Years from now, most memories of the 2015 NCAA men’s championship game will center around Duke’s second-half comeback from down nine points, thanks to a burst of scoring from freshmen guards Tyus Jones and Grayson Allen. But Wisconsin’s offense, noted all year for its ruthless efficiency,1 also abandoned the team in the most important game of the season.
Against a Duke defense that was good but hardly elite, Wisconsin produced its sixth-worst offensive showing of the season, averaging just 105.7 points per 100 possessions against the Blue Devils. (This after scorching the nation’s top defense, Kentucky, for an efficiency mark of 120.4 on Saturday night!)
Looking at every NCAA tournament game in Sports Reference’s game-by-game dataset,2 we can calculate the level of offensive and defensive efficiency you’d expect to see for a team in a given game, based on the pre-tournament KenPom ratings of the teams involved. We can also put a prediction interval around those expectations, to get a sense for how out-of-the-ordinary a given result was.
In Monday’s title game, Wisconsin — armed with a 124.7 adjusted offensive rating going into the tournament — was facing Duke and its 96.1 defensive rating. Based on our dataset of 670 tournament games, you should have expected the Badgers to average about 116 points per 100 possessions against the Blue Devils. Instead, Wisconsin’s 105.7 mark was in the 22nd percentile of its prediction interval. (You can also flip it around: Duke’s defense performed in the 78th percentile of its prediction interval.)
Had the Badgers’ offense played to form while their defense played exactly as they did,3 the Badgers still would have won a 69-68 nail-biter. So in a sense, their offensive underperformance (or, again, Duke’s overachieving defense) cost Wisconsin 6 points on the scoreboard and, consequently, the national championship.
But teams undershooting their offensive projections in the title game is nothing new. Since 2011, seven of the 10 championship-game participants fell short of the offensive output we’d have expected from their pre-tournament ratings. Wisconsin’s underwhelming performance on Monday was just the fifth-most disappointing of the past five title games, and a far cry from Butler’s infamously brutal 12-for-64 shooting night in 2011 (which registered a 1.4 percentile rank relative to the Bulldogs’ expected production).
While these efficiency numbers are calibrated to predict the entire tournament, there may be something endemic to the championship game itself. It may be the cavernous locales (although that theory has been disputed), the late start times, facing the highest level of competition or any number of other factors that suppresses offense even after adjusting for the tempo of the game. Whatever the reason, even an offense as dominant as Wisconsin’s can wilt under the game’s brightest lights.
At the same time, it would have been unfair to necessarily expect their hot offensive streak to continue against Duke. Leading up to the title game, the Badgers produced respective offensive ratings in the 87th, 95th and 83rd percentiles against North Carolina, Arizona and Kentucky, respectively. It may have even been unrealistic to expect an extraordinary Wisconsin performance (or even an ordinary one), given recent title-game offensive outages.
Had Wisconsin won, they would have gone through the toughest gauntlet4 of any champion in the 64-team NCAA tournament era. But on Monday night, the best offense truly was a good defense; it belonged to Duke, your 2015 NCAA champions.