One of FiveThirtyEight’s goals has always been to get people to think more carefully about probability. When we’re forecasting an upcoming election or sporting event, we’ll go to great lengths to analyze and explain the sources of real-world uncertainty and the extent to which events — say, a Senate race in Texas and another one in Florida — are correlated with one another. We’ll spend a lot of time working on how to build robust models that don’t suffer from p-hacking or overfitting and which will perform roughly as well when we’re making new predictions as when we’re backtesting them. There’s a lot of science in this, as well as a lot of art. We really care about the difference between a 60 percent chance and a 70 percent chance.
That’s not always how we’re judged, though. Both our fans and our critics sometimes look at our probabilistic forecasts as binarypredictions. Not only might they not care about the difference between a 60 percent chance and a 70 percent chance, they sometimes treat a 55 percent chance the same way as a 95 percent one.
Sometimes, there are more sophisticated-seeming criticisms. “Sure, your forecasts are probabilistic,” people who think they’re very clever will say. “But all that means is that you can never be wrong. Even a 1 percent chance happens sometimes, after all. So what’s the point of it all?”
That way is principally via calibration. Calibration measures whether, over the long run, events occur about as often as you say they’re going to occur. For instance, of all the events that you forecast as having an 80 percent chance of happening, they should indeed occur about 80 out of 100 times; that’s good calibration. If these events happen only 60 out of 100 times, you have problems — your forecasts aren’t well-calibrated and are overconfident. But it’s just as bad if they occur 98 out of 100 times, in which case your forecasts are underconfident.
Calibration isn’t the only thing that matters when judging a forecast. Skilled forecasting also requires discrimination — that is, distinguishing relatively more likely events from relatively less likely ones. (If at the start of the 68-team NCAA men’s basketball tournament, you assigned each team a 1 in 68 chance of winning, your forecast would be well-calibrated, but it wouldn’t be a skillful forecast.) Personally, I also think it’s important how a forecast lines up relative to reasonable alternatives, e.g., how it compares with other models or the market price or the “conventional wisdom.” If you say there’s a 29 percent chance of event X occurring when everyone else says 10 percent or 2 percent or simply never really entertains X as a possibility, your forecast should probably get credit rather than blame if the event actually happens. But let’s leave that aside for now. (I’m not bitter or anything. OK, maybe I am.)
The catch about calibration is that it takes a fairly large sample size to measure it properly. If you have just 10 events that you say have an 80 percent chance of happening, you could pretty easily have them occur five out of 10 times or 10 out of 10 times as the result of chance alone. Once you get up to dozens or hundreds or thousands of events, these anomalies become much less likely.
But the thing is, FiveThirtyEight has made thousands of forecasts. We’ve been issuing forecasts of elections and sporting events for a long time — for more than 11 years, since the first version of the site was launched in March 2008. The interactive lists almost all of the probabilistic sports and election forecasts that we’ve designed and published since then. You can see how all our U.S. House forecasts have done, for example, or our men’s and women’s March Madness predictions. There are NFL games and of course presidential elections. There are a few important notes about the scope of what’s included in the footnotes,2 and for years before FiveThirtyEight was acquired by ESPN/Disney/ABC News (in 2013) — when our record-keeping wasn’t as good — we’ve sometimes had to rely on archived versions of the site if we couldn’t otherwise verify exactly what forecast was published at what time.
What you’ll find, though, is that our calibration has generally been very, very good. For instance, out of the 5,589 events (between sports and politics combined) that we said had a 70 chance of happening (rounded to the nearest 5 percent), they in fact occurred 71 percent of the time. Or of the 55,853 events3 that we said had about a 5 percent chance of occurring, they happened 4 percent of the time.
We did discover a handful of cases where we weren’t entirely satisfied with a model’s performance. For instance, our NBA game forecasts have historically been a bit overconfident in lopsided matchups — e.g., teams that were supposed to win 85 percent of the time in fact won only 79 percent of the time. These aren’t huge discrepancies, but given a large enough sample, some of them are on the threshold of being statistically significant. In the particular case of the NBA, we substantially redesigned our model before this season, so we’ll see how the new version does.4
Our forecasts of elections have actually been a little bit underconfident, historically. For instance, candidates who we said were supposed to win 75 percent of the time have won 83 percent of the time. These differences are generally not statistically significant, given that election outcomes are highly correlated and that we issue dozens of forecasts (one every day, and sometimes using several different versions of a model) for any given race. But we do think underconfidence can be a problem if replicated over a large enough sample, so it’s something we’ll keep an eye out for.
