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Is UConn Still A Big Favorite?

The University of Connecticut Huskies kept their roll going Saturday with a breezy 86-71 victory over UCLA. It’s their 110th win in a row — and the 157th of their last 158 games — likely giving them the longest team sport winning streak in college top division history. Rival and potential Elite Eight threat Maryland’s loss in an upset against Oregon also means UConn’s next game should be easier than expected — so you might think UConn’s chances of five-peating and carrying their win streak into the fall would be greater than ever.

Our model, however, now pegs UConn’s chances as essentially the lowest they’ve been in the tournament. UConn finds itself in a virtual dead heat with Baylor (who UConn beat by 11 points in November). Though Baylor has seemed to be UConn’s most formidable competition since before the tournament began, their rise has nonetheless been dramatic. They’ve won their tournament games by 89, 40 and 34, compared with UConn’s margins of 61, 30 and 15.

Baylor was briefly even the tournament favorite, between Sweet 16 days (after Baylor beat Louisville but before UConn beat UCLA):

Usually, teams see their chances of winning go up throughout a tournament. But in this case, UConn, Notre Dame, South Carolina and “the field” have all shed percentage points to the Lady Bears. Over this period, Baylor’s score on our strength metric has risen by 5.5 points, from 104.5 to 110, while UConn’s has only gone from 111.4 to 112.5.

Interestingly, however, the markets don’t seem to share our model’s enthusiasm for Baylor. The latest prices that I could find still give UConn a greater than 75 percent chance (for example, here, where the odds of -420/+300 imply fair odds of 76 percent), which is similar to what was out there before the tournament.

The huge disparity between our model and the markets suggests that it’s worth having some skepticism toward our model results. In general, models are at their worst when it comes to extreme outliers, which UConn certainly has been. For one thing, it can be hard to tell their true strength, because so many of their games are fairly noncompetitive. For another, you would normally expect a team that has performed like UConn this year to be a little worse than it looks — because of regression to the mean — but in UConn’s case, we have a lot of corroborating evidence. Namely, that this season’s performance isn’t even that much of an outlier, for them.

On the other hand, the Huskies weren’t even supposed to be their powerhouse selves this year, and the Lady Bears have looked amazing. If Baylor can get by Mississippi State, they’ll almost certainly get their chance to escape UConn’s shadow in the Final Four.

Check out our March Madness predictions.

Benjamin Morris researches and writes about sports and other topics for FiveThirtyEight.

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