Visualizing The Madness Of March: Introducing Cinderella Plots

Last week I looked ahead at this year’s NCAA tournament using a balloon plot and the bracket predictions.

In this post, I’ll look back to past NCAA tournaments and relive some of the “Madness”.

In order to visualize some of the recent NCAA tournaments, and highlight the lower seeds that have made deep runs, I created something I’ll be calling a “Cinderella plot”.

2001-2011 NCAA Bracket Cinderella Plots

(click to enlarge)

Each seed in the tournament is represented by a different color. The higher seeded teams, #1 through #4, are on a gray scale since wins by these teams are the least surprising. Seeds #5 through #8 are represented by the warmer colors (yellow, orange, and red), seeds #9 through #14 are represented by cooler colors (green, blue, and purple), and seeds #15 and #16 are represented with black.

Using this scheme, a tournament that appears with a lot of white and gray in it indicates that higher seeds are winning, as expected. Years with a lot of color in them represent a tournament with lower seeds advancing further than expected.

2007 Through 2009 Played Out True To Form

For example, in 2008 all four #1 seeds made it to the Final Four, so the entire middle of the chart is white. Only one team that year with a seed lower than four, #10 Davidson, made it to the Elite Eight.

Similarly, 2007 and 2009 are mostly white and gray indicating that there were few Cinderellas. In both those years, no team with a seed lower than #3 made it to the Elite Eight, and in 2009 only two teams seeded lower than #4 made it to the Sweet Sixteen: #12 Arizona and #5 Purdue.

The Last Two Years Have Been Crazier

More recently, in 2010 and 2011, one could reasonably look at the brackets and conclude that there has been more “madness”.

The 2010 graph is dominated by gold on the left, and there are some greens and blues on the right. The gold sections belong to Michigan State and Butler, two #5 seeds who met in the Final Four with Butler ultimately losing (barely) in the finals.

Then there is 2011. If this were a more complicated version of the Sesame Street game, 2011 would be the graph that doesn’t belong here. Not a single #1 or #2 seed made it to the Final Four, and the graph is dominated by the red and blue representing #8 Butler and #11 VCU, respectively. The 2011 Final Four consisted of a #3, #4, #8, and #11 seed, with a #3 seed facing a #8 seed in the finals.


There’s no other way to describe it.