Though there are no actual games to be played, FiveThirtyEight is still taking a shot at a little March Madness. We built an NCAA Tournament bracket, using ESPN’s Bracketology, and we’re simulating the results of each game by using a simple “100-sided dice roll” against our forecast probabilities. We’ve played out our first and second rounds, the Sweet 16, the Elite Eight and the Final Four; here’s how the title game might have gone down.
We could have seen an ending for the ages.
With a win probability of 44 percent, up against the top-seeded favorite of the FiveThirtyEight model and bettors everywhere, the No. 3 Michigan State Spartans shocked No. 1 Kansas with a 1-point victory in our tournament simulation to claim what would have been the program’s third national championship. Throughout our mock tourney, Sparty grew comfortable under the gun, with the team’s final three wins coming by single digits. Meanwhile, Kansas hadn’t played a game tighter than 10 points entering the final.
Bill Self had history on his side: Top seeds have won 10 of the last 13 national titles, and only once in the past six years has the conference with the most tournament teams1 cut down the nets. Plus, in each of the past two seasons, the conference that earned multiple No. 1 bids — which in our simulation was the Big 12 — walked away with the championship. For the last few months, Self seemed destined to become the 15th head coach with two national titles to his name.2
Tom Izzo had other plans.
“You can say a lot of teams had a chance,” Izzo recently told Bob Wojnowski of The Detroit News. “But I think we seriously, seriously, seriously had a legitimate chance.” If there’s one thing to understand about Izzo in March, it’s to not bet against him. With the notable exceptions of 2018 and 2016, his career in East Lansing has been marked by a singular ability to get his teams to overperferform in the NCAA Tournament. No team has done a better job since 2000 of outperforming seed expectations, according to Bart Torvik: 12 Sweet 16s (third most), nine Elite Eights (second most), seven Final Fours (most) and two national finals (tied for sixth most).
If the 2020 NCAA Tournament had unfolded the way the regular season did, the Spartans would have done it his way — as a pass-obsessed outfit.3
Expectations were high for Michigan State from the onset of the season. The Spartans were ranked No. 1 in the AP preseason poll, with Cassius Winston as the anticipated front-runner for player of the year honors. But by February, the team had fallen out of the AP Top 25 entirely. However, Izzo turned the Spartans around quickly, and they closed the regular season by beating four tournament-bound teams, including Maryland and Penn State on the road.
Conversely, Kansas didn’t experience many hiccups along its way, finishing the regular season on an absolute tear by winning its final 16 games to claim a 19th Big 12 title. As Self succinctly said about the team that finished the season ranked first in the AP poll, “Nobody in America had a better season than we did.” Kansas was considered by most to be the nation’s strongest and most-balanced team, with the inside-out, Wooden Award-tandem of Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson leading the charge. Ironically, this Kansas team played a lot like former Michigan State teams. In fact, of the three team profiles most similar to this Kansas team in offensive and defensive efficiency since 2008, two are Izzo-coached squads.
And while Kansas was below average from the stripe, the Jayhawks were lethal from just about everywhere else. Like Kansas, Michigan State ranked between the 80th and 100th percentiles in scoring efficiency and between the 90th and 100th percentiles in defensive efficiency, according to Synergy Sports. Kansas featured a lethal off-the-dribble offensive attack, while Michigan State’s positionless lineup opted to get out in transition on more than 18 percent of offensive possessions.
Defensively, these teams locked down opponents in the half-court, with each ranking between the 92nd and 100th percentiles in defensive efficiency, according to Synergy Sports. Both teams suffocated jump-shooters and rollers to the rim. Self had one of the nation’s best rim protectors in Azubuike. Izzo had conference Defensive Player of the Year Xavier Tillman in the low block.
If Kansas had seemingly obliterated its regular-season slate with ease, Michigan State had found a fifth gear down the stretch. Over the final 10 games of the regular season, Michigan State had outscored opponents by 40.2 points per 100 possessions with its starters on the court, according to Pivot Analysis.
It would have been appointment television to watch Michigan State’s Cassius Winston end his college career in the national final, to say nothing of all he personally weathered in the last few months. That it would’ve involved him squaring off against Dotson, a surefire NBA draft pick, would’ve made the matchup even sweeter.
“It was a tear-jerker. I mean, wouldn’t this have been such poetic justice?” Izzo asked Wojnowski. “Ranked No. 1, then unranked, then went through death and babies being born and came back and won it all? Tell that wouldn’t have been a book.”
A simulation is just that. Maybe Michigan State would have hung another championship banner. Maybe a Cinderella storyline would have emerged as they so often do this time of year. Perhaps your favorite team would have had its One Shining Moment. No matter the case, if there’s a consensus to be had, it’s that all of us will be more than eager to experience the real thing when March Madness comes around this time next year.
Check out our simulated March Madness predictions.