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Prediction: This NCAA Tournament Will Keep Being Bonkers

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
YEAR SEED TEAM ELO SEED TEAM ELO DIFF.
2010 1 Duke 2075 12 Cornell 1878 197
1994 1 Purdue 2047 12 Tulsa 1822 225
1990 1 Michigan State 2056 12 Ball State 1825 232
2016 1 Kansas 2108 6 Notre Dame 1867 241
2009 1 North Carolina 2113 12 Arizona 1870 242
2011 1 Ohio State 2130 5 Arizona 1876 255
2005 1 Illinois 2137 6 Texas Tech 1873 265
1996 1 Connecticut 2144 12 Arkansas 1878 266
2006 1 Connecticut 2114 11 George Mason 1844 270
1995 1 Kentucky 2124 6 Memphis 1849 275
2004 3 Pittsburgh 2123 9 UAB 1847 276
2007 1 North Carolina 2106 5 Butler 1828 279
2014 1 Florida 2100 11 Dayton 1820 280
1989 1 Arizona 2127 11 Minnesota 1838 289
1993 1 North Carolina 2156 12 George Washington 1848 308
2015 1 Kentucky 2165 11 UCLA 1852 312
2001 1 Duke 2153 10 Georgetown 1830 323
2012 1 Kentucky 2118 10 Xavier 1783 334
1988 1 Temple 2079 13 Richmond 1743 336
2008 1 North Carolina 2152 12 Western Kentucky 1810 342
2003 1 Kentucky 2155 10 Auburn 1811 344
1987 1 North Carolina 2145 12 Wyoming 1797 348
1985 1 Georgetown 2143 11 Boston College 1789 354
2000 1 Duke 2164 10 Seton Hall 1805 359
1991 1 UNLV 2192 10 Temple 1822 370
2013 1 Louisville 2135 15 Florida Gulf Coast 1754 381
1986 1 Duke 2127 12 DePaul 1745 382
2002 1 Duke 2198 11 Southern Illinois 1783 415
1992 1 Duke 2213 12 New Mexico State 1790 423
1999 1 Duke 2299 10 Purdue 1834 464
1998 1 Arizona 2170 13 Valparaiso 1700 470
1997 1 Kansas 2201 14 Chattanooga 1709 492
A balanced Sweet 16

Source: Sports Reference

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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Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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