Why Betting on a #16 Seed at March Madness Is No Longer Crazy

By Noah Davis
| March 17, 2019

March Madness has always been a place for the underdog, dramatic flair, and crazy-buzzer beaters.

Those wild finishes to games know no bounds. They can come in the first round or stretch all the way to the national championship game.

Their form is never final, either.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a last-second shot to win a game, a clutch defensive play, a half-court heave that just barely misses, or a thrilling comeback for the ages.

Here’s to you and your shot at glory, Butler.

Crazy moments like that are always at risk of popping up during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, and that unpredictable zest this bracket-busting do-or-die tournament gives off is what keeps everyone coming back for more.

As wild as March Madness can be, there’s one area where most fans and bettors alike felt they had it pegged. There was a concrete given. A certainty unlike any other: if you earned a #1 seed, you were advancing into round two.

All the hard work of a grueling regular season and conference tournament paid off. You had an elite record, all the numbers backed up your place in the top-25, and your reward was some pion team that had zero hopes of sending you toppling to the ground.

Until now.

March Madness began back in 1939, and for all those years, you would have been crazy to pick a 16-seed to upset a 1-seed. That unlucky fate finally arrived last season, though, as the Virginia Cavaliers were upset by UMBC.

With a 74-54 blowout, the first happening of a 1-seed losing in the first round wasn’t even close. And for all of those “has a #1 seed ever lost to a #16 seed?” questions, fans finally had their answer.

The big question going forward, of course, is if it will happen again. Here are a few reasons why it absolutely could.

UMBC Gives Every 16-Seed Hope

Prior to last season, a 16-seed advancing past round one wasn’t just unheard of; it was impossible. It literally had never happened before. However, as is the case with records and rarities in the world of sports, there is apparently a first time for everything.

If Floyd Mayweather Jr. fights long enough, he’ll probably lose. Every champion loses eventually. Even the worst teams have a chance if you let them hang around long enough, too.

The talent gap between the top seeds and those 16-seed hopefuls is always massive. Pitting a giant like Duke against a nobody like Monmouth just seems unfair. For the most part, it very much is.

The coaching, recruiting, and resources aren’t even remotely close. Then there’s the added pressure of taking on greatness, knowing that based on history and all things logical, you don’t stand a chance.

However, the unthinkable finally happened during the 2018 March Madness tournament when the University of Maryland, Baltimore County didn’t just out-last the Virginia Cavaliers; they routed them.

Some say this was the biggest upset in college basketball history. Considering the historical implications and that classic David vs. Goliath feel, it’s hard to argue against that notion.

The irony here is the top-seeded Cavaliers were projected by many March Madness betting sites to win this game by 20.5 points. Not only did they fail to cover, but they flat-out lost in one of the most embarrassing collapses ever.

Ultimately, this was a classic case of the underdog team exploiting vulnerabilities in Virginia’s normally elite defense. Their ability to work their way to easy outside shots and prevent Virginia from capitalizing on the perimeter on the opposite side proved to be the difference in the game.

I don’t think you can look at one game and say there is a blueprint for this type of upset. However, UMBC did show everyone that if you execute your game and find holes in even the toughest opponents, you give yourself a chance.

Not Every #1 Seed Is Infallible

While nobody can ever take anything away from UMBC, one huge part of this crazy March Madness upset is the fact that Virginia felt like a very soft #1 seed pretty much the entire year.

I’m not saying they weren’t great. By the numbers, they clearly were. Virginia had the number-one scoring defense in all of basketball, but they also really needed to be clicking defensively to rack up all 31 of their wins.

There were definitely stretches of dominance, as teams don’t suffocate opponents defensively very easily. However, Virginia was dead last in pace during the 2017-18 college basketball season and relied on a very methodical offense that averaged just 67 points per game (298th in the country!).

Virginia did not push the pace or put up a lot of points, but they did two things at an elite level: defended the perimeter (9th worst three-point percentage allowed in the nation) and hit the outside shot (38th in college basketball).

Unfortunately, the pace got away from them in the second half of that fateful round-one battle, and they only converted four of 22 three-point attempts.

Virginia’s main strengths eroded right before their very eyes, and for a team that was not very explosive nor regularly thrived in a faster game environment, the Cavaliers fell into a trap and never recovered.

The point here isn’t necessarily to rain down on the Cavaliers.

Virginia had a very good team if they could stay within themselves and dictate the tempo of a game. They also weren’t blessed with amazing athletes or incredible star power, so making these schematic mistakes and not being able to cover ground with easy buckets led to their demise.

This was not the first team that’s been vulnerable in the 16 vs. 1 game before, and they won’t be the last.

