The anticipation of March Madness is unlike any other postseason in sports. As millions of fans fill out their brackets and prepare to start betting on the biggest tournament of the year, the bookmakers are setting lines on the NCAA Tournament games with big favorites in the 2 vs. 15 match-ups.
Most college basketball fans and even many bettors know little about the longshots that makeup the No. 15 seeds. More than 95% of fans filling out brackets will pick the No. 2 seed to win and advance.
The NCAA committee selects NCAA Tournament teams based on a number of criteria, and the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) was added prior to the 2019 tournament. The NET relies on game results, strength of schedule, scoring margin, net offensive and defensive efficiency, game location and the quality of wins and losses in determining NCAA Tournament teams and seedings.
The No. 15 seed teams don’t have the strength of schedule or quality wins over top teams, or what the committee considers Quadrant 1 wins. But those teams don’t get the opportunity to schedule major conference teams during the regular season. The imbalance from athletic budgets, TV contracts to size, strength and skills of the players is wider overall compared to the major conference players and teams. But there are still many quality teams playing in and winning the small conferences.
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March Madness 2 vs. 15 matchups this year
West – No. 15 Grand Canyon vs. No. 2 Iowa
At one point, Iowa () was hailed as one of the best teams in the nation but they’ve remained on the outside looking in when it comes to national championship favorites. Luka Garza finished the season as the nation’s top scorer, but he and the Hawkeyes were upended by Illinois in the Big Ten semifinal. They take on Grand Canyon, who ran through the Western Athletic Conference Tournament en route to their first WAC title in program history (eight seasons).
GCU hung their hat on a nearly-impenetrable defense (ninth in scoring defense) and a deep roster. They came close to upsetting Arizona State early in the season (lost 71-70) and were beaten by Colorado. Strength of schedule is a major concern for GCU, whereas Iowa endured the gauntlet of the Big Ten this season. While crazier things have happened, it would be safe to pencil in Iowa to the second round.
Catch Iowa vs. Grand Canyon on Saturday, March 20 at 6:25 p.m. ET on TBS.
South – No. 15 Oral Roberts vs. No. 2 Ohio State
Ohio State () has endured a few losing slides this season, but persevered to reach the Big Ten championship game, where they came up short against Illinois in overtime. The Buckeyes were ranked in the top 10 most of the season, including inside the top five, and has quality wins over Michigan and Iowa. Oral Roberts made an unlikely run at the Summit League title and an autobid in the NCAA Tournament.
There’s a serious talent gap between these two teams and Ohio State has not lost a first-round matchup since 2009 (where they were an eight seed). As a three-seed or higher, the Buckeyes have never lost a first-round game. In their last five appearances as a two seed or higher, Ohio State made the Sweet 16 or better.
This game tips off Friday, March 19 at 3 p.m. ET on CBS.
East – No. 15 Iona vs. No. 2 Alabama
The Crimson Tide () started the year red hot from beyond the arc and ranked among the nation’s top scoring teams. Toward the back half of the year, Alabama cleaned it up defensively, slowed down their pace of play, and finished as SEC Tournament champions. They take on Iona, coached by former Louisville coach Rick Pitino.
Iona is the most likely 2-seed to pull off a stunner given Pitino’s history in the Big Dance. However, the Gaels have won just two tournament games in their 68-season history and none since 2013.
Catch Alabama vs Iona on Saturday, March 20 at 4 p.m. ET on TBS.
Midwest – No. 15 Cleveland State vs. No. 2 Houston
The Houston Cougars () have been one of the least heralded elite teams this season. They’ve won games by double digits in 18 or 24 regular season games and in two of three AAC Tournament games (including the final vs. Cincinnati). Houston reached their highest AP ranking since their 1983 and 1984 national runner-up seasons and fielded the second-best scoring defense in the country. They face Horizon League champion Cleveland State, which is making its first tournament appearance since 2009 (where the Vikings pulled off a first-round upset as a 13 seed).
Cleveland State finished average in both scoring offense and scoring defense, and lack the height and length of Houston in their core players. While there have been wilder upsets in March Madness, this would be a worthy candidate for an all-timer should the Vikings pull it off.
This game tips off on Friday, March 19 at 7:15 p.m. ET and will be televised on truTV.
Bracket and odds
Who usually gets placed in the 2 vs. 15 game?
