The Most Underseeded, Overseeded Teams in the Big Dance
Photo Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports
It’s finally here, and we made it through whatever that selection show was. We had some big surprises with the at-large bids, specifically with Arizona State, Syracuse, Notre Dame, USC and Saint Mary’s. Arizona State was +270 right before the show to make it, and ‘Cuse was an unreal -1625 favorite to miss and somehow made it in.
On that note, let’s take a look at the most underseeded and overseeded teams in the tournament.
To put some data behind this study, I projected every team’s seed based on Ken Pomeroy’s Adjusted Efficiency Margin (AdjEM) score. The top four teams in the nation in that regard — Virginia, Villanova, Duke and Cincinnati — have a projected seed of No. 1. The next four teams — Purdue, Michigan State, North Carolina and Gonzaga — have a projected seed of No. 2. You get the point: By noting the differences between projected and actual seed, we can get a good, quick gauge on which teams are underseeded and overseeded and, thus, which teams might be overvalued or undervalued by recreational bettors who arbitrarily pick their brackets by seeding instead of actual, you know, analytics.
Here’s a table of that data:
The Butler Bulldogs got a No. 10 seed in the East despite ranking 25th with a +17.87 Adjusted Efficiency Margin score. For reference, that is much better than the mark of, say, Miami, which got a No. 6 seed in the South. Butler ranks 32nd in offensive efficiency on the year and protects the ball well, placing 27th in turnover rate. On defense, Butler is 30th in defensive rebound rate. Those factors are definitely important and indicate that Butler has a disciplined squad: If the Bulldogs don’t commit silly turnovers and limit opponents to just one shot per possession, they’ll be able to hang with any team. They opened as a pick ’em against No. 7 seed Arkansas, and we’ll see if they become a trendy “upset” pick in brackets. I use quotations there since I could definitely see them being favored by books come Friday.
There are some other underseeded Bulldogs this year. The Gonzaga Bulldogs are the No. 4 seed in the West, yet KenPom projected them as a No. 2 seed. They rank eighth in the nation with a +24.74 AdjEM score, even ahead of two No. 1 seeds in Kansas (+23.24) and Xavier (+21.70). There’s definitely some bracket value here, as Xavier is the top seed in Gonzaga’s region. Per KenPom, the Bulldogs should actually be a 2-point favorite if they meet. The Zags have a top-20 offense and defense this season, and they’re 10th in effective field-goal rate, which has been shown to be the most important Four Factor. They’re 19th in eFG% allowed. They’re a good basketball team and much better than their seed indicates.
The most underseeded top teams are the Duke Blue Devils, Cincinnati Bearcats and Michigan State Spartans. The two former teams have the data of No. 1 seeds, while the Spartans should’ve been closer to a No. 1 seed than a No. 3. Cincinnati and Michigan State are legitimate threats, with the former having a historically great defense. Duke is one of the toughest teams to analyze: The Blue Devils are talented with Grayson Allen, Marvin Bagley, and Co., but they’re especially volatile because of the new zone coach Mike Krzyzewski insists on running. The data is solid — they rank seventh in defensive efficiency and eighth in eFG% allowed — but there are some problematic signs. Per ESPN’s Jonathan Givony, North Carolina shot 42 jumpers against Duke in their ACC Tournament matchup. Only four of those were contested, and UNC went just 12-of-35 on uncontested shots. UNC also created 16 dunk and layup opportunities, hitting eight of them. That’s a dangerous way to live, especially with Kansas as the No. 1 seed opposite Duke. The Jayhawks rank sixth in the nation in eFG% and are especially excellent from the 3-point line, which should be open against Duke.
One of the most overseeded teams is the Providence Friars, who got a No. 10 seed despite having a projected seed of No. 16 before the tournament and a 12 once we knew the teams. For reference, their AdjEM score of +11.91 is right around the score of Montana, which is a No. 14 seed in the West. Davidson’s +14.90 is far superior, and the Wildcats are a No. 12 seed in the South. The Friars have a solid defense this year, but they’re miserable on the other end, ranking 219th in the nation in offensive eFG%. Their only saving grace offensively is getting to the foul line, but their first-round opponent (Texas A&M) is solid at avoiding fouls. The Aggies are one of the best defenses in the nation, ranking 12th in eFG% allowed. A No. 10 over a No. 7 will likely be a popular upset pick, but I’m not seeing it with this one.
Speaking of popular upset picks, I’m already expecting bracket pickers to take the Rhode Island Rams over an Oklahoma squad that started off the year hot but really faded in conference play. But the Rams haven’t been great recently either, and they’re almost certainly overseeded at No. 7. They definitely have some strengths, most notably ranking fifth in defensive turnover rate, but they also have some big weaknesses. Perhaps the most problematic one is their defensive foul rate; they rank 308th in the country this season. Trae Young is dynamic and could live at the line, and the same is true of another freshman in Duke’s Marvin Bagley if the Rams get past Oklahoma. He would be an overwhelming talent for them to handle.
As mentioned above, two overseeded top teams are the Kansas Jayhawks and Xavier Musketeers. Kansas profiled as a No. 3 seed, while Xavier isn’t even in the top 10 of KenPom’s AdjEM metric. This is incredible: According to KenPom, Xavier should be a dog to each of the West’s Nos. 2-4 seeds (North Carolina, Michigan and Gonzaga). It is very rare for all four top seeds to make it to the Final Four, and I’m predicting that this region will be the most popular for Cinderella picks. The Musketeers are talented, but they also have some weaknesses that could cause them problems: They rank 132nd in defensive eFG% allowed, and they never turn opponents over. That’s especially troublesome considering their No. 3 seed, Michigan, ranks second in offensive turnover rate.
The West definitely seems like the easiest region as a result of Xavier being overseeded, but more on that later in my piece on which teams have the easiest and hardest paths to the Final Four. Until then, check out the rest of our coverage here at the Action Network, and make sure to hop into our free tournament challenge with $3,000 up top.
Photo Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports