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What The Hell Is Syracuse Doing In The Final Four?

If I’d told you a couple of weeks ago that North Carolina, Oklahoma and Villanova would be packing their bags for a Final Four date in Houston, you probably wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. (Assuming you weren’t a Kansas or Oregon fan.) According to FiveThirtyEight’s NCAA Tournament prediction model, the Sooners and Tar Heels were the most likely men’s teams to emerge from their regions, and the Wildcats were a strong second choice in theirs. That trio is as chalky as a group featuring a couple of No. 2 seeds can get.

Syracuse, however, would have stopped some traffic. The Midwest’s Final Four entrant is a major stunner — its region of the bracket featured a No. 1 seed (Virginia) that ranked as the third-best team in the country in our pre-tournament team ratings and a No. 2 seed (Michigan State) that many analysts believed deserved a No. 1, plus a strong second tier of teams including Purdue, Utah, Iowa State and even better-than-its-11-seed Gonzaga. Meanwhile, the 10th-seeded Orange were uncertain bets to merely make it past Dayton in the round of 64, much less forge a path all the way to Houston.

Before the tourney began, both our model and Ken Pomeroy’s odds assigned Syracuse somewhere between a 1 percent and 2 percent chance of making the Final Four. Comparing Pomeroy’s log5-based probabilities this year to archives from every year going back to 2006,1 that makes this year’s Orange the fourth-most-unlikely Final Four participant of the past 11 NCAA tournaments.

YEAR TEAM FINAL 4 PROB.
2011 VCU 0.02%
2011 Butler 0.99
2013 Wichita State 1.00
2016 Syracuse 1.50
2006 George Mason 1.52
2015 Michigan State 2.70
2010 Butler 2.80
2010 Michigan State 3.60
2014 Kentucky 4.40
2012 Louisville 4.70

Because Syracuse had stretches of staggeringly bad regular-season play for a Final Four team, our NCAA Elo ratings — which estimate a team’s strength at a given moment — rated the Orange as the 41st-best team in the 68-team field going into the tournament. (Among Final Four teams since the tourney expanded to 64 teams in 1985, only No. 52 VCU in 2011 and No. 44 George Mason in 2006 ranked lower.) By contrast, UNC was the third-best team in the field by pre-tournament Elo, Villanova was fifth, and Oklahoma was ninth. So in terms of the disparity between Syracuse’s pre-tournament Elo and the average of the other Final Four teams, the team is the sixth-most-out-of-place Final Four entrant since 1950.2

YEAR TEAM ELO OTHER FINAL FOUR TEAMS AVG. ELO DIFF.
1952 Santa Clara 1416 Kansas, St. John’s, Illinois 1834 -418
1950 Baylor 1459 CCNY, Bradley, NC State 1782 -322
1999 Ohio St. 1893 UConn, Duke, Michigan State 2182 -289
1963 Oregon St. 1704 Loyola-IL, Cincinnati, Duke 1966 -262
1968 Ohio St. 1730 UCLA, UNC, Houston 1991 -261
2016 Syracuse 1772 Villanova, Oklahoma, UNC 2031 -259
1972 Florida St. 1751 UCLA, UNC, Louisville 1997 -247
1986 LSU 1804 Louisville, Duke, Kansas 2049 -244
1960 NYU 1766 Ohio St., California, Cincinnati 2008 -241
1965 Princeton 1687 UCLA, Michigan, Wichita St. 1923 -236
One of these teams is not like the others

Elo ratings are pre-tournament

Ratings aside, the team earned its way with a strong performance in the tourney, particularly when it outlasted Gonzaga and Virginia this past weekend. A lot has changed over the past two weeks; now Syracuse has nearly caught up to its Final Four peers, making it the sixth-most-improved Final Four team by Elo since 1950.

ELO RATING
YEAR TEAM PRE-TOURNAMENT PRE-FINAL FOUR IMPROVEMENT
2011 VCU 1725 1985 +260
1987 Providence 1885 2076 +191
1965 Princeton 1687 1876 +189
1971 Villanova 1814 1996 +182
1954 Bradley 1543 1720 +177
2016 Syracuse 1772 1942 +170
2013 Wichita St. 1791 1960 +169
1959 Louisville 1674 1839 +165
1954 Penn St. 1577 1729 +153
1991 Kansas 1946 2095 +149
Most improved Final Four teams

Source: Sports-Reference.com

Teams like these don’t have a terrific track record once they get to the Final Four: Of the nine teams alongside Syracuse above, only three — Bradley in 1954, Villanova in 1971 and Kansas in 1991 — advanced to the championship game, and none won the title. The most improved Final Four team to win a title was Villanova in 1985. (For what it’s worth, Butler — which was the 61st-most-improved team and an even less likely Final Four entrant than Syracuse — came within a few inches of bank from snatching the title from Duke in 2010.) Syracuse will get a chance to improve that success rate against North Carolina on Saturday, and based on its performance these past few weeks, it would be foolish to count the team out again.

Footnotes

  1. The 2006 tournament is the earliest for which I could find odds derived from Pomeroy’s ratings. I also used Sean Forman’s similar simulations in the absence of Pomeroy’s data for the 2009 and 2010 tournaments.

  2. This is as far back as our table of Elo ratings goes for NCAA Tournament games; that year, the tourney was limited to an eight-team field.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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