NCAA Tournament Bracket Tips: Final Four Prediction Help Through Historical Facts and Trends

A lot of time is spent searching for early-round upsets during the first couple of days after the NCAA Tournament brackets are announced. Certainly, this is a fun and worthwhile pursuit, and I’ve already chimed in with my upset picks for this year’s tournament, as well as a look at all of the 5-12 matchups.

But in your quest to unearth the #14 seed that will upset a #3 seed (as I did in my official bracket predictions), don’t lose sight of the big picture, which is that most NCAA Tournament pools give increasing points for correct predictions deeper in the tournament.

So you need to pay close attention to who you have in your Final Four.


Bracket Tip: Remember The Final 4 Premium

Thus, if you’re going to pick Belmont to upset Georgetown, be sure that you don’t think Georgetown could otherwise end up in the Final Four. If they do, missing on that upset picks compounds itself every round. I know from experience. I had Bucknell beating Connecticut in the first round last year, and we know how that turned out.

So instead of looking for upsets in the first round, I want to take a bigger picture look at what types of teams typically end up in the Final Four. If you can nail all four of the teams in the Final Four, chances are good that you will be, at the very least, competitive in your tournament pool. And as much as we love upsets, it’s still usually the blue blooded higher seeds that end up in the Final Four.

At the bottom of this post, you will see a table that lists the basic info for every Final Four since 1939. The champion is listed, along with the runner up, the other participants, the location, and the final game score. It’s good for reference. I am more concerned, though, with what we can learn from the portion of the table that includes seeded teams (because remember: the tournament has not always been seeded like it is now).

So here are just a few statistical notes I gleaned using the seed numbers and a spreadsheet, which you may find helpful as you try to decide if you’re comfortable with your Final Four predictions.

#1 Seeds Making Final Four

  • 91% of the time, at least one #1 seed has made it to the Final Four.
  • 55% of the time, at least two #1 seeds have made it to the Final Four.
  • Only 15% of the time do three #1 seeds make it to the Final Four.
  • Only once (2008) have all four #1 seeds made it to the Final Four. That’s a mere 3% of the time.

Clearly, you are putting the odds in your favor if you choose at least one #1 seed to the make the Final Four. It very rarely happens that all four get knocked out before the final weekend. But you are more likely to be right, based on history, choosing no #1 seeds to make it (9% occurrence) than choosing all four #1 seeds to make it (3%).

Digging deeper, you’re best bet appears to be choosing two #1 seeds to end up in the Final Four, right? 55% of the time, that’s what happens. Though the last two Final Fours have featured no #1 seeds (2011) and one #1 seed (2010), respectively, the three before that all featured at least two #1 seeds, before another anomalous year in 2006 with no #1 seeds. Before 2006, the last Final Four to feature no #1 seeds was all the way back in 1980. So it didn’t happen for 25 years and has now occurred twice in a half decade. Make of that what you will.

Takeaway: definitely have at least one #1 seed in your Final Four and strongly consider having two.

Non-Top 4 Seeds Making Final Four

When the brackets are originally shown, there is always a point made to highlight the top 4 seeds in each region. This makes sense because these are supposedly the four best teams in each region and the ones who will make the Sweet 16 if chalk prevails. And all but three championships all-time (91%) have been won by teams seeded 1-4; a non-top 4 seed hasn’t won it all since all the way back in 1988.

But non-top 4 seeds do often make the Final Four. How often?

52% of the time, there is at least one non-top 4 seed in the Final Four, but only 12% of the time does a Final Four feature two non-top 4 seeds. Interestingly, two of the five occurrences of Final Fours with multiple non-top 4 seeds have happened the last two seasons: 2011 (a #8 and a #11) and 2010 (two #5 seeds).

Takeaway: a Final Four is actually more likely to have a non-top 4 seed in it than not, but be wary of picking more than one true underdog to make it (unless you think the last two years are a new trend).

Sum Of Final Four Seeds

There has obviously been great variance in total seed value among the 33 Final Fours we are analyzing in this post. In 2008, the total seed value was four, since four #1 seeds made it. Last year featured the highest seed total, 26, since a #3, a #4, a #8, and a #11 seed made it. Those are the outliers. What is normal?

