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Making Sense Of An NCAA Tournament Bracket That Makes No Sense

A year ago, it seemed like the NCAA Tournament’s era of parity was under attack. Kentucky had just wrapped up an undefeated regular season and was looking so powerful that the FiveThirtyEight model assigned the Wildcats a 41 percent probability of winning the tourney before it even began. (By comparison, most pre-tournament favorites of recent vintage sported odds roughly twice as long.) It was enough to make some wonder whether superteams like the Wildcats had sucked the equality right out of the sport.

Of course, Kentucky’s unbeaten run eventually ended, and its dominance to that point had concealed the overall balance of the field, anyway. Then came this upset-crazy season, with an abnormally mediocre set of top teams and no clear favorite to win it all. Kansas, our most likely champ this year, caught fire down the home stretch, aided in part by a newfound reliance on the 3-pointer, but the Jayhawks still have only a 19 percent shot at the title. Parity has officially delivered its counterpunch.

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Our latest model does, however, think there’s around a 3 in 4 chance that this year’s champ will emerge from these eight schools: Kansas, North Carolina, Virginia, Michigan State, Oklahoma, Villanova, Kentucky and West Virginia. Our power ratings also think those are the nation’s top eight teams — though they’re not all distributed evenly throughout the bracket. Let’s take a look at how the committee placed them (and the other 60 tournament-bound teams) in this year’s field.

COMPUTER RATINGS PROBABILITY OF…
SEED TEAM AVG HIGH LOW INJURY 538 RATING +/- SEED FINAL 4 CHAMPS
1 Kansas 94.2 98.2 92.4 94.5 45.0% 19.1%
2 Villanova 92.2 95.2 88.6 -0.3 91.3 22.4 6.4
5 Maryland 86.5 88.2 85.3 87.4 -1 6.3 1.3
6 Arizona 88.8 90.1 87.7 +0.7 89.0 -3 6.0 1.8
3 Miami (FL) 87.9 89.6 86.3 87.1 +1 4.9 1.0
4 California 86.2 87.8 85.3 86.5 +1 4.0 0.7
7 Iowa 86.8 87.9 84.8 -0.2 85.9 -1 3.2 0.6
11 Wichita St. 86.9 88.3 86.1 +0.0 86.6 -6 2.7 0.7
11 Vanderbilt 85.9 87.9 85.0 85.6 -5 2.4 0.5
9 Connecticut 85.7 86.6 84.7 85.4 -2 2.1 0.3
8 Colorado 81.9 83.7 81.2 81.5 +2 0.4 0.0
10 Temple 78.7 80.7 77.3 -0.7 78.5 +2 0.2 0.0
12 SD State 78.8 80.9 74.4 78.6 0.2 0.0
13 Hawaii 80.0 81.0 76.9 -1.2 78.0 0.0 0.0
14 Buffalo 74.9 76.5 73.3 75.7 0.0 0.0
15 UNC Asheville 74.9 76.7 72.2 74.2 0.0 0.0
16 Austin Peay 68.7 71.5 66.1 68.8 0.0 0.0
Team ratings: South

The strongest region in this year’s tournament boasts what our power ratings consider the nation’s No. 1 and No. 5 teams — Kansas and Villanova — at its top. But it also contains a whole host of underseeded squads down the seed line, which will probably make for some real carnage in the early rounds. For instance, “first four” opponents Wichita State and Vanderbilt, both vying for the right to be a lowly 11-seed, would have been seeded five or six slots higher if the committee’s S-curve had followed our ratings. (Instead, one will be eliminated before the tourney even begins in earnest.) Our model also says that Maryland, Iowa and UConn deserved better seeds and that sixth-seeded Arizona had a case to be moved all the way up to No. 3 on the basis of its talent, now that Kaleb Tarczewski and Allonzo Trier are back at full strength. (Instead, the Wildcats will be mild favorites at best in the first round against either the Shockers or the Commodores.)

As a byproduct of all this wacky seeding, the South will have claimed at least eight of the nation’s 26 highest-rated teams as victims by the middle of the second weekend, after beginning the tournament with 10. But amid this havoc is also opportunity: Regardless of the Vandy-Wichita victor, seven teams in the region will have at least a 29 percent shot at the Sweet 16 before the round of 64 starts Thursday. With so many solid teams stuffed into such close proximity within the bracket, chalk in the first few rounds would be surprising.

But for all the South’s potential turmoil, Kansas still has the best Final Four probability of any team in the tournament. UConn is a trendy dark horse for those thinking that 2011 will repeat itself, and it’s possible that Villanova will stand in KU’s way. But our ratings consider the Jayhawks the nation’s top team, and they may be the only No. 1 team this season that played like it deserved the mantle after re-assuming it late in the season.