It’s just not true, though, that there have been an especially large number of upsets in politics relative to polls or forecasts (or at least not relative to FiveThirtyEight’s forecasts). In fact, there have been fewer upsets than our forecasts expected.
There’s a lot more to explore in the interactive, including Brier skill scores for each of our forecasts, which do account for discrimination as well as calibration. We’ll continue to update the interactive as elections or sporting events are completed.
None of this ought to mean that FiveThirtyEight or our forecasts — which are a relatively small part of what we do — are immune from criticism or that our models can’t be improved. We’re studying ways to improve all the time.
But we’ve been publishing forecasts for more than a decade now, and although we’ve sometimes tried to do an after-action report following a big election or sporting event, this is the first time we’ve studied all of our forecast models in a comprehensive way. So we were relieved to discover that our forecasts really do what they’re supposed to do. When we say something has a 70 percent chance of occurring, it doesn’t mean that it will always happen, and it isn’t supposed to. But empirically, 70 percent in a FiveThirtyEight forecast really does mean about 70 percent, 30 percent really does mean about 30 percent, 5 percent really does mean about 5 percent, and so forth. Our forecasts haven’t always been right, but they’ve been right just about as often as they’re supposed to be right.
In one of the most intoxicating games of this year’s NCAA Tournament, the UCF Knights went toe-to-toe with the top-seeded Duke Blue Devils. Leading up to and throughout the game, considerable bandwidth was spent debating whether the soon-to-be top pick in this year’s NBA draft, Zion Williamson, would add another body to his posterized graveyard. UCF center Tacko Fall, the would-be victim, chipped in 15 points on seven made shots, each of which came in eerily similar fashion. They were all dunks. At 7-foot-6, Fall is genetically predisposed to excel above the rim, as evidenced by his ability to jam it, flat-footed.
Nobody this season dunked on Mike Krzyzewski’s squad more than Fall and the Knights. But the Blue Devils, which ultimately moved on with a win, are even more dunk crazy. And they aren’t the only team still playing in this tournament with eyes trained on the rim.
This season’s Sweet 16 features a number of teams that relish slamming the ball through the cylinder. The teams have combined to produce 1,866 dunks this season. Three of the four dunk-happiest teams this season — Florida State, Duke, and LSU — are still in the field. Another contender, Gonzaga, ranks in the top 10 while Auburn, Virginia, Tennessee and Michigan rank in the top 30 by this measure. In all, six of this year’s Sweet 16 entries have a dunk share1 exceeding 10 percent. Four years ago, only one did.
The dunkers are thriving
Division I men’s college basketball teams for whom at least 10 percent of their 2-point field-goal attempts in 2018-19 were dunk attempts
Share of offense from Dunks
Made Sweet 16?
William & Mary
This is less about a few dunk-crazed teams and more a reflection of the nationwide trend in college basketball. As of Tuesday, there had been 19,550 dunks this season, the highest total of any season since at least 2010. Five years ago, for comparison, there were 17,687. Individually, the 2010 season featured 23 players who had at least 45 dunks. This season there are 36, seven of whom remain in the tournament. “We’re seeing more dunks,” Jay Bilas told The New York Times, “because there are more spectacular athletes out there.”
To be sure, some of this is intuitive. Advances in science and technology make comparing today’s college athlete to those of yesteryear a comical examination. Perhaps more than ever, basketball rewards height — and, increasingly, arm length — and athleticism. Nowadays, warm-up lines seem to be as much for the fans as for the players. Tennessee is credited for starting a choreographed dunk during warm-ups that involves the entire team. It spread around the country and even reached the NBA.
As the number of dunk attempts has spiked, so too has their importance. Dunks accounted for 5.4 percent of all 2-point field goal attempts this season, the highest portion since 2014-15, and the fourth consecutive season that the national dunk share has risen.
In fact, according to Bart Torvik’s website, three3 of the 12 teams with the most single-season dunks since 2010 can be found in this weekend’s regional semifinals.