  • The average total of the four seeds in the Final Four is 10.94.
  • In 16 out of the 33 Final Fours (48.5%) the seed total has been less than 10.
  • In only four out of 33 cases (12.1%) has the seed total been 20 or greater.
  • The most readily-occurring Final Four seed total is 7, which has occurred six times. No other seed total has occurred more than four times.
  • 75.8% of the time, the seed total is between and including 7 and 13.

Takeaway: not much, but you improve your chances of nailing your Final Four teams if the seed total is at least 7 but less than 13.

Title Winner Seeds

As great as Cinderella stories are come March, they very rarely end up winning it all. Most Cinderella stories end up flaming out in the Final Four before even reaching the title game, though Butler has blown that trend up a bit the last few years.

Consider the following:

  • 91% of the time, the national champion is a top-4 seed.
  • 87.9% of the time, the national champion is a top-3 seed, as only one #4 seed has ever won it all.
  • 72.7% of the time, the national champion is either a #1 or a #2 seed.
  • 57.6% of the time, the national champion is a #1 seed.

If you are going to choose a lower seed to be a darkhorse champion, #6 seeds have actually won two titles (1983, 1988), which is more than #4 seeds (1) and #5 seeds (0) combined. The lowest seed to win a title, of course, is the #8-seeded Villanova Wildcats back in 1985.

The recent trends show even more dominance for the top seeds:

  • Since 1997, when 4th-seeded Arizona won it all, no seed lower than a #3 has won the title.
  • Since 1998, no non-top 4 seed has won it all.
  • Four of the last five national champions have been #1 seeds.

Takeaway: predict a top-4 seed to win the title, and you increase your odds if it’s a #1 seed.

National Runner-Up Seeds

While the champions list is dominated by top-4 seeds, especially #1 seeds, the runners-up list is a bit more varied. Here is how it breaks down:

  • #1 seeds – 12 (36.4%)
  • #2 seeds – 9 (27.3%)
  • #3 seeds – 5 (15.2%)
  • #4 seeds – 1 (3%)
  • #5 seeds – 3 (9.1%)
  • #6 seeds – 1 (3%)
  • #8 seeds – 2 (6/1%)

So in 26 out of 33 cases, the national runner up has been a top-3 seed. Interestingly, the runner up has been a #5 or a #8 seed more often than it has been a #4 seed. In fact, here is an interesting little nugget: #8 seeds have been to more national championship games (3) than #4 seeds have been (2).

Takeaway: it will most likely be a battle of top-3 seeds in the title game.

Other Final Four Seed Notes

Here is a random assortment of additional notes about the seeds that have reached the Final Four:

  • #11 seeds have reached the Final Four three teams, losing in the semifinal round each time. This total is greater than the combined total of #9 seeds (1, in 1979), #10 seeds (0), and every other seed. So if you’re going to pick a seed higher than 8 to make a Cinderella run, history suggests you should make it a #11.
  • A team seeded 7th has only once made the Final Four, and it was back in 1984.
  • #4 seeds may not often make the title game (only twice ever), but they have had recent success getting to the Final Four, as three of the past seven Final Fours have featured at least one #4 seed.
  • The last two season have seen only one #1 seed make the Final Four. Only one other two-year span in Final Four history featured one or fewer #1 seeds: 1979 and 1980. Two #1 seeds make it the following year. No three-year span has ever had fewer than three total #1 seeds in the Final Four.

Takeaway: history suggests that a couple of #1 seeds will make the Final Four this year, and if you do want to go out on a limb, go with a #11 seed.

Now I’m curious to see how my Final Four stacks up to what we’ve learned in this post. Here is what I have, based on these predictions.

Final Four Prediction:

  • #1 Kentucky
  • #1 Michigan State
  • #2 Ohio State
  • #2 Kansas

I certainly look good from a #1 perspective, having two of them in it, though I’ll need the recent history of teams seeded 5th or lower making the Final Four to cease – four such teams have made it the last two years. Also, the seed sum is six, which falls outside the preferred sum range of 7-13.

