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What Might Have Happened In The NCAA Tournament’s Final Four

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 Monday for a breakdown of men’s and women’s simulated national title games. We’ve played out our first and second rounds, the Sweet 16 and the Elite Eight; here’s how the national semifinals might have gone.

Men’s bracket

Behind the historically efficient Udoka Azubuike and the NBA-ready Devon Dotson, the powerhouse Kansas Jayhawks entered their matchup with No. 4 Maryland as heavy favorites, with a win probability of 68 percent. And our model’s darling is one step closer to cutting down the virtual nets after eliminating the Terrapins by 10 points.

On the other side of the bracket, just a few months after suffering what he deemed “the worst beating I’ve taken as a coach,” Tom Izzo has Michigan State one step closer to a third title. It was a breakthrough of sorts for the Spartans, who had suffered three consecutive losses in national semifinals, including one year ago to Texas Tech. With a pregame win probability of 61 percent, Sparty edged No. 2 San Diego State by 6 points to advance to its third national final under Izzo. To be sure, there was a disparity in experience: This would have been Michigan State’s eighth Final Four since 2000, the most by any team, and the Aztecs had previously never advanced past the Sweet 16.

The table is set for Monday’s simulated national championship featuring two of our three pretournament favorites:1 Kansas versus Michigan State, Big 12 versus Big Ten, Jason Sudeikis versus Kid Rock. It would have been the fourth all-time tournament meeting between the two, the first since the second round of the 2017 tournament, which the Jayhawks breezed through by a resounding 20 points.

These are two remarkably balanced teams2 that found success above the rim and hit a high percentage from the perimeter. In Dotson and the Spartans’ Cassius Winston, two Wooden Award finalists, it’s a showdown of two of the best point guards in the country. Michigan State’s most-used lineup doesn’t feature a player taller than 6-foot-8, but it still ranks in the top 75 nationally in average height on the floor, with a five-man lineup that’s effectively fluid. Kansas has height, too, most notably the 7-foot Azubuike — a low-post rim protector who fundamentally changes the way the Jayhawks operate on both ends.

Since 2000, Michigan State has answered the call come tournament time, with a nation-best performance against seed expectations, according to Bart Torvik. Kansas ranks 144th, with nightmares of Ali Farokhmanesh, Tekele Cotton and Dwight Powell.


Women’s bracket

In so many ways, the 2019-20 women’s basketball season belonged to Sabrina Ionescu. Oregon’s triple-double machine is a finalist for the national player of the year award and has to be considered the favorite to win. On the strength of her magnificent senior season, Oregon finished 31-2 and earned a No. 1 seed. But in our simulation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament, Ionescu’s season ended a game early once again, ousted by a dominant Baylor team.

When Baylor and Oregon met in last season’s Final Four, Kim Mulkey’s team defended Ionescu about as well as anyone has in her career. The junior point guard scored 18 points but made just 4 of 11 3-point shots and 2 of 13 2-point shots. Meanwhile, the Bears decimated Oregon in the paint, as post players Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox combined for 43 points on 18-for-26 shooting.

This year’s Bears proved just as versatile, albeit without Brown. They boasted the national defensive player of the year in DiDi Richards, and Cox was a player of the year finalist in her own right. They won by 4 points in our simulation, ending Ionescu’s brilliant career.

On the other side of the bracket, South Carolina took care of business against fellow No. 1 seed Maryland. The Gamecocks had a 71 percent chance to move on, and they won by 11 in our simulation. Dawn Staley’s team faced its biggest threat of the tournament in the Terrapins, but South Carolina’s offense was overwhelming.

The two finalists in our simulation are almost a mirror image of each other. The Bears have five double-digit scorers; the Gamecocks have four. South Carolina counters Cox (12.5 points per game, 8.4 rebounds) with Aliyah Boston (12.5 points, 9.4 rebounds), the national freshman of the year.

The Gamecocks have already beaten Baylor once this season, 74-59, at a regular-season tournament in the Virgin Islands on Nov. 30. Both teams made it out OK — the Gamecocks won their last 24 games in a row, and the Bears won 21 in a row before losing to Iowa State in the regular-season finale.

The Bears are actually a slight favorite in the national championship, at 56 percent — a battle of two teams that showed few or no weaknesses all season. The two Final Four matchups belonged to the two most balanced teams, and they’ll now take center stage for the national championship.

Check out our simulated March Madness predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Gonzaga, our second highest favorite, failed to reach the Sweet 16.

  2. Both rank in Ken Pomeroy’s top 15 both offensively and defensively.

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

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

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