Of course, there are outliers. Most noticeably, Loyola-Chicago made a surprise run into and past the Sweet 16 a season ago. The Ramblers had just 15 dunks, accumulating a 1.6 percent dunk share. Duke squares off with Virginia Tech on Friday and has a clear edge on dunking; the Hokies (62 dunks) have fewer than a third as many dunks as the Blue Devils (188). But far more often, it seems that the high-flyers are moving on.
Dunks have held a special place in the NCAA Tournament for decades. It’s how many came to know the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels. It’s where Florida Gulf Coast, a plucky No. 15-seed in 2013, became known Dunk City. They have been everywhere this season and will continue to be, particularly with the regional semifinals featuring Florida State, Duke and LSU, three teams that have already skied for at least 177 dunks. The play has elevated the entertainment of the sport by a considerable measure.
While the rise of the 3-pointer has justifiably garnered much attention, the dunk is the sport’s most marketable shot. The feat of athleticism is frequent fodder for highlight reels and commercials. And, since nearly 90 percent of all dunk attempts since 2010 have been converted into points, it’s likely the most efficient shot in basketball. What was once banned is now propelling the sport forward. So keep your eye on the rim this weekend as the Sweet 16 takes flight.
gfoster (Geoff Foster, sports editor): We have 52 games in the books of the men’s NCAA Tournament. And there has been one prevailing theme: chalk. There has been a staggeringly small amount of bracket busting. Other than Oregon (a No. 12 seed but a Power Five conference winner), the highest seed remaining is Auburn at No. 5! In the round of 32, the favorite won 100 percent of the games! If you picked all favorites in your bracket (like my mom probably did), you’d be 87.5 percent right. I could go on and on. So, do you think this is just an aberration, or is there something behind the dearth of Cinderellas?
jplanos (Josh Planos, contributor): FiveThirtyEight’s model was pretty chalky when the draw was announced. It certainly could be a matter of more appropriate seeding or merely an opportunity for the committee to pat itself on the back before next year goes haywire.
jakelourim (Jake Lourim, contributor): I was surprised like everyone else by that trend. Even given the slim chances to reach the Sweet 16 given to those double-digit seeds, we would expect at least one Cinderella to make it, right?
The seeds followed what the stats would have recommended — and the top teams do seem to be better than in years past.
gfoster: So there hasn’t been a shocking upset, with all due respect to Mississippi State, but some teams have had an easier time with their first two opponents than others. Which team has impressed you the most in the early going?
jplanos: I think Gonzaga has looked pretty tough with two double-digit victories. The 38-point opening-round victory over Fairleigh Dickinson was the most lopsided tournament game in two years.
Baylor and Fairleigh Dickinson aren’t strong defensive teams, to be sure, but the Zags have decimated both. In each win, Gonzaga posted at least 19 assists, was at least plus-10 on the glass and shot 35 percent or better from three and 53 percent or better from the field. According to Ken Pomeroy, two of the team’s three best performances this season in offensive rebounding percentage have come in the tournament.
Brandon Clarke somehow got glossed over for every major award and has gone berserk. Against Baylor, he joined Shaquille O’Neal as the only players in NCAA Tournament history to put up 36 points and five blocked shots in a single game.
sara.ziegler: Kentucky had a tricky draw against a very talented Wofford team, but they looked pretty good. Michigan has looked good, too. And Purdue has been under the radar — my radar, at least — but the Boilermakers have posted two convincing wins.
It’s funny — even though the bracket has been so chalky, several of the top seeds have looked suspect at times.
jakelourim: I think from a performance standpoint, I’d have to say Texas Tech. I thought Buffalo played great on Friday and would give the Red Raiders some trouble on Sunday, but Chris Beard’s team hammered Buffalo and got back to No. 1 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency. That clash with Michigan on Thursday is going to be a slugfest.
gfoster: I’ve also been impressed by the Texas Tech defense. Northern Kentucky’s Drew McDonald was the conference player of the year, and he was completely erased from the game in the first round, scoring only 5 points. Likewise, the Red Raiders more or less shut down Buffalo’s best player in CJ Massinburg, who couldn’t get much going. It will be interesting to see how they do against Michigan, which isn’t dependent on a top-heavy scoring guard like those two are.
jakelourim: It might just be my impression, but I think after UMBC knocked off Virginia last March and Virginia remained such a prominent storyline all season, both the No. 1 and No. 16 seeds were on guard Friday — the 1s to avoid being embarrassed, the 16s because maybe UMBC brought new hope. Duke, North Carolina and Virginia together were -2.3 in scoring margin in their first halves. Then they all recovered and won by double digits.
