Fun fact: If you fill out an NCAA Tournament bracket and don’t pick at least one 12-over-5 upset, your submission is automatically thrown out. True story.
OK, that’s not actually a true story. But if you’re not picking a 12-over-5, why are you even filling out a bracket? It’s a double-digit upset, which is fun, and history shows us there’s a pretty darn good chance at least one 12 seed is going to be playing at least two games.
Here’s a complete breakdown of the history of 12 vs. 5 matchups in the NCAA Tournament, including the most memorable upsets and important numbers to know while filling out your March Madness bracket.
History of 12 seed vs. 5 seed upsets in NCAA Tournament
There really is something magical about these 12-5 games. Think about this: In the past 40 years, there have been 50 12-over-5 upsets, and at the same time there have only been 52 11-over-6 wins and 55 10-over-7 results. Remember, teams seeded on the No. 5 seed line are generally ranked in the top 20 in the polls, whereas teams on the 7 seed line are barely in the “also receiving votes” category, and yet the 5 seeds lose almost as much as the 7 seeds.
And instead of telling you every year there’s been a 12-over-5 upset, it’s much — MUCH — easier to just list the years it didn’t happen: 1988, 2000, 2007, 2015 and 2018. That’s it, five years. That’s the entire list.
How many times have at least two No. 12 seeds won? Let’s look: 1990, 1994, 1996, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2006, 2008, 2009. 2012, 2013, 2014, 2019. That’s 13, if you didn’t feel like counting. History shows us it’s more than TWICE as likely to have at least two 12 seeds win than to have zero 12 seeds win.
But wait, there’s more!
Here’s a list of the years where THREE 12 seeds beat a 5 seed: 2002, 2009, 2013, 2014, 2019. Yep, five times. So in the past 40 years, we’ve seen as many years with three 12 seeds winning games as we’ve seen zero 12 seeds winning games. Heck, in the 2013-14 tournaments, No. 12 seeds went 6-2 against No. 5 seeds.
So, y’know, pick at least one 12-over-5 upset, folks.
12 seeds vs. 5 seeds by the numbers
Has a 12 seed ever won March Madness?
No, a 12 seed has never won the NCAA Tournament, but you should keep the idea in the “not very likely but not impossible” category. Remember, there have been multiple 11 seeds to crash the Final Four, and crazy things can happen in a 40-minute basketball game.
Of the 21 12 seeds to reach the Sweet 16, only the 2002 Missouri Tigers actually won that Sweet 16 contest to advance to the Elite Eight. That was a talented but inconsistent team headlined by Kareem Rush, the junior with the smooth left-handed shot, with sophomores Rickey Paulding and Arthur Johnson and shot-happy senior Clarence Gilbert.
The Tigers knocked off Miami (Fla.) in the opener, then cruised past 4-seed Ohio State by 16 in the second round. Instead of facing the No. 1 seed in the Sweet 16, they played No. 8 UCLA; the Bruins had upended Cincinnati in double overtime. Mizzou cruised past UCLA, too, winning 82-73. In the Elite Eight game against No. 2 Oklahoma — a Big 12 rival that was 34-5 entering the game and had beaten the Tigers by 13 points in their lone regular-season matchup — Mizzou hung tough despite foul trouble and Gilbert’s shooting woes (he finished the game 1-for-16 from the field).
The Tigers cut Oklahoma’s lead to three points at 70-67 with under three minutes left, but never got any closer in an 81-75 loss.
Lowest seed to win the NCAA Tournament
Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, we’ve seen four double-digit seeds reach the Final Four:
All four lost before reaching the title game. Only four teams seeded lower than the No. 3 seed line have ever won the national title: one 4 seed (Arizona in 1997), one 6 seed (Kansas in 1988), one seven seed (UConn in 2014) and one 8 seed (Villanova in 1985). No 5 seed has ever won. The Villanova story is the stuff of legend; a plucky, methodical 8 seed that reached the title game by grinding out a series of narrow wins (three by three points or fewer) and facing off against the might Georgetown Hoyas in the championship game.
It’s considered by some as the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history. But here’s the thing: It makes for a great David and Goliath story, but Villanova was pretty darn good. In the 1985 and 1986 NBA Drafts, three starters from that 1985 team went in the top 30 picks (Ed Pinckney at 10 and Dwayne McClain at 27 in 1985 and Harold Pressley at 17 in 1986; Gary McLain went in the seventh round in 1985). Factor in that Villanova had already played Georgetown tough TWICE that year — losses by only two points and seven points — and, sorry, it doesn’t make for a top-five all-time upset.
It does, though, make for a pretty cool championship story.
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