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What Might Have Happened In The NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight

Though there are no actual games to be played, FiveThirtyEight is still taking a shot at a little March Madness. We built an NCAA Tournament bracket, using ESPN’s Bracketology, and we’re simulating the results of each game by using a simple “100-sided dice roll” against our forecast probabilities. Check back on Fridays and Mondays through April 6 for how each round of the men’s and women’s brackets went. We’ve played out our first and second rounds and the Sweet 16; here’s how the Elite Eight might have gone.

Women’s bracket

The NCAA women’s basketball tournament didn’t happen this year, but if it had, surely everyone would have wondered what it meant for the development of parity in the sport. New names had made it to the top of the national polls all year; Connecticut — owner of half of the 20 national titles awarded this century — wasn’t as dominating as usual, while Final Four regular Notre Dame went just 13-18 this season. And yet, that parity didn’t translate into tourney upsets: In the FiveThirtyEight simulation of the NCAA Tournament, the four No. 1 seeds advanced to the Final Four, which would have been the second time in three years that happened.

In our simulation, South Carolina beat North Carolina State by 17, Oregon beat Northwestern by 14, Baylor beat Mississippi State by 29, and Maryland — the most at-risk favorite — knocked out Louisville by 8 with just a 63 percent chance of advancing. South Carolina has a 71 percent chance to beat Maryland in our model, and Baylor is a slight (61 percent) favorite against Oregon.

In the Greenville regional, South Carolina marched onto the Final Four without having to leave the state. No. 2 NC State had beaten Maryland and Florida State (twice), won the ACC Tournament and finished 28-4, but the Wolfpack just ran into the South Carolina buzzsaw. The Gamecocks will move on bearing regular-season wins against Maryland and Baylor, two of the other three remaining teams. No player on Dawn Staley’s team averages more than 13.1 points, but four score at least 12 per game, and that depth was far too much to handle for an NC State team playing in its first Final Four since 1998.

But in our simulation, South Carolina has not been the most dominant team — that would be Baylor, which has won its first four games by an average of 33.3 points and looks the part of last year’s national champion. This year’s Bears, with 81.9 points per game, scored even more than last year’s 81.7 and surpassed 100 four times. The rest of the Dallas regional was no match for that juggernaut.

In this simulated world, the nation gets to see triple-double machine Sabrina Ionescu in the Final Four again, after Oregon ended the surprising run No. 3 Northwestern put together. Northwestern, the biggest long shot in this simulated Elite Eight,1 finished 26-4, and in our simulation they even scored an upset of UConn, knocking the Huskies out in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2005. But first-time contenders don’t have a great track record deep in the tournament, and that described Oregon last year — new to the big stage, riding on the shoulders of Ionescu, fresh off an 88-84 upset of Mississippi State in the regional final. The Ducks lost last year to eventual national champion Baylor, 72-67. With Ionescu back, the Ducks get their rematch with Baylor.

The team that rounds out the Final Four is another well-balanced attack — Maryland, with five players averaging from 11.2 to 14.3 points per game. The Terrapins and No. 2 Louisville have hung around the top level of women’s basketball for years. Maryland made the Final Four in 2006, 2014 and 2015; Louisville did so in 2009, 2013 and 2018. They played the closest regional final, but the Terps outlasted a Louisville team that bounced back well from the loss of All-American Asia Durr and finished 28-4.

This simulation favored both established powers (South Carolina and Baylor) and programs with only one or two Final Four trips in the past 10 years (Maryland and Oregon). Really, it favored the teams who got hot at the right time.

The Final Four teams each slipped up against strong competition at one point or another, but they suffered a total of one loss after Jan. 10 this season.2 South Carolina lost to Indiana by 14 on Nov. 28 and then reeled off 26 wins in a row. Entering March, Baylor’s only loss was to that South Carolina team. Oregon dropped a shocking upset against Arizona State on Jan. 10 and then won 19 in a row. Maryland struggled the most early, trudging through an 11-4 start, and then won 17 straight. Recent Final Fours on the women’s side have featured almost exclusively top seeds, but as a byproduct, the games have been outstanding. A showdown this season between the top four teams would have been just as enticing.


Men’s bracket

The Kansas Jayhawks entered the simulated NCAA Tournament as our odds-on favorite to cut down the nets, and as the tournament rounds into the home stretch, they’re the only remaining No. 1 seed.

Bill Self’s squad played like the bettors’ favorite when it squared off with the No. 2 Kentucky Wildcats in the regional finals, the fourth time in the last 21 years the two teams would have clashed in the tournament. Kansas entered the matchup with a 69 percent win probability and earned a double-digit victory; this would have been its sixth Final Four this century, tied for the second most of any team.

John Calipari and Sweet 16-qualifying teams are the rinse-repeat of college basketball. As of last season, he had accomplished the feat eight times in his 10 seasons in Lexington. But lately, that’s where those journeys end: A loss here to Kansas would have been Kentucky’s third consecutive regional final defeat.

Kansas will play No. 4 Maryland in the Final Four after the Terrapins edged No. 2 Florida State for what would have been their third consecutive victory in a regional final. This would have been the third time Kansas and Maryland met in the tournament, with the series tied at one win apiece. The last time these two met in the national semifinal, Juan Dixon paced the Terps to a 9-point win en route to the team’s only national title in 2002. This year’s matchup will feature three Wooden Award finalists in Kansas’ Udoka Azuibuike and Devon Dotson and Maryland’s Anthony Cowan Jr.

On the other side of the bracket, No. 3 Michigan State entered the Elite Eight with a 58 percent win probability and eked out a 1-point victory over No. 4 Louisville to advance. Traditionally, Sparty doesn’t mess around in regional finals. Since Tom Izzo was named head coach in 1995, the Spartans had gone to 10 regional finals and lost just twice. Like each of the team’s last three regional final victories, this one was decided by fewer than 10 points.

The Cassius Winston-led Spartans will meet the Malachi Flynn-led San Diego State Aztecs in the Final Four. The No. 2 Aztecs entered their matchup against No. 9 Oklahoma with a 76 percent win probability and, in the team’s first-ever regional final, blasted the Sooners by 25 points. This would have been Oklahoma’s third loss in its last four regional final appearances.

With Michigan State and Maryland advancing, the Big Ten will have two representatives in the Final Four for the first time since 2015. The Big 12 Conference picks up a third consecutive Final Four appearance as powerhouse Kansas moves into familiar territory. And with San Diego State moving on, the Mountain West will have its first-ever appearance in the national semifinals.

Our simulated Final Four will feature a first-timer, a blue blood and two teams with at least one national title in the trophy case. Only time — and our computer — will tell who will earn the sport’s ultimate prize.

Check out our simulated March Madness predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Our projection gave the Wildcats just a 5 percent chance of upsetting Oregon.

  2. Baylor lost a 57-56 stunner to Iowa State in its regular-season finale.

Jake Lourim is a freelance writer in Washington. He most recently worked for the Louisville Courier-Journal.

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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