jplanos: Pretty typical for teams of all strengths to start opening-round games tight, too.
gfoster: OK, so which high seed has looked the most vulnerable? It’s hard to knock a team for winning two games, but let’s do it anyway.
sara.ziegler: I still think Virginia could find itself in trouble because of its slow play. The Cavs looked much better against Oklahoma on Sunday, but still.
jakelourim: I’d be worried about Tennessee. That was a near-disaster Sunday against Iowa, giving up a 25-point lead to go to overtime before pulling it out. That’s not a great Iowa team, either, and Tennessee’s next opponent (Purdue) won’t be as forgiving.
sara.ziegler: Jake, I think Tennessee should be worried, too. Though how much of that game was the Volunteers getting up so much, then taking their foot off the gas?
jakelourim: Very weird, Josh, regarding Schofield. All around, it was a very weird way to end a game in which the Vols led by 21 at halftime. I do think a lot of that was just diminished intensity in the second half, but even that was a concern. Purdue, by contrast, was up by 19 at halftime and then built that lead to as many as 35 before winning by 26.
gfoster: I also agree that Tennessee’s days are numbered. The Vols’ offense is supposed to be the third-most efficient in the country, but that isn’t what we’ve seen so far. Colgate’s defense is objectively bad, one of the worst in the tournament. Only scoring 77 points there is kinda a letdown, even though it’s a respectable number.
And Iowa’s defense is far from stellar, too.
jplanos: I never thought UCF could compete with Duke — and the Knights came about as close to an upset victory as possible. Granted, it was in Orlando. But Duke’s inability to adjust at halftime seemed problematic. Plus, it wasn’t like the Blue Devils had an off shooting night. Going 10-for-25 from 3-point range is a really good performance for Duke, and it resulted in a 1-point win.
sara.ziegler: Agree. And it wasn’t just Tacko Fall who was a problem for Duke!
(Though his absence at the end of the game certainly helped the Blue Devils.)
jplanos: No doubt, Sara. I have a hard time believing Duke snags that last-second rebound for the put-back bucket with him in the game. To say nothing of the multiple fouls on that play.
sara.ziegler: ^^^ THIS
jakelourim: Absolutely, Tacko fouling out was a game-changer. Even if the rebound does still bounce to Duke, he probably blocks any put-back attempt if he’s there. It’s crazy to me that UCF was up by 3 with what ended up being one possession left and lost in regulation. That’s almost impossible!
sara.ziegler: Look at the crazy swings in our live probabilities at the end of Duke-UCF:
jplanos: Most games are filled with tens of what-ifs, but it almost makes it worse for UCF that Aubrey Dawkins, who played a masterful game, missed the alley-oop late that probably would’ve put it away (and then the tip in the waning seconds).
sara.ziegler: That sequence was a 5-point swing in Duke’s favor.
gfoster: All this said about Duke, I haven’t been that impressed by Virginia Tech. Both of the Hokies’ wins were ugly affairs against lesser teams. The Saint Louis game was an absolutely brutal free-throw contest. So I don’t think Duke is going anywhere just yet. Do you disagree? If not, what other high seed could be on upset watch?
jakelourim: I definitely thought entering the tournament that Virginia Tech had a great (and underrated) chance to upset Duke in the Sweet 16. The Hokies beat Duke in Blacksburg last month, and while Zion didn’t play in that game, neither did Virginia Tech star Justin Robinson. But now, after watching the first weekend, I do doubt Virginia Tech’s chances against Duke. It just doesn’t seem like Robinson has eased back into the lineup as seamlessly as Tech had hoped.
gfoster: He seems like he’s playing hurt, to be honest.
jplanos: I agree with you, Geoff. I’m not high on the Hokies. I mostly expect chalk to play out in the Sweet 16.
jakelourim: The flip side of the first weekend lacking upsets is that it set up some awesome matchups for the Sweet 16, including four No. 2-vs.-3 seed matchups (three of them between top-12 teams in KenPom).
sara.ziegler: The West region could be fun — Florida State has a real shot against Gonzaga, and I like Texas Tech over Michigan.
jplanos: I think the best thing that could happen for Texas Tech is for Jordan Poole to drill two threes to open the game. For my money, there isn’t a more inconsistent Overconfident Guy left in the field.
gfoster: I think Oregon has a legitimate shot against Virginia. The Ducks are by far the lowest KenPom team, and it’s not close. But that doesn’t speak directly to how well they are playing right now. Point guard Payton Pritchard is a man on fire.
sara.ziegler: I refuse to believe in Oregon.
jplanos: I refuse to believe in the Pac-12.
