duke it out for the national championship.

While you might expect the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds to sweep the competition, and make your picks accordingly, it isn't quite that easy.

"Seeds are important, but they start to lose their strength beginning in the Sweet Sixteen round," said Sheldon Jacobson of the University of Illinois.

So picking the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds to make it that far is probably a safe bet.

"In the first round, the No. 1 seed has beaten the No. 16 seed 100 percent of the time," Jacobson, who analyzed tournament data from 1985, said. That year was the first in which the field expanded to 64 teams.

"But after the Sweet Sixteen, it is a statistical toss-up as to who wins the remaining games," Jacobson said. "A team's seeding can be thrown out the window. They really do not give you a good indication of who is going to win the games."

"From the Elite Eight round and onward, you might as well pick the names out of a hat," he added.

The results of Jacobson's analysis will be detailed in a future issue of the Journal of Gambling Business and Economics.

Seeds aren't really designed to predict who will win a game, Jacobson noted, rather they're based on a team's resume. Other factors, such as player match-ups, injuries, how "hot" or "cold" a team is coming into a game and a team's style of play can have a bigger impact on the outcome of a game in later rounds.

"There are always upsets, there are always Cinderellas who make the Sweet Sixteen, the Elite Eight and even the Final Four, like George Mason did a few years ago," Jacobson said.

Andrea Thompson
Live Science Contributor

Andrea Thompson is an associate editor at Scientific American, where she covers sustainability, energy and the environment. Prior to that, she was a senior writer covering climate science at Climate Central and a reporter and editor at Live Science, where she primarily covered Earth science and the environment. She holds a graduate degree in science health and environmental reporting from New York University, as well as a bachelor of science and and masters of science in atmospheric chemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology.