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March Madness Crib Notes: Welcome To The Elite Eight

Half the Final Four will be set by the end of day Saturday, and it’s a very good bet one of the schools left standing will be named “Kentucky.” As for the other, the battle between Wisconsin and Arizona for the right to emerge out of the West is probably the best matchup of the entire tournament thus far.

Here’s everything else to keep an eye on as the Elite Eight gets underway:

No. 1 Wisconsin (39 percent win probability) vs. No. 2 Arizona

Location: Los Angeles

When to watch: At 6:09 p.m. EDT on TBS

Power ratings: Arizona 94.5, Wisconsin 93.6

Upset probability: 61 percent

Player to watch: Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin

In a world where the FiveThirtyEight power ratings ruled all, this matchup would be happening in the Final Four, as Arizona and Wisconsin were Nos. 2 and 3 (respectively) in our pre-tournament team rankings. Instead, the selection committee placed the Wildcats sixth in its S-curve list, handing them the No. 2 seed out West and putting them on a collision course with the Badgers in the regional finals.

Don’t let the seedings fool you: Our model favors Arizona by about 2.2 points on the Staples Center’s neutral floor. (Which is, in actuality, slightly less than neutral for Wisconsin due to the effects of travel distance.) We’re not alone, either; of the five different computer ratings that go into the FiveThirtyEight model, only ESPN’s Basketball Power Index ranks Wisconsin higher than Arizona, while the consensus line in Vegas also gives the edge to the Wildcats. So, in an interesting twist, it would be a clear upset if the No. 1 seed advances to the Final Four.

And how does Wisconsin pull off said upset? It won’t be by creating havoc with takeaways on defense. Wisconsin ranked 327th out of 351 Division I schools in turnovers forced per possession, and 319th in steals per opponent possession. Nor will it necessarily be through a barrage of 3-point shooting — the Badgers are solid from long-distance, but it’s not the crux of their game plan. The Badgers play a great style for a favorite; they’re big, and they score well inside, hit the defensive glass hard and rarely commit fouls or turn the ball over. But what happens when they’re the underdog?

One of the only things about Wisconsin that profiles well for creating the kind of variance necessary to boost one’s upset probability is their trademark slow pace. The fewer the possessions in the game, the fewer chances for Arizona to exert its talent advantage. And it’s more than possible that the Badgers dictate the pace against the Wildcats and grind out the win. (They did force a UNC team that averages nearly 70 possessions per 40 minutes to play, and lose, a 60-possession game Thursday night.) Whatever they do, as underdogs — seedings be damned — they’ll have to shake things up somehow.


No. 1 Kentucky (87 percent win probability) vs. No. 3 Notre Dame

Location: Cleveland

When to watch: At 8:49 p.m. EDT on TBS

Power ratings: Kentucky 99.7, Notre Dame 87.9

Upset probability: 13 percent

Player to watch: Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky

Can Kentucky be stopped en route to 40-0? That’s a question 29 teams have tried — and failed — to answer in the affirmative so far this season. Notre Dame will become challenger No. 30 on Saturday, and the FiveThirtyEight model isn’t very optimistic about its chances, either. Our latest calculations say the Wildcats have a whopping 87 percent probability of dispatching the Fighting Irish just like all the other pretenders to their presumptive crown.

For a little perspective on 87 percent probabilities, our model also gave Kentucky an 87 percent chance of beating West Virginia in the Sweet 16, and we know how that turned out. I even called the Mountaineers Kentucky’s “sternest test yet,” which, in a sense, was true — the Wildcats boasted rounded-off win probabilities of 100 percent and 94 percent in the tournament’s first two rounds — but just sounded silly after UK doubled up the score on WVU. Now both Las Vegas and our model have the Wildcats favored by about 11 points against Notre Dame, and somehow that feels too low.

What little hope the Irish have rests on their efficient offense, which actually ranked better nationally this season (according to KenPom.com) than Kentucky’s. The Irish are a great shooting team that can knock down spot-up jumpers all over the court, and they also excel in the transition game. Kentucky usually possesses an air of unbeatability, but even it could fall to a hot shooting night from downtown, like the one Ole Miss almost used to stop UK’s winning streak in January. More than perhaps any other trait, good 3-point shooting is a great way for underdogs to engineer upsets.

But before the Domers get too carried away, Kentucky’s defense boasts the best KenPom rating in the country, and the team is at its most effective when shutting down (you guessed it) spot-up jumpers and transition chances1, meaning Notre Dame’s best hope plays right into the hands of Kentucky’s dominant defense. And at the other end of the floor, the 100th-ranked Irish defense looks downright porous next to the Wildcats’ No. 6 ranked offense. Even more than the team’s ability to execute offensively, Notre Dame’s upset chances might depend on whether it can punch above its weight on defense and slow down the Kentucky attack.

Most likely, that won’t happen. Kentucky probably won’t win by 39 again — West Virginia’s risky playing style opened it up to a big blowout if things went sour — but it would be a tremendous shock if Kentucky isn’t penciled in as the Midwest’s Final Four representative by the end of the night.

Check out FiveThirtyEight’s March Madness predictions.

Footnotes

  1. According to Synergy data.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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