Fresh off a miraculous buzzer-beating win over Texas on Friday, the Northern Iowa men’s basketball team had pretty much capped off another upset over a Lone Star State school Sunday night when it led Texas A&M by 12 points with 35 seconds to play in the teams’ second-round NCAA matchup.
Sure, the Aggies figured to play out the string hard, gambling for steals and committing fouls, but the game was essentially over — teams simply don’t come back from deficits so large with so little time remaining. In fact, you could have spotted the Panthers half that lead, and victory still would have been practically assured.
That’s why our win probability chart considered the Panthers’ victory about as certain as it gets, well above 99.9 percent likely:
And yet, in those final 35 seconds of regulation, as the turnovers started mounting for Northern Iowa and the points began adding up for Texas A&M, the tide began to turn:
When the dust cleared on those 35 seconds, the Aggies had scored six times — for 14 points — in the span of six possessions; they’d also forced four Northern Iowa turnovers in five possessions. They’d tied the game, forcing overtime, and would eventually win in double OT to complete the most bewildering comeback in the history of March Madness.
In a certain sense, if each possession is a coin flip to score or not, the Aggies basically flipped heads 10 times in 11 tries — the likelihood of which is about 1 in 171.1 But even that vastly understates Texas A&M’s comeback probability, because some of its field goals needed to be 3-pointers, and the pressure exerted by the clock cannot be understated. Even as the Aggies had the ball, trailing by just 2 points with five seconds to play, Northern Iowa was still very likely to win because they only had to avoid giving up the tying bucket.
In our database of 15,139 men’s college basketball games since the 2012-13 season,2 nine games (including Sunday’s) saw a team come back to win from down 10 or more points with less than two minutes remaining. None of the other eight comebacks was executed in fewer than 62 seconds — nearly twice as much time as Texas A&M had to work with. And in terms of deficits overcome with exactly 35 seconds remaining, 12 points is by far the largest in our database; the previous high had been 8 points, when Canisius fought back against Louisiana-Monroe in December. In more than 570 tries apiece, no team had come back from down 9, 10, 11 or 12 points in 35 seconds over the past four years of Division I men’s basketball.
In cases like this, it’s difficult to estimate the exact probability of a comeback, just because the model is verging on the realm of hypothetical possibilities instead of observed realities. (It also can’t account for specific, meaningful factors such as the Panthers’ top inbounder, Matt Bohannon, leaving the game with an injury right before his team’s meltdown began.) But based on all of the things our model does take into account, we assigned Texas A&M a 1-in-3,333 chance of winning when its deficit was 12 with 35 seconds left.
In other words, you could play out Sunday night’s end-game scenario thousands more times and never once see the Aggies move on to the Sweet 16.
For the sake of context, it’s important to remember that a few points are enough to make a very big difference, and that difference is much of what makes Sunday’s comeback so impressive. (For instance, Tracy McGrady’s 13 points in 33 seconds began with the Rockets down 8.) At the season level, the biggest collapses in baseball history have happened over glacial time scales compared with an NCAA Tournament game, and only one might be on the same level as Northern Iowa’s loss: when the 1995 California Angels missed the playoffs despite what FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver estimated to be 8,332-to-1 odds against it. Likewise, in his book “Mathletics,” statistician Wayne Winston estimated the odds against the Buffalo Bills beating the Houston Oilers when they trailed 35-3 with 28 minutes to play in their infamous 1993 playoff game and arrived at 1-in-3,825.
Texas A&M’s performance Sunday has joined those games on the outer edge of the probability spectrum, and it’s difficult to imagine any comeback being much more improbable. Then again, in a crazy NCAA Tournament such as this, maybe the Aggies have simply given the next few rounds something to shoot for.
Check out FiveThirtyEight’s 2016 March Madness Predictions.