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The Big Winners From A Mad First Week Of The Men’s NCAA Tournament

This article is part of our March Madness series.

The opening weekend of the 2023 men’s NCAA Tournament certainly delivered on its widely anticipated madness. Four of the 10 teams with the highest pre-tournament championship odds according to FiveThirtyEight’s model were eliminated before the Sweet 16, two of whom1 were slotted as No. 1 seeds. In the 38-year history of the current tournament format, there had only been three instances of two top-seeded teams failing to advance out of the second round. Now make it four.

Five years after UMBC toppled Virginia in the first-ever instance of a No. 16 seed knocking off a No. 1 seed, Fairleigh Dickinson — which earned a bid on a technicality and featured the nation’s shortest frontcourt — equaled the feat when it stunned No. 1 Purdue and its 7-foot-4 soon-to-be National Player of the Year Zach Edey on Friday night. Then the Knights nearly provided an encore against No. 9 Florida Atlantic,2 leading with under 10 minutes to go before ultimately falling short in their bid to be the first No. 16 to make the Sweet 16.

That was only a slice of the thrills served in the opening rounds of the 2023 men’s NCAA Tournament: No. 13 Furman edged No. 4 Virginia on a last-second, go-ahead 3-pointer, Michigan State advanced to its 15th Sweet 16 appearance under coach Tom Izzo, higher-seeded underdog Tennessee manhandled Duke in an elbows-out affair that rankled the Twitter accounts of national media members, and No. 15 Princeton downed both Pac-12 champ Arizona and No. 7 seed Missouri. It’s all enough to wonder whether anyone’s bracket still looks halfway respectable (ours certainly doesn’t). In light of the second weekend of the tournament being set, let’s appraise which teams have changed their expectations most. 

Tennessee’s Final Four odds have skyrocketed

Largest change in Final Four probability (according to the FiveThirtyEight forecast model) since before the 2023 men’s NCAA Tournament began

Region Seed Team Pre-Tourney Current Change
East 4 Tennessee 12.0% 40.0% +27.9%
East 7 Michigan State 5.0 24.7 19.7
South 6 Creighton 11.1 29.6 18.5
East 9 Florida Atlantic 1.5 15.9 14.5
East 3 Kansas State 5.4 19.4 13.9
West 4 Connecticut 14.9 26.7 11.8
West 8 Arkansas 3.6 13.9 10.3
Midwest 1 Houston 40.7 50.9 10.2
South 1 Alabama 45.3 55.1 9.8
West 3 Gonzaga 21.9 31.7 9.8
Midwest 2 Texas 22.2 31.8 9.6
South 5 San Diego State 4.6 13.0 8.3
West 2 UCLA 20.8 27.7 7.0
Midwest 5 Miami (FL) 2.4 8.2 5.8
Midwest 3 Xavier 5.4 9.1 3.7
South 15 Princeton <0.1 2.3 2.3

Pre-tournament odds were as of March 12.

The Rick Barnes-fueled Tennessee Volunteers weathered the late-season storm of losing starting point guard Zakai Zeigler3 to a season-ending injury and have played like true contenders to this point. With wins over Louisiana and Duke, the Vols have experienced a tournament-high 27.9 percentage point jump in Final Four probability since Thursday. With possible future matchups against No. 9 Florida Atlantic (66 percent win probability) and the winner of No. 3 Kansas State versus No. 7 Michigan State (roughly a 60 percent win probability against either), the East Regional could be turning orange before our very eyes.

Michigan State (19.7 percentage points) and Creighton (18.5) have each seen at least a 15-point boost in semifinal odds since the tournament tipped off. Then there’s Princeton, who has gone from a team nobody expected to advance out of the opening two rounds to … a team nobody expects to continue dancing, with just 2.3 percent odds of reaching its first Final Four since the Lyndon B. Johnson administration. (But still, we are saying there’s a chance.)

The largest jump in pre-tournament championship probability, however, belongs to the favorites and remaining No. 1 seeds: Houston (4.9 percentage points) and Alabama (4.3). Both have navigated at-times difficult matchups to win each game by double digits. But each also has a standout player navigating an injury at the worst possible time — though Marcus Sasser was able to log 31 minutes in Houston’s second-round win over Auburn

Peering beyond those two powerhouses, a few other teams have also seriously added to their championship potential. Wins over No. 11 seed NC State and No. 3 Baylor (with two separate players posting 30-point, career-high scoring outbursts) have the No. 6 Creighton Bluejays’ title odds soaring, from 2.5 percent on Thursday to 6.3 percent, with a chance to advance to their first Elite Eight since 1941.

And although Gonzaga, a longtime FiveThirtyEight darling, entered the tournament as a No. 3 seed, its lowest since 2018, the Bulldogs responded with wins over No. 14 Grand Canyon and No. 6 TCU to advance to their eighth consecutive Sweet 16. Behind Drew Timme — yes, that Drew Timme — we give Mark Few’s Bulldogs a 5.8 percent chance of winning their first-ever national championship.

With much left to be decided, the 2023 men’s NCAA Tournament has been a joyful exercise in not taking one’s bracket too seriously. A tournament nobody could script has thoroughly delivered through two rounds. Hopefully there’s more mayhem to wring out of the coming weeks.

Check out our latest March Madness predictions!

Footnotes

  1. Purdue and Kansas.

  2. In what was perhaps the most unanticipated second-round matchup in NCAA history, as FAU had also advanced after upsetting higher-seeded Memphis in the waning seconds of its first-round game.

  3. No relation to former FiveThirtyEight sports editor Sara Ziegler.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

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