And for good reason.
gfoster: Both that game and the Michigan game will be complete rock fights: 60 to 65 points will be enough to win either.
jakelourim: While this belief burned me in the bracket’s first weekend, I just think the Pac-12 has nothing to show for itself this weekend. How did Oregon lose so many games out of that league? The Ducks also skated by against a lesser second-round opponent — seemed like the mighty Anteaters used up all their juice in upsetting K-State on Friday.
sara.ziegler: The Ducks have the 74th adjusted offense in the country, according to KenPom. That’s not how you beat Virginia.
gfoster: Gardner-Webb was beating Virginia for a half. I just feel like the Cavs tighten up when they are playing from behind. Oregon is the opposite — they have been playing with nothing to lose for weeks.
sara.ziegler: I agree, Geoff — I just don’t think Oregon is good enough offensively to get a lead.
jakelourim: I really like Virginia’s path because the Hoos play a No. 12 seed first and are 26-0 against teams outside the KenPom top 15 this season. An underrated part about that region: Virginia will play in Louisville’s home arena, which is as familiar to the Cavs as you could hope to be at this stage in the tournament. The Hoos have played and won in that building in each of the past four seasons, including an inconceivable comeback last season from down 5 with less than 7 seconds left.
jplanos: Wofford, but only because Murray State would’ve gotten waxed by Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 had the Racers advanced. With Wofford’s perimeter shooting, they might have had a puncher’s chance against Houston. Loved the offensive flow of their game(s).
jakelourim: I’d say Wofford, too, because of how the Terriers lost to Kentucky on Saturday. Watching the tiny SoCon upstart hang with Kentucky, only to watch Fletcher Magee clank shot after shot off the rim, was painful. You have to feel for Magee, who is now the most prolific 3-point shooter in NCAA history but just went cold at the worst time.
gfoster: That was awful.
jplanos: I know the myth of the hot hand will be argued for eternity, but at what point do you tell a guy to stop shooting? Especially when the guy’s offensive output seems to almost exclusively consist of inefficient jump-turn-and-figure-it-out jumpers.
gfoster: The truth is, he had to keep shooting. He’s a huge cog in their scheme, and they don’t have enough talent to just let the other four to six guys pick up the slack. People were comparing him to Steph Curry at Davidson! So I, like everyone else, was shocked that NONE of those dropped, even the crazy off-balanced shot attempts.
gfoster: I actually think Belmont could have made some noise if the Bruins could have gotten past Maryland. (They lost at the wire.) They are an electric, up-tempo team, and I think they would have beaten LSU and then been a fun test for Sparty.
And they would have extended the First Four streak!
sara.ziegler: Would have loved to see more from the Bruins.
jakelourim: I agree, Geoff. I think Belmont could have made some noise. LSU was not the dominant, unflinching No. 3 seed that Houston, Texas Tech and Purdue proved to be, so Belmont could have hit enough threes to make it a game at the end. And then once that happens …
jplanos: That was a tough matchup for Belmont. Maryland coughs it up constantly, but Belmont doesn’t force turnovers. When you’re already operating at a talent deficit, and you can’t even depend on additional chances, it’s almost impossible to overcome unless you shoot the lights out.
That game was Maryland’s season-best performance in terms of turnover percentage, according to KenPom.
jakelourim: That’s why I think this chalk-heavy first weekend was a one-year deal — just a collection of momentum swings that went toward the favorites. If that backdoor pass from Belmont goes through, Aubrey Dawkins’ tip rims in and Magee makes even, what, two of 12 3-pointers, this is a totally different tournament.
gfoster: So, which conference has impressed the most? I know who it is not: The Big East. Pretty sad effort from the conference that has won two of three titles (granted, that’s just Villanova, so a generous way to praise the conference).
jplanos: Agreed, Geoff. When your second best team gets dusted by nearly 20 by a team from the Ohio Valley Conference … yikes.
sara.ziegler: The Big 12 has been pretty pathetic. Texas Tech has the whole conference on its shoulders now.
jplanos: The SEC has been the most impressive. But how about the Big Ten getting three teams into the Sweet 16? Maryland and Iowa were about as close as you can get to advancing, too.
gfoster: Is there any team that has completely defied what you thought of them entering the tournament?
jplanos: Purdue. Mark me down as having never believed in the Boilermakers all season. All too often it seems to be Carsen Edwards or bust, with the latter winning out.
