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Your Guide To The NCAA Men’s Tournament That Could Have Been

Even a historically unhinged college basketball season — during which four teams played hot potato with the No. 1 overall ranking in the opening five weeks, and 14 different top-5 teams lost to unranked opponents — deserves a finale. And although the coronavirus has robbed many college athletes of their championship endeavors and, less importantly, us of the single biggest betting event on the sports calendar, we here at FiveThirtyEight have both time and data on our hands. So over the coming weeks, we will simulate what might have happened during the NCAA Tournament.

Would Dayton or San Diego State have extended their Cinderella runs? Would Kansas have hung a banner at the end of its 31st consecutive tournament appearance, or might Rutgers have owned the spotlight in its first invitation in nearly three decades? Would college basketball have, as Neil Paine predicted, gotten super weird?

The FiveThirtyEight NCAA Tournament model is using seeds and regions from ESPN’s Bracketology. We’ll analyze the men’s bracket today and the women’s bracket on Friday, and we’ll update you on Fridays and Mondays over the next two weeks with how the games might have played out.

Let’s break down the tourney that wasn’t.

Top seeds

Kansas Jayhawks: 18 percent national title probability
Gonzaga Bulldogs: 12 percent
Baylor Bears: 8 percent
Dayton Flyers: 6 percent

According to the FiveThirtyEight model, Kansas (28-3) had the best championship odds of any team in the field by at least 6 percentage points. No surprise there. As coach Bill Self told reporters on Monday: “Nobody in America had a better season than we did.”

With a nearly 1 in 5 chance to cut down the nets, the Jayhawks are tied with 2018 Villanova for the fourth-highest pre-tournament title odds1 of the last six years of the FiveThirtyEight model. That hasn’t been terribly predictive of success, though. We correctly gave Jay Wright’s 2018 squad the highest pre-tournament championship probability (18 percent), but last season we bestowed top honors upon Duke (19 percent), which, despite having three lottery picks in its starting lineup, failed to advance past the Elite Eight.

The Jayhawks cuddled up with controversy all season, but that clearly didn’t affect the on-court product. Kansas was the only team with two Wooden Award finalists and the only team ranked in Ken Pomeroy’s top 10 both offensively and defensively. They put a bow on another Big 12 championship by closing the season on a 16-game win streak. Just 14 head coaches2 have won multiple national titles. Was this the year Self would have added his name to the list?

Gonzaga (31-2) also earned a No. 1 seed, its second in the past three seasons. Mark Few has accomplished just about everything in his 21-year run with the Zags short of bringing a national title to Spokane. With the nation’s most efficient offense and a seasonlong parity party, this seemed to be as good an opportunity as any.

The dunktastic Dayton Flyers (29-2)3 and the tough-defending Baylor Bears (26-4)4 rounded out the rest of our No. 1 seeds, though neither had great odds of winning the tournament.

Sleepers

Maryland Terrapins: No. 4, East Region
Final Four probability: 18 percent

Our power ratings were extremely high on the Terps (24-7), who were just a No. 4 seed but were the ninth-best team in our pre-tournament power ratings. We gave the Terrapins a 31 percent chance of reaching the Elite Eight, a probability equal to or greater than second-seeded Creighton and Florida State.

Despite dropping three of the team’s final five games, Maryland had a Wooden Award finalist in Anthony Cowan Jr. and the ultimate game-breaker in Jalen Smith. With length that helped him in the post and touch from the outside, Smith seemed capable of anything. The 6-foot-10 sophomore put up a historic stat line: He led the Big Ten in effective field-goal percentage and win shares per 40 minutes, and he finished with the program’s highest single-season Box Plus-Minus (12.3) and Player Efficiency Rating (29.3) since the metrics were first introduced.

According to BartTorvik.com, the 10 teams since 2010 with the resumes most similar to this year’s Maryland squad reached at least the second round of the tournament, with four teams advancing past the Sweet 16.

Wisconsin Badgers: No. 4 seed, Midwest Region
Final Four probability: 6 percent

Few teams were as balanced as the Badgers down the stretch. Wisconsin ranked in the top 15 in both offensive and defensive efficiency over the final 10 games and won its final four games against Quadrant 1 opponents.

Greg Gard’s squad played one of the slowest paces of basketball nationally, which, as Virginia showed last season, was one of many potential recipes for a tournament run. The Badgers took care of the ball, shot a solid rate from beyond the arc and locked down the perimeter on the defensive end. Junior guard Brad Davison got under the skin of the country, but he backed it up on both ends. Wisconsin outscored opponents by more than 10 points per 100 possessions when he played, according to Pivot Analysis.

Four of the five teams with resumes most similar to Wisconsin since 2009 advanced to at least the Sweet 16, with one5 reaching the Final Four.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights: No. 9 seed, South Region
Final Four probability: 2 percent

KenPom’s team ratings pegged the Scarlet Knights (20-11) ahead of Kentucky for a reason. For a program with three tournament appearances to its name since the 1980s, this was going to be a historic moment.

Rutgers had the Big Ten Conference’s strongest defense, and even though the Scarlet Knights hadn’t fared particularly well in Quadrant 1 games, they had won their last two, against Maryland and Purdue.

Steve Pikiell’s team shot a ghastly clip from beyond the arc and from the free-throw line, but Rutgers won that way all season. And with Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. rounding into form down the stretch, the Scarlet Knights weren’t going to be an easy out for any team.

