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Why Gonzaga, Not Kentucky, May Be The Tournament’s Luckiest Team

Kentucky is the envy of the college basketball world for its soft Sweet 16 landing in a region that is suddenly without any of its top-four seeds. But if we’re looking for the luckiest team in the NCAA Tournament this year, a case can be made that it’s not the Wildcats. It’s Gonzaga.

That’s not to say that Kentucky hasn’t been fortunate. John Calipari’s perennial powerhouse entered the tournament with just a 2 percent chance to reach the Final Four, per ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, and an 8 percent chance based on FiveThirtyEight’s projections. Looking at each model now,1 that number has ballooned to 45 percent on BPI and 57 percent on FiveThirtyEight. Part of that increase is because of the strong teams in the region that fell early, but part is also based on Kentucky winning its first two games — and being only two wins from the Final Four, instead of the four it was at the start of the tourney.

But what if we could isolate the effect of the upsets so far on a team’s chances? What if we had known before the tournament began that Kentucky would face Buffalo and Kansas State after opening with Davidson (avoiding Arizona and Virginia) and then face either Loyola-Chicago or Nevada in the Elite Eight (avoiding Tennessee and Cincinnati)? Given that information, Calipari’s team would have had a 21 percent chance per BPI to reach the Final Four,2 a whopping 19 percentage point increase just because the right teams lost before Kentucky had to see them.

So yes, the seas have parted for Kentucky in its region, but Gonzaga has arguably benefited more from circumstances outside of its control.

Let’s do the same pre-tournament exercise with the Bulldogs. If we had known before the tournament that after the first round they would face Ohio State, Florida State and the winner of Michigan-Texas A&M, the Bulldogs would have received a modest boost (23 percent to 28 percent) to their Final Four chances, thanks to the losses of regional competitors like Xavier and North Carolina. They also would have received an increase to their title game and championship chances by 11 and 3 percentage points, respectively (compared with 8- and 2-point boosts for Kentucky).

What’s helping out the Bulldogs so much? First, there’s the fact that Michigan — a worse team than Gonzaga, in BPI’s mind — is the toughest remaining out in the region for Mark Few’s squad. But then there’s this: In the Final Four, Gonzaga will basically reap all the same benefits that Kentucky received, getting to sidestep Virginia, Cincinnati, Tennessee and Arizona. At worst, the Bulldogs will face Kentucky, which is 3 points per game worse in team quality than Gonzaga on a neutral court, per BPI. If the schools met up in the Final Four, Gonzaga would have a 61 percent chance to win, according to the BPI model. In the best-case scenario for the Bulldogs, they would end up with one of the even more feeble options from the South region in Kansas State, Loyola-Chicago or Nevada.

Is it cut and dried that Gonzaga has been more fortunate than Kentucky? No. But the numbers since the tournament began aren’t the whole story. See, Gonzaga’s chances also received a healthy bump from the selection committee’s layout of the bracket, which paved a relatively easy path for the Bulldogs en route to a possible trip to San Antonio — even if the bracket played to form. Before anyone had taken the court, Gonzaga’s chances to reach the Final Four increased by 14 percentage points over BPI’s pre-selection projections based on the teams it needed to get past in its region, so its Final Four chances in total have increased by 20 points (after rounding) overall. Meanwhile, the selection committee actually hurt Kentucky quite a bit, knocking its pre-selection Final Four chances down by 6 percentage points, meaning that outside forces improved the Wildcats’ Final Four chances by only 13 points.

Gonzaga’s good luck has gotten even better

Chances of making the Final Four for 2018 Sweet 16 teams before the bracket was released, after the bracket was released and if we had known each team’s opponents this far in the tournament before it began

Chances of making Final Four
Team Pre-Bracket Post-Bracket Post-Bracket with Opp. overall Diff.
Gonzaga 9% 23% 28% +20
Kentucky 8 2 21 +13
Duke 42 37 49 +7
Kansas St. 1 0 4 +4
Michigan 13 13 15 +3
Kansas 17 23 19 +2
Loyola-Chicago 1 0 2 +1
Florida St. 1 1 1 +1
Nevada 2 1 2 0
Texas A&M 2 2 2 0
Syracuse 1 0 0 -1
Villanova 51 50 50 -1
Clemson 5 5 4 -1
West Virginia 8 5 7 -2
Texas Tech 8 6 3 -5
Purdue 32 30 25 -8

Chances based on BPI

Differences may not add up exactly due to rounding

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

So while the Wildcats have been lucky since the tournament began, they started out at a disadvantage. The same is true for a team like Duke, of course, whose current projection has benefited from Michigan State’s loss to Syracuse but whose original projection was hurt an awful lot by the Spartans’ nearby placement in the bracket. Duke and Villanova have seen slightly larger increases to their respective championship chances based on the bracket selection and other contenders’ losses relative to Gonzaga, but neither has been as positively affected as the Bulldogs in their chances to reach the Final Four or national championship game.

If Gonzaga’s good fortune ends up helping to send the Washington school to the title game, it would not be unprecedented. Among all teams to reach the NCAA Tournament championship game since 2008, none benefited more from other teams losing than the 2017 Bulldogs, which faced No. 11 seed Xavier in the Elite Eight and No. 7 seed South Carolina in the Final Four. So while no one will feel sorry over Kentucky’s cushy path to the Final Four, it’s Gonzaga that — at least in the past two years — has had more luck on its side.

Check out our latest March Madness predictions.

Footnotes

  1. BPI is one ingredient in the FiveThirtyEight projection cocktail.

  2. FiveThirtyEight’s model doesn’t have “pre-bracket” predictions.

Seth Walder is a sports analytics writer for ESPN.

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