COMPUTER RATINGS PROBABILITY OF…
SEED TEAM AVG HIGH LOW INJURY 538 RATING +/- SEED FINAL 4 CHAMPS
2 Oklahoma 89.8 91.8 86.7 90.0 32.1% 6.8%
1 Oregon 89.0 91.9 87.5 -0.2 88.0 +2 22.6 2.6
3 Texas A&M 88.0 89.3 86.7 -0.1 86.8 +2 12.3 2.3
4 Duke 87.9 90.4 86.0 -1.1 87.3 12.1 1.7
5 Baylor 85.3 86.4 84.1 85.5 +2 6.1 1.0
6 Texas 83.9 84.9 82.7 +0.7 84.7 +1 5.9 0.9
9 Cincinnati 84.4 86.3 82.8 83.7 -1 3.2 0.3
10 VCU 84.0 85.9 83.2 -0.6 82.9 -1 2.1 0.2
8 Saint Joseph’s 83.0 84.1 82.1 81.7 +2 1.2 0.1
12 Yale 81.6 83.1 78.7 -0.6 80.2 -1 1.0 0.0
11 Northern Iowa 79.7 81.5 78.3 80.2 0.8 0.0
7 Oregon State 80.6 81.7 78.9 -2.8 77.6 +6 0.2 0.0
13 UNC-Wilmington 78.5 80.4 75.4 77.7 0.2 0.0
14 Green Bay 75.7 78.4 74.1 76.2 0.1 0.0
15 CS Bakersfield 75.9 78.4 72.4 75.0 0.1 0.0
16 Southern 67.7 71.7 62.3 68.0 0.0 0.0
16 Holy Cross 66.0 69.4 63.6 66.9 0.0 0.0
Team ratings: West

In the Final Four, the winner of the South — this year’s strongest region — will face the winner of the West — the weakest region. Our model says top-seed Oregon was tied for the third-most overseeded team of any in the field and is by far the worst of the No. 1s. Second-seeded Oklahoma is rated a bit higher than the Ducks in our numbers, with Texas A&M and Duke in close pursuit. Each of the top four seeds has at least a 12 percent probability of reaching the Final Four.

At a minimum, the West might prove a favorite region for fans of first-round upsets. Our model gives 10th-seeded VCU a 73 percent probability of “knocking off” No. 7 Oregon State — the best odds it assigns to any lower-seeded team in the round of 64. (Oregon State is the most overseeded team in the field; based on their rating, the Beavers deserved a No. 13 seed.) It also thinks No. 9 Cincinnati has a 60 percent probability of beating eighth-seeded Saint Joe’s and No. 11 Northern Iowa has a 30 percent chance against Texas. And if, like us, you’re a fan of 12-over-5 upsets, it assigns Yale a healthy 39 percent chance of toppling Baylor.

Those Cinderellas may not have much of a chance after pulling their initial upset(s), though, because there’s a good amount of separation between the top four seeds and the rest of the field, and making the Sweet 16 will require beating one of those top four teams. After the East, where the top four seeds combine for an 86 percent chance of making the Final Four, the West is the most likely region to have a top-four seed represent it in Houston (79 percent). But, let’s face it, we don’t know which of those top-four seeds it will be — no region has a smaller spread in Final Four odds among its top four seeds than the West.

COMPUTER RATINGS PROBABILITY OF…
SEED TEAM AVG HIGH LOW INJURY 538 RATING +/- SEED FINAL 4 CHAMPS
1 N. Carolina 93.3 96.1 92.0 93.9 43.6% 14.9%
3 W. Virginia 90.2 91.7 88.0 89.3 -1 16.1 3.4
4 Kentucky 90.3 91.1 89.9 90.7 -2 16.0 4.5
2 Xavier 88.2 90.0 86.5 87.7 +1 9.8 1.8
5 Indiana 88.3 89.3 87.4 -0.6 87.4 -1 5.7 1.1
7 Wisconsin 84.3 86.8 82.5 84.8 2.9 0.4
6 Notre Dame 83.8 85.0 82.8 84.4 +2 2.6 0.3
10 Pittsburgh 83.1 84.9 82.2 -0.1 82.3 1.2 0.1
9 Providence 82.6 84.2 81.6 82.5 0.8 0.1
14 S.F. Austin 82.0 84.3 78.8 81.0 -3 0.4 0.0
11 Michigan 82.2 84.4 80.9 -2.5 79.6 0.3 0.0
11 Tulsa 80.2 81.9 78.9 -0.0 79.9 0.2 0.0
8 USC 82.4 83.7 80.9 81.4 +2 0.2 0.0
13 Stony Brook 78.0 79.3 75.4 -0.4 77.1 0.1 0.0
12 Chattanooga 76.6 78.8 72.8 76.6 +2 0.0 0.0
15 Weber State 74.0 76.8 68.7 73.3 0.0 0.0
16 Florida G.C. 71.3 73.9 68.2 71.4 0.0 0.0
16 F. Dickinson 66.2 69.3 64.0 66.7 0.0 0.0
Team ratings: East

The East is the second-best region in the tournament, not far behind the South. Although our model thinks No. 2 Xavier was slightly overseeded, the East has the second-best No. 1 seed (with UNC fairly close on Kansas’s heels), the best No. 3 seed (West Virginia) and the best No. 4 seed of any region (Kentucky). There’s a reason we give the top four seeds here such an overpowering likelihood of making the Final Four.

