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Once Duke Won, Kentucky Wasn’t Favored To Go Undefeated

The latest Kentucky juggernaut has been undone by Frank Kaminsky and Wisconsin — the NCAA tournament’s newly crowned Team of Destiny (move over, Spartans). For many, this was a stunning upset, perhaps even with historical implications. But for as much as Kentucky has dominated the headlines for the past six months, this wasn’t a particularly crazy outcome.

We called it. Ok, not really, but sort of: In the between-game update to our March Madness Predictions interactive, Duke’s big win against Michigan State caused Kentucky’s odds of winning the championship to dip from 53 percent to 49 percent. In other words, as of tipoff, our model thought it was more likely than not that Kentucky would be stunningly upset — whether by Wisconsin or Duke.

With Wisconsin taking the early lead, Kentucky’s position didn’t look to improve. But the Wildcats rallied in the second half and even led by four points as late as with 4:30 to go. At that point, Kentucky was a bigger favorite to win the game than they were when the game started. Here’s an in-game win probability chart from Gambletron2000.com:

Pasted image at 2015_04_04 09_42 PM

At that point late in the second half, Kentucky had about a 79 percent chance of winning the game. Combining that with our model’s estimate that a victorious Kentucky team would beat Duke about 71 percent of the time, Kentucky’s chances of winning a championship at that exact moment were 56 percent.

That’s higher than at any other point in the tournament. Kentucky’s best chances of winning it all prior to this game were after the action on March 28 — when they were just 55 percent. Let the record reflect that at 7:55 p.m. PDT, Kentucky’s tournament hopes peaked at 56 percent — or about the same as the odds of a 38-year old Shaquille O’Neal making a free throw.

And then Sam Dekker made a jump shot to set off Wisconsin’s fate-defying 15-4 game-ending run. Storylines shift like sand, and we can be sure there will be thoughtful analysis about who’s responsible for years to come. My colleague Ben Casselman — channeling his inner XKCD — summed it up well:

On Wisconsin. Home Kentucky.

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred imprecisely to the point in the game when Kentucky had a 79 percent chance of winning. It was late in the second half, not in the fourth quarter. And the time when Kentucky’s tournament hopes peaked at 56 percent was 7:55 p.m. PDT, not 7:55 p.m. EDT.

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

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