The first half of the Sweet 16 is in the books, and the favorites answered any early round questions with a vengeance. Each higher seed won, with the biggest favorite doing its best impression of the UConn women’s basketball team: It took just under five minutes for Kentucky to jump out to an 8 point lead, which is virtually unassailable for a garden-variety tournament favorite, much less an undefeated powerhouse. And the Wildcats continued to outscore a powerless West Virginia squad (whom we called Kentucky’s “sternest test” just yesterday) by nearly a point per minute. Kentucky won by 39 in a game that (as the saying goes) wasn’t as close as the final score.
Friday’s action promises to be more eventful. Or at least equally eventful. Well, at least it can’t be less eventful. So let’s see what’s going down:
No. 1 Duke (66 percent win probability) vs. No. 5 Utah
When to watch: At 9:45 p.m. EDT on CBS
Power ratings: Duke 92.8, Utah 88.9
Upset probability: 34 percent
Player to watch: Delon Wright, Utah
Duke is doing what Duke does: Being exactly good enough to be a solid contender deep in the NCAA tournament. According to the FiveThirtyEight model, the Blue Devils have about as good a chance of winning this tournament as anyone not named the Kentucky Wildcats. They’ll face off against the Utah Utes, who, having survived the 5-seed jinx, hope to avoid the same kind of Final Destination-style comeuppance suffered by fellow 5-seed West Virginia.
Both of these teams have gotten where they are the old-fashioned way: By making regular, old-school buckets. While the NBA has seen a radical shift in its balance of power as a result of the 3-pointer, the hot stat in the NCAA this year is a stalwart: Field goal percentage. Five of the top eight teams in the nation in this stat (including the top three) are still in the tournament: Duke ranks third in the country and Utah ranks sixth (Gonzaga, Notre Dame and Arizona are first, second and eighth, respectively).
No. 2 Gonzaga (76 percent win probability) vs. No. 11 UCLA
When to watch: At 7:15 p.m. EDT on CBS
Power ratings: Gonzaga 91.3, UCLA 83.7
Upset probability: 24 percent
Player to watch: Norman Powell, UCLA
Remember back when Gonzaga made Adam Morrison look like Cinderella? Well now the shoe is on the other team’s foot. Gonzaga enters the Sweet 16 as a No. 2 seed with only 2 losses and will face No. 11 UCLA – which has 13 losses and made it this far because of a last-minute goaltending call and UAB’s improbable victory over Iowa State. To kill a giant, as the Bruins have to do, it helps when underdogs are used to shooting the 3-pointer. But the Bruins are not. Neither team is: Gonzaga has taken 17.5 attempts per game, UCLA 16.9. The main thing the Bruins have going for them is guard Norman Powell. His 3-point shooting is unremarkable (31.9 percent on 3.4 attempts per game), but he gets a lot of rebounds for his position (5.4 per 40 minutes) and collects the most steals of anyone who’ll be on the floor (2.2 per 40 minutes). In addition to generally being awesome, steals are the kind of high-variance play that UCLA will need to pull this off.
No. 3 Oklahoma (46 percent win probability) vs. No. 7 Michigan State
When to watch: At 10:07 p.m. EDT on TBS
Power ratings: Oklahoma 88.3, Michigan State 87.9
Upset probability: 54 percent
Player to watch: Isaiah Cousins, Oklahoma
In one of the more bizarre stats you’ll see, the FiveThirtyEight model actually favors No. 7 Michigan State over No. 3 Oklahoma. That’s what happens when the committee over and under seeds the field. Michigan State is an above-average 7-seed, while Oklahoma is a below-average 3-seed. While the Sooners have a slightly better SRS1 of 18.9 vs Michigan State’s 17.5, the Spartans generally have more efficient game-level stats. Their net effective field goal percentage was 9 percent, compared to OU’s 6 percent, and a good amount of that comes from Sparty’s better shooting from behind the arc: 39 percent compared to OU’s 35 percent.2 But if you’re looking for a more cosmic reason why the Spartans are favored, you need look no further than coach Tom Izzo. His prowess in the NCAA tournament is not only nature defying, but stat-defying – according to my colleague Neil Paine’s research, his teams have run 7 standard deviations above SRS-based expectation in the Big Dance.
No. 4 Louisville (55 percent win probability) vs. No. 8 N.C. State
When to watch: At 7:37 p.m. EDT on TBS
Power ratings: Louisville 85.7, NC State 84.2
Upset probability: 45 percent
Player to watch: Montrezl Harrell, Louisville
So far this year, N.C. State is the only team to knock off a No. 1 seed, in a 71-68 victory over presidential-bracket finalist Villanova. Teams that get hot in the tournament do tend to outperform their ratings (even accounting for the win), and the FiveThirtyEight model adjusts accordingly. That may be why this is basically a coin flip despite Louisville being nearly four points better by SRS (18.1 vs 14.2). Protip: If you have trouble wrapping your mind around exactly how much more 55 percent is than 50 percent, but you’ve played a lot of poker, imagine the feeling of being all in pre-flop with pocket jacks against Ace-King offsuit.
Check out FiveThirtyEight’s March Madness predictions.
CORRECTION (March 27, 1:52 p.m.): An earlier version of this article incorrectly named Chris Jones as the player to watch for Louisvlle. He is no longer on the team after being dismissed in February because of rape charges against him.