The East figures to be a relatively chalky region, particularly in the early going. Aside from ninth-seeded Providence, a 62 percent favorite to oust Southern Cal, tantalizing first-round upset picks are hard to come by. The closest are Pitt over Wisconsin and the Michigan/Tulsa winner over Notre Dame, but each of those are less than 40 percent likely to happen. Our model might be missing how well a few of the underdogs match up against the favorites, but this region just doesn’t seem like it’s going to provide a lot of teary-eyed upset footage for this year’s “One Shining Moment” montage.

However, there are two potential confrontations further down the line that everyone’s already circled on their brackets: Kentucky-Indiana in the round of 32 and its winner vs. North Carolina in the Sweet 16. If each happens, you might not see a better pair of matchups at that stage of the tournament; our model says UNC is a deserving No. 1, Kentucky is basically a two-seed that got dropped to a No. 4 and Indiana deserved a No. 4 seed instead of a No. 5. The combination of history and talent in each game would be tremendous — but before we get too excited, our simulations say there’s a 26 percent chance that at least one of the teams will lose before the matchups can come together.

North Carolina’s a pretty good bet to hold up its end of the bargain, though. The Tar Heels rank second in our power ratings and have the second-best Final Four probability of any team, trailing Kansas by a single percentage point. KU and UNC’s odds would diverge slightly after that — to make the title game, Carolina would have to go through the presumably tougher Midwest champ — but a North Carolina-Kansas showdown is the most likely final according to our method.

COMPUTER RATINGS PROBABILITY OF…
SEED TEAM AVG HIGH LOW INJURY 538 RATING +/- SEED FINAL 4 CHAMPS
2 Mich. St. 93.2 93.9 92.5 -0.5 91.9 -1 34.2% 9.0%
1 Virginia 92.5 94.8 90.9 92.5 30.3 9.8
5 Purdue 89.5 90.6 88.4 88.6 -2 12.8 2.6
4 Iowa State 86.8 89.1 84.6 -0.8 86.5 +2 6.4 1.0
3 Utah 85.6 86.5 84.3 +0.4 86.6 +2 5.3 0.8
11 Gonzaga 86.4 87.6 85.4 -0.3 86.0 -5 3.2 0.5
9 Butler 84.0 85.7 83.0 84.2 -1 2.5 0.3
6 Seton Hall 85.6 87.5 84.3 84.5 +2 1.8 0.2
7 Dayton 82.4 84.1 81.2 82.4 +2 1.6 0.1
10 Syracuse 83.1 84.3 82.3 82.7 -1 1.3 0.1
8 Tex. Tech 82.1 83.5 80.4 81.3 +3 0.4 0.0
12 Little Rock 80.4 83.0 74.7 79.0 0.2 0.0
13 Iona 78.7 81.8 76.8 -0.0 78.2 -1 0.1 0.0
14 Fresno St. 77.6 80.0 76.0 76.6 0.0 0.0
15 MTSU 75.3 77.4 74.0 75.0 0.0 0.0
16 Hampton 67.9 71.9 65.6 68.6 0.0 0.0
Team ratings: Midwest

As far as top two seeds go, it’s hard to get better than the Midwest’s combo of Virginia and Michigan State. According to our power ratings, they’re the nation’s third- and fourth-best teams, squeezed into the same region only because, well, nobody’s really sure why.

And yet, their collision course is not the most certain of any top two seeds, according to our model. (Kansas and Villanova, the top-seeded teams in the South region, are more likely to meet in the Elite Eight.) Why? Because the Midwest also has its share of spoilers situated elsewhere in the bracket. In addition to solid Utah and Iowa State teams as the third and fourth seeds, our ratings say Purdue is a No. 3 seed masquerading as a No. 5 and Gonzaga is a No. 6 in a No. 11’s clothing.

In fact, Purdue could be an interesting dark horse Final Four pick. Our simulations say they have a 13 percent shot at it, easily the best chance of any team seeded fifth or lower in its region. And for Gonzaga, an underdog run could be like old times again. The FiveThirtyEight model says the Zags have a 60 percent probability of pulling a first-round “upset” over Big East champ Seton Hall and a break-even shot against whichever team they’d end up facing the round after that (Utah, most likely).

But in spite of all the ways in which it could be thwarted, an MSU-UVA regional final matchup is still the most likely way that the Midwest will reach its crescendo. If it happens, Virginia will be slightly favored according to our power ratings, though we’ve learned over the years to never discount a Tom Izzo-coached team.

And in a year as wide open as this, why not Michigan State? Or Virginia, or Oklahoma, Villanova and West Virginia? Or the basketball blue blood in Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky? With so much uncertainty, sometimes the best forecast is to pick out the handful of most likely winners and see what happens from there. Compared with the seeming imbalance of last year, this season’s parity might make for a more exciting tournament anyway.

Check out FiveThirtyEight’s 2016 March Madness Predictions.


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Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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