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NCAA Tournament: What Syracuse can learn from recent first round upsets by 11-seeds

Play a 2-3 zone could be one of those lessons. Check.

Syracuse v TCU Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team is a double-digit seed in the NCAA Tournament for the third time in the last five tournaments. And while it’s nice to squeak into the field with a questionable resume, we obviously want to win a game (or more!) while we’re there.

Doing so will require an upset of the 6-seed San Diego State Aztecs, which is no easy task. On top of SDSU’s relative strength, there’s also history on their side in terms of 11-versus-6 upsets in round one.

Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams, 11-seeds have won 37.1% of the time — a little less frequently than 10-seeds upset 7s, and a little more frequently than 12s upset 5-seeds, which makes sense. In total, 11-seeds have won 52 times in the first round.

So what can Syracuse do to emulate some of that success? First, it’s probably best to narrow what we’re looking at to the last four tournaments.

  • 2019: Ohio State over Iowa State, 62-59
  • 2018: Loyola (Chicago) over Miami, 64-62
  • 2018: Syracuse over TCU, 57-52
  • 2017: Rhode Island over Creighton, 84-72
  • 2017: USC over SMU, 66-65
  • 2017: Xavier over Maryland, 76-65
  • 2016: Northern Iowa over Texas, 75-72
  • 2016: Gonzaga over Seton Hall, 68-52
  • 2016: Wichita State over Arizona, 65-55

Now right off the bat, you can see that the rate of success has been higher for 11-seeds of late. Despite the 37.1% win percentage historically, they’ve won 56% (9 of 16) over the last four years. And 54% dating back to 2014. Really, the advantage for 6-seeds is built entirely on the early decade and a half of tournament expansion. Since 2000, 11-seeds have won these matchups 43% of the time, and 47% since 2005. Three 11-seeds — George Mason (2006), VCU (2011) and Loyola Chicago (2018) — have also made the Final Four since 2005.

I’m not predicting this Syracuse team makes the Final Four. But if they’re going to beat SDSU, here are some things they’ll want to keep in mind based on recent 11-seed history...

NCAA Basketball: N.C. State at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Great defense beats great offense

Looking at the teams above on KenPom, the average offensive efficiency ranking for the winner was 65th, but the average defensive rating was 35th. Meanwhile, the losers in these games were far more balanced, and better on offense: average offensive ranking was 33rd and average defensive ranking was 46th.

Going further, the difference for quality defenses is even more stark than what the averages show. Six of those 11-seed winners were top-30 defenses. Just two were top-30 offenses.

Losing teams also scored an average of less than 62 points per game in those matchups.

None of that necessarily bodes well for Syracuse. While SU’s 22nd in terms of offensive efficiency this season, they’re 90th on defense. Meanwhile, SDSU is 45th on offense and 11th on defense. Not an ideal mix. And would be the second-best defense to lose to an 11-seed since 2016.

Threes aren’t the key

We know this already from our own observations about this Orange team and their streaky shooting from beyond the arc. But recent 11-seed upsets also indicate you don’t need to be a great three-point shooting team to pull off a win in the first round. Of those nine winners since 2016, five of them hit fewer than 35% of their threes on the year.

Meanwhile, being effective on twos were a bit more crucial. Just three of those 11-seed winners finished outside the top 100 by shooting percentage inside the arc. Though interestingly the worst of those was Syracuse in 2018 (302nd in the country).

Offensive rebounding... not as crucial as you’d think

Syracuse has been an above average offensive rebounding team this year, but not an amazing one. That may not necessarily hurt them here, as only five of the 11-seed winners had offensive rebounding percentages in the top 100 during those respective seasons.

Not allowing offensive rebounds was a little more important — as we can attest to from watching SU all year. Only three of the winners above allowed offensive rebounding percentages outside the top 100, and most of them were top-50 in that category. For reference, Syracuse is 339th there this year.

Having a go-to guy (or two)

As part of team pages for a given season, KenPom notes go-to guys (players that are utilized on over 28% of possessions), along with major contributors (those used on 24-28% of possessions). Typically, these successful 11-seeds have had somewhere between one and three of those guys. Syracuse has none that qualify right now.

That 2018 Orange team that’s included in that group had both Tyus Battle and Frank Howard. This year’s group seems to ride a hot hand between Quincy Guerrier, Buddy Boeheim, Alan Griffin and Joe Girard. Winning by committee can work, obviously. We’ve seen it happen before. But this is the first time since 2008 that Syracuse doesn’t have any player used on more than 24% of possessions.


Does all of that spell great things for Syracuse? Not so much, though it’s also helpful to remember that this is a bit of a vacuum we’ve created and it’s a small sample size. Still, perhaps worth keeping in mind as the Orange aim for their third first-round upset in as many tries (they were an eight-seed vs. Baylor in 2019).