On another sour historical note, if my Final Four does come to fruition it would be only the second time in history that a Final Four was comprised of two #1 seeds and two #2 seeds (2007). So I guess you could say I’m starting out with a 3% chance of nailing my Final Four.

Hey, when it comes to trying to predict the ever-unpredictable NCAA Tournament brackets, that’s about as good as we can hope for, right? As a wise man once said…


And for your reference…

Final Four History: Champions, Participants, Locations

Year NCAA Champion NCAA Runner-up Final Four Teams Location Title Game Score
2012       New Orleans  
2011 #3 Connecticut #8 Butler #11 VCU, #4 Kentucky Houston 53-41
2010 #1 Duke #5 Butler #2 West Virginia, #5 Michigan State Indianapolis 61-59
2009 #1 North Carolina #2 Michigan State #1 UConn, #3 Villanova Detroit 89-72
2008 #1 Kansas #1 Memphis #1 North Carolina, #1 UCLA San Antonio 75-68
2007 #1 Florida #1 Ohio State #2 UCLA, #2 Georgetown Atlanta 84-75
2006 #3 Florida #2 UCLA #11 George Mason, #4 LSU Indianapolis 73-57
2005 #1 North Carolina #1 Illinois #5 Michigan State, #4 Louisville St. Louis 75-70
2004 #2 UCONN #3 Georgia Tech #1 Duke, #2 Oklahoma State San Antonio 82-73
2003 #3 Syracuse #2 Kansas #1 Texas, #3 Marquette New Orleans 81-78
2002 #1 Maryland #5 Indiana #1 Kansas, #2 Oklahoma Atlanta 64-52
2001 #1 Duke #2 Arizona #3 Maryland, #1 Michigan State Minneapolis 82-72
2000 #1 Michigan State #5 Florida #8 Wisconsin, #8 North Carolina Indianapolis 89-76
1999 #1 UCONN #1 Duke #4 Ohio State, #1 Michigan State St. Pete 77-74
1998 #2 Kentucky #3 Utah #3 Stanford, #1 North Carolina San Antonio 78-69
1997 #4 Arizona #1 Kentucky #1 North Carolina, #1 Minnesota Indianapolis 84-79
1996 #1 Kentucky #4 Syracuse #1 UMASS, #5 Mississippi State East Rutherford 76-67
1995 #1 UCLA #2 Arkansas #4 Oklahoma State, #2 North Carolina Seattle 89-78
1994 #1 Arkansas #2 Duke #2 Arizona, #3 Florida Charlotte 76-72
1993 #1 North Carolina #1 Michigan #2 Kansas, #1 Kentucky New Orleans 77-71
1992 #1 Duke #6 Michigan #2 Indiana, #4 Cincinnati Minneapolis 71-51
1991 #1 Duke #3 Kansas #1 UNLV, #2 North Carolina Indianapolis 72-65
1990 #1 UNLV #3 Duke #4 Georgia Tech, #4 Arkansas Denver 103-73
1989 #3 Michigan #3 Seton Hall #1 Illinois, #2 Duke Seattle 80-79
1988 #6 Kansas #1 Oklahoma #2 Duke, #1 Arizona Kansas City 83-79
1987 #1 Indiana!!! #2 Syracuse #1 UNLV, #6 Providence New Orleans 74-73
1986 #2 Louisville #1 Duke #11 LSU, #1 Kansas Dallas 72-69
1985 #8 Villanova #1 Georgetown #2 Memphis State, #1 St. John's Lexington 66-64
1984 #1 Georgetown #2 Houston #1 Kentucky, #7 Virginia Seattle 84-75
1983 #6 N.C. State #1 Houston #1 Louisville, #4 Georgia Albuquerque 54-52
1982 #1 North Carolina #1 Georgetown #6 Houston, Louisville #3 New Orleans 63-62
1981 #3 Indiana #2 North Carolina #1 Virginia, #1 LSU Philadelphia 63-50
1980 #2 Louisville #8 UCLA #6 Purdue, #5 Iowa Indianapolis 59-54
1979 #2 Michigan State #1 Indiana State #2 DePaul, #9 Penn Salt Lake City 75-64
1978 Kentucky Duke Arkansas, Notre Dame St. Louis 94-88
1977 Marquette North Carolina UNLV, UNC-Charlotte Atlanta 67-59
1976 Indiana Michigan UCLA, Rutgers Philadelphia 86-68