Identifying vulnerabilities in #1 seeds is one thing sports bettors will always want to do, as well as noting if the #16 seed is capable of exploiting those weaknesses.

Not every #1 seed can be taken down in this manner, and not every #16 seed really even gives themselves a chance. It’s quite possible UMBC was just a lightning in a bottle team in a random year where the college basketball gods decided enough was enough.

That, or the living narrative that sometimes the wrong #1 seeds are voted in and/or just weren’t as good as everyone thought could start to open things up for more upsets like this.

#16 Seeds Have Been Close Before

It’s no longer crazy to bet on a #16 seed to take down a #1 seed. It literally just happened.

Even beyond that, however, there have been numerous close calls in the history of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, and it’s a little surprising how little March Madness bracket players have paid attention to them.

Here are the most noteworthy 16-seed vs. 1-seed matchups that showed that this historic upset was a long time coming.

  • 2014: Virginia 70, Coastal Carolina 59
  • 2013: Kansas 64, Western Kentucky 57
  • 2013: Gonzaga 63, Southern University 58
  • 2012: Syracuse 72, UNC Asheville 65
  • 2009: Pittsburgh 79, ETSU 69
  • 2006: UConn 72, Albany 59
  • 2002: Kansas 70, Holy Cross 59
  • 1996: Purdue 73, Western Carolina 71
  • 1990: Michigan State 75, Murray State 71 (OT)
  • 1989 Georgetown 50, Princeton 49
  • 1989 Oklahoma 72, ETSU 71

There are actually a lot of near-upsets between 16-seed and 1-seed teams in the NCAA tournament. Some have been closer than others (and forgive me if I’m leaving some good ones out), but the ones you see above arguably take the cake.

Some are even deceiving when you look at the final score, too.

That Gonzaga vs. Southern game, for example, was still tied with four minutes to go. UNC Asheville was still in their game with Syracuse, down three with just 35 ticks remaining. That UConn vs. Albany game saw the Huskies down 12 with just 11 minutes to go as well.

As you go back further in March Madness history, you see two insane one-point games where things could have easily gone the other way and redirected this tournament. There was also the bonks overtime thriller between Michigan State and Murray State.

There has been a lot of, um, madness in this tourney, and the 2017-18 college basketball season just pushed it over the top. For years, fans were graced with some fun scares, and bettors had to sweat out some ugly games by teams that were otherwise supposed to be the best of the best.

It didn’t lead us to a crazy upset between these two seeds until recently, but the dam is busted open. Now we know (for sure) that anything can and will happen during March Madness.

Will a #16 Seed Beat a #1 Seed This Year?

The big takeaway here is that betting on a #16 seed isn’t crazy. March Madness is what’s crazy. Fans have seen every type of game they thought was possible, and then the next tournament rolls up and flips the entire thing on its side.

It’s been a wild ride to this point, and each successive March Madness tournament brings another chance for bettors to be woefully wrong in every regard or make a ton of money based on wild upsets nobody in their right frame of mind would have predicted.

The first and second rounds tend to be bizarre, but now you can throw a 16-seed winner in there and aim for the moon. It’s not a stupid idea anymore, either.

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean just because a 16-seed finally beat a 1-seed that it will happen every year. It just means it’s truly possible (or feels that way) for the first time ever.

As I write this, we don’t really know who will occupy the top four seeds in the 2019 March Madness brackets just yet. Bettors can assume, though, that some combination of Duke, Tennessee, Virginia, Gonzaga, Kentucky, Michigan, and maybe even Nevada will nail down those four elite spots.

These are your best March Madness bets in terms of who can win the national championship, too. Duke (+275) leads the way, but Gonzaga, Tennessee, and Virginia are all worthy of consideration.

It’s probably going to be Duke, Tennessee, Virginia, and Gonzaga in those four #1 seeds. Judging by history, up to three of those teams could be vulnerable, depending on who they’d be matched up with. They’re all great and will probably advance to round two (and likely much further), but there are some red flags.

Gonzaga and Virginia have both had near-gaffes in the first round as #1 seeds. The Cavaliers literally just delivered the first 16-seed win a year ago. And Tennessee, as great as they’ve been, is difficult to trust after failing to get outside of the second round since 2014.

How you perceive these teams doesn’t matter yet, though. They’re all great and belong near the top seeds when it’s all said and done. Who they face and how they match up will dictate whether they’ll follow up Virginia’s epic failure with a collapse of their own.

I don’t doubt that numerous basketball betting sites will offer a wager like this via a litany of March Madness prop bets, either. If one pops up, my guess would be history goes back the other way and the top four teams in this year’s tournament move on to round two at the very least.

That being said, when we have specific matchups in front of us, taking a flier bet on one (depending on the price) may not be the worst idea.