Purdue lost two of its last three games entering the tournament, including an opening-round loss to Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament. But after two double-digit victories, including an 87-61 thrashing of defending champion Villanova, well, I’m still not ready to believe in their chances moving forward. But I am ready to eat crow.
I wasn’t all that surprised that the Wildcats were eliminated before the Sweet 16, but I am surprised that the Boilermakers reduced them to rubble and are still standing.
gfoster: Mid-majors or non-mid-majors, which team has let you down the most?
I know Sara’s.
*cough, Cyclones, cough*
jplanos: In my opinion, the biggest disappointment is Nevada, by a considerable margin.
Most of this roster reached the Sweet 16 a year ago, and the Wolfpack ostensibly were primed for another deep run in the tournament. Instead, Nevada failed to win its conference tournament and then got bounced in the opening-round of the NCAA Tournament by a fairly average Florida team. They allowed the Gators to dictate the pace and played at the slowest tempo of any game this season, according to KenPom. Not only that, they posted the second lowest effective field goal percentage of any game this season and the highest turnover rate of any game this season.
I even talked myself into Jordan Caroline smashing a fire extinguisher as a galvanizing moment for the team! Turned out it was just a representation of their frustrating season.
jakelourim: Even given everything that happened this season, can I still say Kansas? I know, I know — the Jayhawks played the season under the cloud of player eligibility issues, lost Udoka Azubuike early, ended The Streak and generally looked very un-Kansas-like. But this was still supposed to be a really talented team. Watching them not just lose but get run off the court by a football school in the second round was very odd to me.
sara.ziegler: I think that loss is what they deserve for being placed in the Kansas City regional.
sara.ziegler: STOP GIVING KANSAS SUCH A GOOD REGION
jakelourim: And also, Cincinnati was sent to Columbus and collapsed against Iowa in the first round. That’s like when you draw a bad foul call and go to the line and miss the free throws.
gfoster: Mine is Buffalo. I had the Bulls in the Sweet 16 in all the brackets I filled out. And felt vindicated when they absolutely steam rolled their former coach Bobby Hurley. But Texas Tech absolutely closed down shop from the tip-off on. They didn’t even make a run.
jakelourim: Nevada is another good (bad?) one, Josh. I would have been very worried for Michigan if Nevada were on the other side in the second round. That’s no seventh-seeded roster. But Eric Musselman’s team never put it together like it did in last year’s tournament.
gfoster: That’s another thing about this tournament: There really hasn’t been much drama, Duke and LSU aside. Of the 16 winners in the round of 32, only three didn’t cover the spread: Tennessee, Duke and Gonzaga (and they won by 12 points).
sara.ziegler: My disappointment is actually that Oregon made it this far. I hate it when major-conference schools that played like crap for most of the season make it to the Sweet 16. Seems unjust.
gfoster: Would you like them better if they had Bol Bol?
(Yes, the answer to that is yes.)
sara.ziegler: Yes, of course. They’d also be way better.
jplanos: I think if Auburn had dropped that opening-round game, we’d be talking about this tournament wayyyyyyyyy differently. That would’ve given us two all-timers in the opening weekend.
sara.ziegler: Oh, yeah — I forgot how close that game was!
jakelourim: New Mexico State could have gone on and handled Kansas, too, no?
jplanos: Yeah, my analysis is that Kansas is bad.
sara.ziegler: ENDORSE, Josh.
gfoster: Before we get to our updated Final Four picks, let’s talk about the women’s tourney, which has been objectively better from an entertainment standpoint. What is your biggest takeaway so far?
sara.ziegler: There were three overtime games in the first round alone!
jplanos: I’m glad offense is winning out on the women’s side, as seven of the top 10 teams this season in points per possession remain in the hunt, according to Synergy Sports. I for one am pleased that we get more opportunities for Sabrina Ionescu to do crazy things on the court, like intentionally missing shots for triple-doubles
jakelourim: Absolutely, the women’s tournament has been more entertaining, I think.
gfoster: According to our model, this is still a two-team tournament. Baylor and Notre Dame combine for a 60 percent chance of winning (32 percent and 28 percent, respectively). Although Louisville and UConn appear to be mutually hurting each other’s chances by just being in the same region.
sara.ziegler: Though most of the top women’s teams have all advanced, we’ve seen closer games than we have in the past.