1975 UCLA Kentucky Louisville, Syracuse San Diego 92-85
1974 N.C. State Marquette UCLA, Kansas Greensboro 76-64
1973 UCLA Memphis State Indiana, Providence St. Louis 87-66
1972 UCLA Florida State North Carolina, Louisville Los Angeles 81-76
1971 UCLA Villanova Western Kentucky, Kansas Houston 68-62
1970 UCLA Jacksonville New Mexico State, St. Bonaventure College Park 80-69
1969 UCLA Purdue Drake, North Carolina Louisville 92-72
1968 UCLA North Carolina Ohio State, Houston Los Angeles 78-55
1967 UCLA Dayton Houston, North Carolina Louisville 79-64
1966 Texas Western Kentucky Duke, Utah College Park 72-65
1965 UCLA Michigan Princeton, Wichita State Portland 91-80
1964 UCLA Duke Michigan, Kansas State Kansas City 98-83
1963 Loyala (IL) Cincinnati Duke, Oregon State Louisville 60-58
1962 Cincinnati Ohio State Wake Forest, UCLA Louisville 71-59
1961 Cincinnati Ohio State St. Joeseph's (PA), Utah Kansas City 70-65
1960 Ohio State California Cincinnati, NYU San Francisco 75-55
1959 California West Virginia Cincinnati, Louisville Louisville 71-70
1958 Kentucky Seattle Temple, Kansas State Louisville 84-72
1957 North Carolina Kansas San Francisco, Michigan State Kansas City 54-53
1956 San Francisco Iowa Temple, SMU Evanston 83-71
1955 San Francisco LaSalle Colorado, Iowa Kansas City 76-73
1954 LaSalle Bradley Penn State, USC Kansas City 92-76
1953 Indiana Kansas Washington, LSU Kansas City 69-68
1952 Kansas St. John's Illinois, Santa Clara Seattle 80-63
1951 Kentucky Kansas State Illinois, Oklahoma State Minneapolis 68-58
1950 CCNY Bradley N.C. State, Baylor New York 71-68
1949 Kentukcy Oklahoma State Illinois, Oregon State Seattle 46-36
1948 Kentucky Baylor Holy Cross, Kansas State New York 58-42
1947 Holy Cross Oklahoma Texas, CCNY New York 58-47
1946 Oklahoma State North Carolina Ohio State, California New York 43-40
1945 Oklahoma State NYU Arkansas, Ohio State New York 49-45
1944 Utah Dartmouth Iowa State, Ohio State New York 42-40
1943 Wyoming Georgetown DePaul, Texas New York 46-34
1942 Stanford Dartmouth Colorado, Kentucky Kansas City 53-38
1941 Wisconsin Washington State Arkansas, Pittsburgh Kansas City 39-34
1940 Indiana!!! Kansas Duquesne, USC Kansas City 60-42
1939 Oregon Ohio State Oklahoma State, Villanova Evanston 46-33

About Jerod Morris

I love words. I write for Copyblogger and founded MSF, The Assembly Call, & Primility. I practice yoga, eat well, & strive for balance. I love life. Namaste. Say hi on Twitter, Facebook, & G+.


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  1. […] NCAA Tournament Bracket Tips: Final Four Prediction Help Through …Mar 12, 2012 … In your quest to unearth the big first round upset, don’t lose sight of the big picture , which is that most NCAA Tournament pools give increasing … […]

  2. […] NCAA Tournament Bracket Tips: Final Four Prediction Help Through Historical Facts and Trends – But in your quest to unearth the #14 seed that will … which is that most NCAA Tournament pools give increasing points for correct predictions deeper in the tournament. So you need to pay close attention to who you have in your Final Four. […]

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