The No. 2 seeds are most often from the major conferences and either won their league title or conference tournament, or finished runner-up. These are top-10 teams in the AP rankings at the end of the season with strong stat profiles and wins over many quality teams. The No. 15 seeds are from small conferences that won their conference tournament and secured the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
2 vs. 15: What happened last time?
The coronavirus pandemic caused the shutdown of the 2020 NCAA tournament. The previous two years saw No. 2 seeds go 8-0 SU and 5-3 ATS. That includes 2-2 ATS in 2019 when Kentucky (-20) blew out Abilene Christian 79-44, and fellow SEC member Tennessee (-17.5) held off Colgate, 77-70. Two Big Ten teams won as 2 seeds with Michigan (-15) covering against Montana 74-55, and Michigan State (-17.5) overcoming a halftime deficit and needing a late 9-0 run to put away Bradley, 76-65.
All four No. 2 seeds won in the Round of 32 with Michigan and Michigan State gaining double-digit covering victories. Kentucky and Tennessee won by single digits with the Wildcats 6-point win a narrow cover over upstart Wofford. Tennessee needed overtime to dispatch Iowa, 83-77, but the Volunteers lost in the Sweet 16 to Purdue, 99-94 in an overtime shootout. Michigan was shut down by Texas Tech 63-44 in the Sweet 16.
Michigan State and Kentucky then won to advance to the Elite Eight, and Michigan State made the Final Four with a 68-67 win over No. 1 Duke. Kentucky fell in overtime in the Elite Eight to fellow SEC team Auburn, 77-71.
History since 2000
No. 2 seeds are 132-8 SU (96%) vs. No. 15 seeds since 1985. Since 2000, those big favorites and No. 2 seeds are 75-5 SU, but 38-41-1 ATS. The average margin of victory in the match-ups since 2000 is 15.60 points.
Eight 15 seeds have upset 2 seeds in the NCAA tournament, which means 15 seeds have an 8-132 all-time record against 2s, a 5.71 win percentage.
Since 2012, No. 2 seeds are 17-14-1 ATS against No. 15 seeds. That’s of note because there have been four major upsets by 15 seeds since 2012.
Norfolk State pulled off the second-biggest upset in a 2 vs. 15 match-up in 2012 when they stunned Missouri 86-84 as a 21-point underdog. On that same day, No. 15 Lehigh dumped Duke 75-70 as an 11-point underdog when C.J. McCollum poured in 30 points for the Patriot League champs stunner over Duke.
The following year in 2013, Atlantic Sun conference winner Florida Gulf Coast made history. Florida Gulf Coast beat No. 2 seed Georgetown 78-68 as a 14-point underdog, and then FGC became the first No. 15 seed in NCAA Tournament history to make the Sweet Sixteen after knocking off San Diego State 81-71 as a 7.5 point underdog. Florida Gulf Coast head coach Andy Enfeld parlayed that success into the head coaching position at USC in the Pac-12, where he still coaches.
In 2016 No. 15 Middle Tennessee State never trailed as a 16-point underdog, and the Blue Raiders recorded the high-scoring upset win over No. 2 Michigan State 90-81.
Success of 2 and 15 seeds
Since the NCAA Tournament expanded in 1985, there have been just eight upsets in the 2 vs. 15 match-ups.
The first No. 15 seed to upset a No. 2 seed was in 1991 when Richmond shocked Syracuse 73-69. The Spiders never trailed in the game. Two years later, Steve Nash and Santa Clara overcame a 13-point second half deficit to upset Arizona 64-61 in the 2 vs. 15 match-up. The largest margin of victory ever for a No. 15 was Coppin State’s 78-65 win over South Carolina in 1997. Coppin State was an astounding 30-point underdog and pulled off the improbable upset.
Four No. 2 seeds have scored at least 100 points in the 2 vs. 15 match-ups since 1996. In 2017 Arizona rolled to victory over North Dakota 100-82. North Carolina hit the century mark with a 102-87 win over Long Island in 2011. And in 2001 Arizona beat Eastern Illinois 101-76. But UCLA scored the most points ever in the 2 vs. 15 with a 109-75 win over Charleston Southern in 1997.
No 15-seed has ever made the Elite Eight or Final Four. But No. 2 seeds have gone to the Final Four 29 times and to the championship game 13 times. Those 2-seeds have won the National Championship 5 times since 1985 with the most recent being Villanova in 2016, as Kris Jenkins hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to lift the Wildcats to the National Title win over North Carolina, 77-74.