No. 2 Iowa had all it could handle from Mercer. And No. 10 Buffalo acquitted itself nicely against UConn.
jakelourim: Mercer took Iowa to the wire in an effort to produce what I believe would have been the first 15-2 upset in the history of the tournament.
sara.ziegler: That game was great. I loved the chart for No. 7 Missouri against No. 10 Drake, too:
Look at that excitement index!
jakelourim: That is a crazy game.
gfoster: All right, let’s quickly update our men’s Final Four picks. This is not like a bracket pool — you can easily change from what you picked previously. No one will judge you. (Someone may judge you — it’s the internet.)
Let’s go lightning round through the regions, starting with the East.
I had Michigan State, I’m staying with Michigan State.
jakelourim: Had Duke, staying with Duke. MSU doesn’t have the dudes to take them down.
sara.ziegler: Yeah, I’m sticking with Duke. There’s just so much talent there.
jplanos: I had all No. 1 seeds because I’m not fun at parties. So I’m sticking with Duke.
gfoster: OK, West. I had Gonzaga in my bracket, I said Michigan on our podcast. I’m going with…..
sara.ziegler: Texas Tech. BIG 12 REPRESENT
jakelourim: Had Michigan, staying with Michigan. Happy to die on this hill.
jplanos: Allow me to re-plug Hot Takedown and say that I’m finally ready to go with my heart. The Wolverines have been tenacious throughout the tournament, as best showcased by a Michigan tuba player running down the Gators mascot.
gfoster: Only because I think they are showing again that they are the best-coached team in the country. They don’t do any of the things that cost teams games: turn it over, foul trouble, bad shots, etc.
jakelourim: Yes, I think they have the best coach in that region. That’ll be enough.
gfoster: OK, in the South. I had UVA. I might have said Nova on Hot Takedown, but that was clearly me being an idiot.
sara.ziegler: I believe that went something like, “Jay Wright is amazing, he will obviously win.”
jplanos: You did indeed say that, Geoff. I will withhold my opinion on that pick.
gfoster: That was a product of me not liking ANY team in the region. And I still don’t!!!!!!
sara.ziegler: Wait … that was the region I didn’t like, Geoff.
You didn’t like the Midwest.
gfoster: I like that more, now. I have an answer there.
I still don’t like anyone in the South. I have Tennessee … which I don’t feel great about.
jplanos: I’m still going with UVA. Whoever reaches the 20-point mark first is deemed the winner.
jakelourim: Had Virginia, staying with Virginia. Still think Tony Bennett’s team is the most consistent in the country — NCAA Tournament demons notwithstanding.
gfoster: OK, let’s do the Midwest.
jplanos: Tar Heels. Never a doubt.
sara.ziegler: Remember when they were trailing to Iona at halftime of that game? That was fun.
jplanos: I said never a doubt, Sara!
I still like Kentucky.
jakelourim: I’ve got Ol’ Roy and UNC.
sara.ziegler: You guys are BORING.
jakelourim: This tournament started it!
gfoster: Only because I need to pick something that can be mocked later, I’m taking Auburn. Bruce Pearl’s team is here to provide the madness of 2019. The Tiger offense is so impressive. I love these teams (like some Beilein teams) where every guy on the court can knock down the three.
jplanos: HAHA, Geoff. Come on now.
sara.ziegler: What a pick.
gfoster: You think there will be no surprises at all? We’ll see.
*checks bracket pool standings, sees self in 90th*
True to the reputation of an overlooked mid-major, when the Wofford Terriers were headed for the Southern Conference tournament earlier this month, they refused to take anything for granted. As dominant as the Terriers were, the persistent refrain from Spartanburg, South Carolina, was that Wofford would not feel safe on Selection Sunday without a tournament title and an automatic bid to the Big Dance.
But the concern proved to be unnecessary. Wofford defeated its three conference tournament foes just as it won its 18 regular-season league games, and based on the way Sunday went, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. This is no ordinary mid-major underdog. It’s official now: Wofford is going to the NCAA Tournament as one of the most dangerous mid-major teams this century.
