Whether you are a casual bettor or a serious devotee of college basketball, one of the surest ways to part ways with your wager is by “going chalk” in your March Madness bracket. Chalk of course refers to choosing the higher seed in each game, following the straight chalk lines of favorites over lesser ranked teams. The term chalk originates from the oddsmakers at race tracks at the turn of the 20th century. Long before electronic display boards, they used chalk board to adjust the pari-mutuel odds leading up to each race.
The process of publicly seeding each of the
32 40 48 52 53 64 65 68 teams
in the tournament began in the 1979 tournament. No different than the AP and
Coaches’ Polls during the season, computers run simulations and calculate
strength of schedule and strength of victory, but it still comes down to the
decisions of a group of experts to determine the tourney seeds.
While their work deserves respect and admiration, Selection Sunday’s response is filled with grousing about snubs and insulting seedings. If one were to calculate how well their projections reflect reality, well let’s just say they might have fine careers as television weather forecaster.
No. 1 in the Polls: March Madness Bust
The AP Poll is the one of the two definitive polls for ranking college basketball teams; of course the AP Poll rarely agrees with the other definitive poll, the Coaches’ Poll. In the 41 years since 1979, needless to say, 41 teams have ended the season with the number one ranking in the poll, declared to be the best team in college basketball. Last year it was 29-5 Duke; they bowed out to Michigan State in the Elite Eight. Kentucky went an undefeated 34-0 in in 2014-15 to a number one ranking; they dropped the national semifinal game to Wisconsin.
Kentucky in 2012, behind Anthony Davis, was the last No. 1 ranked team to win the NCAA Tournament. Before that it was a loaded 2001 Duke team of Shane Battier, Mike Dunleavy, Carlos Boozer, and Jay Williams. It’s has happened only two other times, UCLA in 1995 starring Ed and Charles O’Bannon, and Duke in 1992 with Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley, and Cherokee Parks. Only four of 41 AP number one teams, just under ten percent, cut down the NCAA nets
No. 1 Seeds Give You Somewhat Better Odds
A No. 1 seed has won the NCAA title 28 times in 41 years, 68% of the time. It has happened for the last three years (Virginia, Villanova, North Carolina) and ten times in the last 13 years. That certainly says better things about the selection committees! But keep in mind that there are four number one seeds in each tournament. Those 28 victories of 41 years have been 28 victories of 164 number one teams, or 17% of the number one seeds.
Chalk would tell you that all four number one seeds should meet in the Final Four. That is an extreme rarity, happening only once. It was a foursome of Kansas, Memphis, UCLA, and UNC that accomplished the feat in 2008. An additional four tournaments have seen three number ones in the final four. Most recently in 1999 when number four Ohio State joined UConn, Michigan State, and Duke. In 1997, number four Arizona won the title over in a Final Four with number ones Kentucky, UNC, and Minnesota. Number two Kansas crashed the 1993 party of number ones UNC, Michigan, and Kentucky.
Perfect Regional Chalk
Just as rare as all four No. 1 seeds making it to the Final Four, and perhaps even more impressive, is a complete chalk through a region. The year was 1985 and the East Regional bracket amazingly played out according the numbers. Number one Georgetown beat number 16 Lehigh. Number two Georgia Tech beat Mercer, and so on. After the first weekend, the remaining teams neatly lined up as seeds one through eight.
Georgetown defeated number eight Temple to enter the Sweet Sixteen with Georgia Tech, number three Illinois, and number four Loyola. Chalk brought Georgetown and Georgia Tech to the Elite Eight, and Georgetown punched its ticket to the Final Four. Unfortunately, Patrick Ewing and company ran out of chalk, losing to a number eight seed Villanova in the national championship game.
Anti-Chalk During March Madness
Betting against all the number one seeds, going anti-chalk if you will, is no more a winning strategy than embracing them all. Only three times has the Final Four not featured at least one number one seed. In 1980, the last standing were number two Louisville, number five Iowa, number six Purdue, and number eight UCLA.
2006 found a number eleven seed in the Final Four, George Mason, along with number three Florida, number two UCLA, and number four LSU. 2011 was the year of the upset, featuring the highest total of Final Four seeds. Three seed UConn and four seed Kentucky were joined by number eight seed Butler and a surprising eleven seed in Virginia Commonwealth.