The NCAA Tournament is always full of surprises, and this year brings no exception. However, even with two No. 1 seeds and one No. 3 seed in the Final Four, this round of March Madness has somehow proven to be one of the most unpredictable.
Per ESPN’s Tournament Challenge, only 0.003 percent of submissions correctly guessed this year’s Final Four. Last year, three times that fraction of brackets picked correctly, even though there was a No. 10 seed (Syracuse) in that Final Four.
|2017||(1) North Carolina, (1) Gonzaga, (3) Oregon, (7) South Carolina||0.003%|
|2016||(1) North Carolina, (2) Villanova, (2) Oklahoma, (10) Syracuse||0.009%|
|2015||(1) Kentucky, (1) Wisconsin, (1) Duke, (7) Michigan State||1.360%|
|2014||(1) Florida, (2) Wisconsin, (7) Connecticut, (8) Kentucky||0.006%|
|2013||(1) Louisville, (4) Michigan, (4) Syracuse, (9) Wichita State||0%|
|2012||(1) Kentucky, (2) Ohio State, (2) Kansas, (4) Louisville||0.220%|
|2011||(3) Connecticut, (4) Kentucky, (8) Butler, (11) Florida||
In 2014, there was a No. 7 seed and a No. 8 seed in the Final Four, and 0.006 percent (double this year’s share) of people perfected their selections. So the question of this year’s bracketolgoy is – why aren’t basketball fans selecting the higher-rated teams for success?
The answer is all in the brand. As of late, the two years that produced zero flawless Final Four predictions were the two years that included mid-majors (Wichita State in 2013, Butler in 2011). Few had even heard of Wichita State (no, Wichita is still not a state) much less picked them to make that sort of run – remember, the Shockers’ 34-0 regular season wasn’t until the year after they made the Final Four. And that 2013 roster wound up having three future NBA players.
Butler was a slightly different story. The Bulldogs had already made it to the national championship game in 2010 and headed into the 2011 tourney having won nine straight. Yet Brad Stevens’ team wasn’t even favored to make it past Old Dominion in the first round, let alone be a member of the Final Four. Hardly a household name to fans then, even it’s become one since.
Still, these projections somewhat made sense on paper, given that Wichita State and Butler were No. 9 and No 8 seeds, respectively. Going into this year’s tournament, these were the chances of each remaining team making it to the Final Four, according to FiveThirtyEight:
|North Carolina (1)||29.9%|
|South Carolina (7)||
Gonzaga had the highest probability in the entire tournament pool of making it to the Final Four, yet just 37% of brackets put them there.
Back to brand. Especially when money is on the line, people are most comfortable choosing teams that have an established name. In other words, people are most comfortable choosing teams that have high seedings, flashy players, and measurable amounts of experience – regardless of anything else that may be relevant.
North Carolina checks all criteria off the list. They lead the NCAA in Final Four appearances (20), and rank 2nd in total tournament appearances (48). Let me reiterate that. UNC has made it to the Final Four in over 40% of their total tournament showings. So, not only did they enter as a No. 1 seed, but one could say that, well – they’ve been here before. Not to mention NBA-prospect Justin Jackson, who has averaged 20 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists through the Elite Eight. It’s no surprise that 45% of brackets predicted the Tarheels to make it this far, even with a blemished conference record.
Gonzaga, on the other hand, has been in the Big Dance 20 times, and they have never played in a single Final Four game. But they received a No. 1 seed for a reason. The Zags suffered just 1 loss (to BYU) in the regular season, winning their 32 victories by an average margin of 23.4 points. The next highest scoring margin was 18.6, held by Wichita State.
Point differential matters here. To win 30+ games in a season is no easy task, but to win them by that much is almost unheard of. Gonzaga’s schedule was no cakewalk, either, containing other NCAA Tournament competitors in Iowa State, Florida, Arizona, and Saint Mary’s (x3). At the end of the day, a win is a win, but the ability to put up over 83 points night-in and night-out goes far in a tournament where you’re playing a lot of tough games in a short period of time. Still, people chose brand – so more trust was put into teams like Duke (40%), Arizona (45%), Villanova (48%), and Kansas (58%).
Just 9% of brackets placed Oregon in their Final Four, compared to 27% in favor of fellow-No. 3-seed UCLA, despite the Ducks finishing ahead of the Bruins in the Pac-12. There are perhaps two reasons why this happened, one being that UCLA has 48 tournament appearances to Oregon’s 15, including 18 Final Fours to Oregon’s (now) 2. Secondly, Lonzo Ball. Enough said.
We mustn’t forget South Carolina. Sure, they’re a No. 7 seed, they have zero Final Four experience, and they don’t have a single player in the top 40 NBA Draft Prospect rankings. Sure, they had a 1% chance of making it to the Final Four. Sure, just 0.2 percent of nearly 19 million people picked them to make it this far. But should we be this surprised that they did?
The Gamecocks had regular season wins versus Michigan, Syracuse, and Florida, and now hold victories over Marquette, Duke, Baylor, and Florida (again). They have the SEC player of the year in Sindarius Thornwell. They have arguably the most aggressive defense in the country. And they have a coach with this perspective (if you have the time, listen to the full 8-minute interview – it’s worth your while).
Maybe it’s not such a surprise. Maybe it’s time that ‘brand’ gets re-branded.