A No. 7 seed in the Midwest region, the Terriers are a rare breed of March upstart. They are the highest-seeded Southern Conference team since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Other than powerhouse Gonzaga, just five schools this century have earned top-eight seeds in the NCAA Tournament from conferences that had played fewer than three tournament games per year.1 They are Pacific, Murray State, George Mason, St. Mary’s (twice) and Butler (four times).
Wofford compares favorably to other mid-major contenders
Teams from conferences that had played fewer than three tournament games per year and were seeded No. 8 or better in the men’s NCAA Tournament, based on key KenPom efficiency stats, 2000-19
Adjusted Efficiency Metrics
Tiny Wofford has posted a 118.5 adjusted offensive efficiency, better than all of those high-seeded mid-majors except St. Mary’s in 2016-17. The Terriers’ No. 19 ranking in Ken Pomeroy’s metrics indicates that they’re actually underseeded. In fact, they resemble the profile of the most famous Southern Conference darling, a Davidson team with a star shooter named Stephen Curry.
Entering the 2008 NCAA Tournament, Davidson was 30th in adjusted offense, 25th in adjusted defense and 18th overall. Today, Wofford is 11th in offense, 63rd in defense and 19th overall. Davidson finished 27th in effective field-goal percentage, while Wofford is fourth. Neither team went to the foul line much — Davidson was 332nd in free-throw rate; Wofford is 303rd — but both compensated by limiting turnovers, taking lots of 3-pointers and making a high percentage of those threes. Both teams ran the table in the SoCon.
Sunday was kind to little guys everywhere, from Wofford to Buffalo (a similarly threatening No. 6 seed in the West) to Belmont (which earned an at-large bid from the Ohio Valley Conference). But no team has Wofford’s combination of firepower, efficiency and relative obscurity.
Mid-major conferences have had looks at the top 20 in Pomeroy’s rankings — Wichita State from the Missouri Valley in 2014, San Diego State from the Mountain West in 2011 — but even in that company, Wofford and the Southern Conference would be considered lower-profile in every way. In the NCAA’s 2016 revenue distribution based on tournament success, the Southern received a smaller share than any other conference except the Big Sky, with which it tied at $1.56 million. The conference with the biggest share — the Big Ten — received $25.82 million.
The Terriers have been to the tourney before, positioned as a double-digit seed underdog in 2010, 2011, 2014 and 2015. In 2010, they were tied at 49 against No. 4 seed Wisconsin with 1:17 left. They didn’t score again and lost 53-49. In 2015, they were tied at 53 with No. 5 seed Arkansas with 1:55 left. They didn’t score again and lost 56-53.
Mike Young’s team has since developed into one that’s built to pull off an upset or two in the next couple of weeks. Wofford has followed the collegewide trend of increased reliance on the 3-point shot. The Terriers are second in America from 3-point range, shooting 41.6 percent, and 43.5 percent of their shots are from deep. Since 2002, only two tournament-bound mid-majors shot a higher percentage from three than Wofford did this season. In 2012, Doug McDermott and No. 8 seed Creighton knocked out Alabama before running into top-seeded North Carolina, and in 2010, hot-shooting Cornell made the Sweet 16 as a No. 12 seed after upsetting Temple and Wisconsin.
To power that offense, Wofford has a shooting threat capable of being a star in this tournament: Fletcher Magee, who’s just two 3-pointers shy of the all-time career record for made threes. Every March explosion needs a spark, just like Creighton had McDermott, Davidson had Curry and Murray State had Isaiah Canaan in 2012. Magee’s work ethic has become mythical in Spartanburg, where they tell tales of the guard who practices in the dark to work on his feel. He once shot in his driveway in the middle of the night, setting cushions under the hoop to muffle the sound.
As for any comparison to the other hot-shooting SoCon star? “I don’t like to compare players,” Young told The Athletic in 2017, “but in terms of Fletch’s ability to score and do it as efficiently as he’s doing it, from all points on the floor, let’s just say it reminds me of someone.” The mid-major energy and the streaky shooting are familiar, too.
The history of mid-major success in the NCAA tournament is what makes March Madness so special. Loyola of Chicago became the latest stunner last season when it reached the Final Four as a No. 11 seed from the Missouri Valley. If Wofford makes a similar run, nobody should be shocked.