The 11-6 March Madness Upset Isn’t an Upset

Nathan Mensah #31 of the San Diego State Aztecs shoots over Jesse Edwards #14 of the Syracuse Orange during the second half in the first round game of the 2021 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse on March 19, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Sixth-seeded Vanderbilt trailed 11-seed Western Michigan at halftime of their first-round game in the 2004 NCAA Tournament. In the final 11-6 matchup of the first round, the Commodores rallied for a 13-point win en route to their first Sweet 16 since 1993. With the win, 11-seeds went undefeated in the first round for the first time since 1999 and just the fifth time since the tournament expanded in 1985.

Exactly 17 years later, 11-seed Syracuse defeated 6-seed San Diego State in the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament. The 16-point win guaranteed a 15th straight tournament with at least one 11-over-6 upset.

The seeds and, in most cases, NCAA Tournament odds – Vandy, for example, was a 1-point underdog against Western Michigan – say it’s an upset. And for the first 20 years of the current March Madness format, history said it was an upset. From 1985-2004, 11-seeds won 24 of 80 (.300) first-round games against 6-seeds. Over the last 15 tournaments, entering Saturday’s games, 11-seeds have won 29 of 62 games (.468) and raised their overall winning percentage to .369.

They’re a four-game winning streak away from evening the series since 2005. Or they’re another 2016-17-like run – when 11-seeds went a combined 6-2 – away from reaching .500. 

That upset isn’t an upset. In the same way Gonzaga is technically a mid-major per Jack Kvancz’s definition, but not considered a mid-major after two decades of dominance, the 11-over-6 upset is not an upset. Fifteen years ago, Gonzaga was an obvious mid-major, just like an 11-over-6 outcome was an obvious upset.

The 29 wins since 2005 have come by an average of 9.1 points. Sixteen have been double-digit wins, including one 20-point win by Minnesota over UCLA in 2013. Only 10 have been decided by fewer than five points

Here’s the full list of 11-seed winners since they went 0-fer in 2004:

2021SyracuseSan Diego State78–62
2019Ohio StateIowa State62–59
2018Loyola–ChicagoMiami (FL)64–62
2017Rhode IslandCreighton84–72
2016Northern IowaTexas75–72
2016GonzagaSeton Hall68–52
2016Wichita StateArizona65–55
2014DaytonOhio State60–59
2012NC StateSan Diego State79–65
2011GonzagaSt. John’s86–71
2010Old DominionNotre Dame51–50
2009DaytonWest Virginia68–62
2008Kansas StateUSC80–67
2007WinthropNotre Dame76–64
2006George MasonMichigan State75–65

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Andrew Doughty is a writer for BetMGM and host of High Motor by BetMGM, an NFL and college football podcast available on Apple Podcasts and everywhere else. He has written for Sports Illustrated, HERO Sports, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. Follow him on Twitter: @DoughtyBetMGM