We’re a week into this year’s NCAA Tournament, and we’ve already seen crazy comebacks and upsets, games that hinged on the outcome of a single shot (make and miss), and wins from teams seeded Nos. 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15. A case has been made that it was the greatest start to an NCAA tourney ever, which isn’t ridiculous.
But that’s just the run to the Sweet 16. As for championship odds, has anything really changed since Selection Sunday?
We knew going in that this was a notably wide-open college basketball season with no clear favorite. And despite the tournament’s wild start, the odds have barely moved in any team’s favor. Kansas began as the favorite according to our prediction model, with a 19 percent probability of winning it all; it remains the favorite, at 21 percent. No team has seen its title chances boosted by more than a handful of percentage points; North Carolina has enjoyed the biggest bump, from 15 percent to 19 percent.
In other words, we haven’t learned much about how this whole thing is going to shake out — and that’s probably for the best if exciting basketball is what we want.
According to our Elo ratings, Kansas is the strongest team remaining in this year’s tournament. (Elo ratings, which we’re fond of using across many sports, help estimate a team’s strength at any given moment.) But among Sweet 16 field leaders since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, its rating is seventh-weakest. Meanwhile, Notre Dame, the worst of the teams still in the tournament by Elo, is the sixth-strongest team to hold that distinction since ’85. The result is a balanced crop of Sweet 16 entrants, with the fourth-smallest spread between best and worst out of the past 32 tournaments.
|BEST REMAINING TEAM||WORST REMAINING TEAM|
|1990||1||Michigan State||2056||12||Ball State||1825||232|
|1993||1||North Carolina||2156||12||George Washington||1848||308|
|2008||1||North Carolina||2152||12||Western Kentucky||1810||342|
|2013||1||Louisville||2135||15||Florida Gulf Coast||1754||381|
|1992||1||Duke||2213||12||New Mexico State||1790||423|
Much ink has been spilled lamenting the lack of Cinderellas in this Sweet 16, and that’s a fair assessment. Gonzaga, No. 11 in the Midwest, is the lowest-seeded team left, and it’s far better than the typical 11-seed. (We thought they played more like a No. 6 seed during the season.) If Syracuse and Notre Dame — two of the nine winningest schools in Division I history — are your best Cinderella candidates, it’s probably a down year for heartwarming underdogs.
Even so, we should appreciate the evenness of this Sweet 16 field. Almost all the remaining teams were among the best in the country during the regular season: 12 of them ranked in the top 20 nationally according to our pre-tournament mix of computer ratings, with Gonzaga checking in at No. 21. (Wisconsin ranked 29th, Notre Dame 33rd and Syracuse 35th.)
That’s a competitive group, and it should make for riveting basketball. My research indicates that the single best predictor of our excitement index stat — an attempt to quantify a game’s thrills by tracking its average change in win probability per basket — is how closely matched the two opponents are in a power rating like Ken Pomeroy’s or Elo.
Given the composition of this Sweet 16 field, we’re going to get a lot of those close matchups over the rest of the tournament. And if all goes according to the numbers, that should mean the excitement of March Madness is just getting started.
Check out FiveThirtyEight’s 2016 March Madness Predictions.
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