— As we kick off the best three weeks of the year, one question on everyone’s minds is whether the NCAA tournament will be filled with crazy upsets, or whether it’ll be a by-the-book affair. As a result, my assignment this week — figure out how wide open the bracket is.
That means several things: lots of upsets, no dominating favorite, not much chalk in the Final Four, and maybe even a team other than a 1-seed winning the whole thing.
A common thread running through those traits is that in wide open years, the seed next to a team’s name tells us next to nothing about their chance of winning a given game. Usually, we have to wait until the tournament starts to find out whether that’ll be the case, but this year, the committee has given us a head start.
It’s normal for the committee to miss on a few teams, but this year they’ve missed on whole groups of teams. According to the average TeamRankings.com Predictive power ratings of teams on each seed line, the 4 seeds are better than the 3s, which are in turn better than the 2s. And not only are the 2s through 4s reversed, the 7s, 8s and 9s are virtually identical, as are the 10s, 11s and 12s. It’s a mess:
A couple of reasons it looks so screwy: Texas and Wisconsin as 4-seeds. Wasn’t it just one month ago that Texas was considered by many to be the best team in the country, as they suffocated opposing offenses? Their recent play hasn’t been that much worse. And laugh all you want at Wisconsin’s 36-33 loss to Penn State, all the major predictive ratings have them in the top 12.
I compared the average seed ratings from above to those from the last 13 years, and found that this is the strongest group of 4-seeds in that span, and the second-weakest group of 2-seeds, just behind 2006 (when both No. 2 Tennessee and No. 2 Georgetown lost in the second round). More bad news for those 2-seeds is that this is the second-strongest group of 15-seeds as well. I am by no means saying it will happen, but according to these ratings, there’s about a 10 percent chance that a No. 2 seed falls in round one.
So, the seeding? It means nothing. Time to evaluate my other “wide open” requirements.
Lots Of upsets
The last two years have been relatively crazy. Both had eight double-digit seeds win in the first round, tied for the second most over the past 13 years. Is that likely to happen again this year?
To check, I used TeamRankings.com’s bracket odds table, which shows every team’s projected chance of advancing to a certain round of the NCAA tournament. To find the most likely number of first-round upsets, all I had to do was add together the projected chances of each double-digit seed making it to round two. The result: we should expect 6.7 first-round upsets by teams seeded 10th or worse. The average over the last 13 years has been 6.1, so that’s slightly crazier than average, but not much.
Call that the door being slightly ajar, not wide open.
No dominating favorite
Ohio State is the consensus No. 1 in both the AP and coaches' polls, and are the top overall seed. But less than half of our Beyond The Arc crew picked the Buckeyes to win, with the rest choosing Kansas and Duke. And some online sports books actually have the Blue Devils or the Jayhawks with shorter odds to win the title. So yeah, Ohio State’s the favorite, but not by a lot.
Of course the question is, how does this situation compare to normal? Using the same pre-tournament power ratings as above, I went back over the past 13 years and found how many points better the top team from each year was, compared to the rest of the 1-seeds. Ohio State looks pretty weak once we get a little context:
Some of the top teams from past years were head and shoulders above the competition. Not the Buckeyes.
That's a sign of being fairly wide open.
Not much chalk in the Final Four
Only one time since the NCAA expanded to 64 teams has the Final Four been made up of four 1-seeds (2008). It’s also rare for none to make it: at least one 1-seed has made the last weekend in every year except for two, 1980 and 2006. So what is the Final Four expected to look like this year?
Using the TeamRankings survival odds, and a bit of algebra, I calculated the chances of different numbers of 1-seeds reaching the Final Four. The most likely scenario, which should occur 36 percent of the time, is for only a single 1-seed to make the Final Four. That’s just a tiny bit more likely than seeing two 1-seeds in Houston:
As you can see, we’re 7 times more likely to have zero 1-seeds make the Final Four than we are to have all four make it.
That's a wide-open tournament.
Champion is a 2 seed or worse
The last four champions have been 1-seeds, and it’s getting a bit old. We need somebody to save us. Kemba Walker carried UConn to the Big East tournament title with a virtuoso performance. Is there a chance he can follow it up by willing the Huskies to a national championship? Or can The Jimmer prove me wrong, and shoot BYU to the title?
Given the non-dominant top teams this year, it seems like a pretty reasonable proposition. Using the survival odds again, and my trusty abacus, I calculated the chances that the champion would come from a certain seed line:
Since seeding began in 1979, 19 of 32 champions have been No. 1 seeds, which works out to 59 percent. So the odds for this year are right in line with tournament history.
That's not wide open, that's business as usual.
A couple of my requirements have been met, and I think that fact, in combination with the impressively backwards job done by the selection committee, prompts me to conclude that this will in fact be a wide-open NCAA tournament. We may very well end up with another 1-seed as champ, but I think the ride along the way will be a bumpy one, which is exactly what look for this time of year.
One final note: with the expansion of the tourney this year to 68 teams, there are now 2^67 or 147,573,952,589,676,412,928 (147.57 quintillion) possible outcomes.
Now that is what I call wide open.