Busts

Auburn Tigers: No. 5 seed, Midwest Region
Final Four probability: 4 percent

Would anyone have been talking about this team if The Bachelor hadn’t included Bruce Pearl giving Peter the Pilot a tragic ballhandling lesson? The wave of buzz brought on by Bachelor Nation felt hardly justified.

Yes, the Tigers went a commendable 25-6. But they also ranked lower on KenPom than they ranked nationally essentially the entire season, because like Icarus, Auburn spent the entire season flying into or wincingly near the sun.6

Last season, perimeter scoring and shooting efficiency paced the Tigers to a first-ever Final Four. This season, that was the team’s downfall. Auburn slipped from 41st in effective field-goal percentage last season to 171st this season and from 35th in 3-point accuracy to 307th. According to Bart Torvik’s website, nine of the 10 teams since 2008 with resumes most similar to Auburn’s failed to advance past the second round.

Louisville Cardinals: No. 4 seed South Region
Final Four probability: 11 percent

Allow me to introduce the eye test: I don’t see it — and never saw it — with this team.

Our model has the Cardinals (24-7) as the second best non-No. 1 team in the tournament, trailing only Duke. But this was a team that went 4-6 against Quadrant 1 opponents, with three of those losses coming in its last seven games.

Jordan Nwora was tailor-made for a “One Shining Moment” highlight reel, but over the past 10 games, his shooting efficiency dropped off, especially from deep, where he hit one-third of his looks after averaging a 40-percent clip for the season.

Since 2008, three of the four teams with resumes most similar to Louisville have been bounced in the opening round. The other was eliminated in the second. Of the 10 most similar, only one advanced past the Sweet 16.

Seton Hall: No. 3 seed, West Region
Final Four probability: 6 percent

This team began and ended with likely All-American Myles Powell. The problem there is that the senior had flatlined over his final two games, and over his last 10, he was shooting 26 percent from beyond the arc and 36.9 percent from the field.

The Pirates claimed a share of the Big East regular-season title, but they had unquestionably peaked and were falling fast. And although the team with the most similar resume since 2008 was Louisville’s 2012 squad, which made a Final Four run, four of the eight tournament teams with the most similar resumes in that span were eliminated in the first weekend.

Players to watch

East: Obi Toppin, Dayton

Any other answer constitutes journalistic malpractice.

A future NBA highlight reel, Toppin played basketball all season like he wasn’t afraid to soar out of the gym. His above-the-rim ethos resulted in many of the most enduring highlights of the 2019-20 college basketball season, including the time he threw down a windmill while being fouled and the time he went between-the-legs on the break. He alone had more dunks to his name (107) than any team in the Atlantic 10 Conference.

It’s a shame that Dayton basketball was unable to enter millions of households in March, but Toppin’s season made the Flyers appointment TV for those with even a cursory interest in the sport.

West: Payton Pritchard, Oregon

As a freshman, Pritchard helped the Ducks reach the Final Four for the first time in nearly 80 years. And this year, he capped his career as the Pac-12 Player of the Year and the winningest Duck in school history. “I think the word culture is so overused, but he’s just done a good job of setting an example,” Oregon coach Dana Altman told The Daily Emerald.

Pritchard played a grueling number of minutes and still seemed to always have something left in the tank down the stretch. He facilitated at a high rate but knew when it was time to take over scoring, as evidenced by the final four games of his career, in which he averaged 27.5 points a game and shot better than 50 percent from the floor.

Midwest: Devon Dotson, Kansas

Dotson’s skill is such that even in a shooting-prioritized era, he’s a possible NBA first-round draft pick despite being a combo guard with a lukewarm-at-best touch from beyond the arc. Tabbed an All-American by several outlets, Dotson showed explosive speed with the ball in his hands that made him a joy to watch, especially when he attacked the rim, which was often.

Handling the basketball naturally slows down an athlete, but Dotson often seemed like he sped up with possession of the ball. He ran a tight pick-and-roll and ranked in the 84th percentile in scoring efficiency when he did, according to Synergy Sports. And defensively, Dotson was a menace on a unit that developed into one of the nation’s best by season’s end. He put a tremendous amount of pressure on the ball, led the Big 12 in steals and ranked in the 90th percentile in overall defense, according to Synergy Sports.

South: Ayo Dosunmu, Illinois

Illinois evolved into one of the nation’s most entertaining teams over the second half of the season largely because of the sophomore’s play in closing time.

He had scored in double figures in 15 consecutive games and drilled clutch jumpers in the waning moments against Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Northwestern and Wisconsin. It would have been fun to see what the dagger-dropping guard would do in his first taste of tournament action, and whether he would have lived up to Illini legend Dee Brown’s belief that he could be “one of the best to ever do it” in Champaign. “He was like, ‘The world is about to see who I am.’ He was building up for this,” his father, Quam, told the Chicago Tribune.

Check out our simulated March Madness predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Trailing Duke in 2019, Kansas in 2016 and Kentucky in 2015.

  2. Rick Pitino isn’t on this list because his 2013 national title at Louisville was vacated.

  3. Which has never entered the tournament as a top-three seed.

  4. Despite a late-season slide, just after someone chose to write about them.

  5. Louisville in 2012.

  6. This was best evidenced by a 6-0 stretch that began in early January in which all but one Tigers win came by 4 points or less.

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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