Here we are, 2 days from the start of the official first round of the NCAA tournament. Brackets are set. Teams are en route to their game locations.
It’s tournament time.
And that means that we all have our expectations for how this thing will play out. Duke will turn into a May monster. Penn State will dissect their opponents en route to Philly. Denver’s offense and possession game will suffocate opponents (oh wait…).
Those expectations can come in the form of probabilities too. How likely is each team to win the whole thing? Who do we expect to make it to Championship Weekend? What are the most likely first round upsets?
We even have a specific page dedicated to each team’s numerical chances to advance throughout the next 3 weeks.
And that is as it should be. Every team is conceivably 4 games away from glory. Despite low odds, an underdog can claw a spot for themselves in the Final Four. And opposing fans won’t shed many tears for the team that fails to live up to expectations. The start of the second season is, by definition, all about expectations.
But let’s turn our focus to Monday morning. The games have been played, the final 8 teams have made travel plans to the quarterfinal sites. What are the narratives? Which teams have forced a reconsideration of our expectations for them. That my friends, is where I choose to spend my Thursday afternoon.
Specifically, I’m interested in which teams will become the darlings of Monday morning. The teams that we will be looking at saying: “oh wow, they really have a shot at this thing.”
To do this, I took the probability estimates that each team will win the whole thing and I added a secondary calculation. Since the championship percentage includes all the simulations where they did and didn’t win their first round game, we can use those figures to estimate what a team’s championship odds will be assuming they win their first round game.
Take Penn State. They are currently at 29.4% to win the whole thing. Best odds in the field. They are also projected to beat UMBC 90.7% of the time. And the 29.4% figure includes these potential losses, so if they beat UMBC, their title odds go up, but only by a little bit (29.4% to 32.4%). For the arithmetic hawks, you just divide their current championship odds by the probability that they will win their first game.
But the Nittany Lions are not a particularly interesting case. If they beat the Retrievers, we won’t really have learned anything new about them. The following teams however, have the opportunity to reset expectations with a win this weekend.
Yale Bulldogs: 20.8% to 30.1%
Yale comes into the tournament with the 2nd highest probability of winning the title. They are the defending champs and have one of the top FOGOs in the game.
The Elis also drew one of the toughest first round match-ups for a seeded team in Georgetown. The Hoyas enter this one as the #5 team according to our Lax-ELO model, and they boast the 3rd most efficient offense in the nation. Jake Carraway and Daniel Bucaro were the 4th and 5th most productive offensive players in all of D1 this year.
So Yale has a tough match-up to begin their tournament. The upside is that a Yale team that has been about as under-the-radar as a defending champ can be has a chance to turn a lot of heads with a win on Saturday. If they do advance, they’ll be the team that sees their odds of winning increase the most.
Georgetown Hoyas: 3.7% to 11.9%
Funny seeing you here. While the Bulldogs would see the largest increase, Georgetown gets the 2nd biggest bump if they are able to knock of Yale.
And this makes sense to a degree, even without the model. This is a team that has some solid statistical profiles, and they did win the Big East (in a down year you might argue). But no one is really talking about Georgetown as a serious title contender.
That changes, in a big way, if they are able to get out of the first round.
Duke Blue Devils: 12.6% to 18.7%
The conventional wisdom with Duke is that they struggle in March and steadily improve until they hit their peak somewhere around the 3rd quarter of the quarterfinal round.
As with most conventional wisdom, while there may be a nugget of truth, it’s more of a story than fact. That doesn’t mean the Blue Devils will not be a team to deal with in the tournament (we do think they have the 3rd highest chance of winning after all). It just means that we should stop thinking about Duke this way.
So if we want Duke to prove their May bonafides, they could do worse than Richmond as an opening round opponent. The Spiders are the 15th toughest team in D1 according to the ELO ratings and they sport the 5th toughest defense nationally.
They played Maryland tough and beat Notre Dame. You could make the argument that aside from High Point, they were the second biggest thorn in the ACC’s side. And while Duke beat them earlier in the year, beating the Spiders again would give Duke a boost heading into the tournaments second stanza.
Loyola Greyhounds: 8.0% to 12.8%
If there is one team that you might think is limping into the tournament, it’s Loyola. A loss in the Patriot League tournament shifted focus from the Lindley/Spencer/Scanlan trio.
So this is another team where the narrative is in line with the numbers. Loyola got a home game because of their resume, but their play over the final stretch of the season was anything but dominant.
A win over Syracuse would do a lot to flip that script. From a numbers perspective though, this is not about Loyola turning things around; it’s more a product a their opponent.
Syracuse enters the game as the 8th strongest team according to Lax-ELO. That is better than several teams that are hosting a game this weekend (Towson, Virginia, Notre Dame). In the model’s eyes, a win over Syracuse would do a lot to boost Loyola’s standing.
Maryland Terrapins: 4.8% to 9.0%
Who would have thought that Maryland would be packing its bags for a trip to Baltimore this weekend. But that is where we find ourselves.
For the Terps, this is all about their path. Of the four teams in Maryland’s grouping (also, Towson, Virginia, RMU), Lax-ELO thinks Maryland is the top squad. ELO is a slow-moving rating system, so it has not jumped to too many conclusions after the Terps two game drought against Hopkins.
As a result, the model says: “OK, Maryland is the best team in their grouping, and they would have beaten the 2nd best.” Hence the reasonably large jump in their odds. Assuming they can turn around this losing streak.