Ranking the Number One Seed Paths in the NCAA Tournament
Although "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" is generally thought to be a Christmas song, we all know it's about March Madness, right? With all that is often frustrating about sports sometimes (most notably, the BCS system), the Big Dance is pure. It's perfect.
If your team got in, that is.
Right now NC State fans are elated, while Larry Brown and the SMU faithful are in mourning. So congratulations if you're celebrating your team's successes tonight. If not, hey, at least you have a shot at Warren Buffett's one billion dollars!
Anyway, let's analyze some brackets. Here at numberFire, we are going to hit you with massive amounts of awesome articles and information over the next few days, so stay tuned for the best numbers-driven analysis out there. This specific article is going to look at the paths of the top seeds - Wichita State, Florida, Arizona, and Virginia - analyzing which squads have an easy path to the Final Four versus which ones have the best chance at getting upset early. I'll start with what I consider the easiest path, and work my way to the hardest.
Let's start the madness.
Arizona Wildcats - West Region
2, 3, and 4 Seeds: Wisconsin, Creighton, San Diego State
While Arizona probably has the easiest region as a whole, they may have the toughest second-round matchup (I'm boycotting the "first round" and going back to the old way of talking about it) in the Oklahoma State Cowboys. If they can get through the first weekend though, things look pretty good for the Wildcats.
In the top half of their bracket, they have potential matchups with four-seed San Diego State or five-seed Oklahoma. Neither of these are particular daunting - we have the Sooners pegged as a seven seed, with a 12.46 nERD. Obviously, we see them as a tad overrated as a five seed. San Diego State, with a 12.54 nERD, is only rated slightly higher than Oklahoma, and significantly lower than Arizona (19.41).
Speaking of nERD, Oklahoma State is at 14.90. Yes, that's correct. The number eight seed that Zona could play in the second round is rated higher by our advanced metrics than both San Diego State or Oklahoma. After that first weekend, their Sweet Sixteen matchup could be a cake-walk in comparison.
Let's move to the bottom half of the region. Number two seed Wisconsin, with a 15.28 nERD (ranked 11), would actually be one of the last three seeds according to our metrics. So for them to be the number two seed, well, that bodes well for Arizona. Creighton actually has a higher nERD at 16.11, despite being the lower seed, but that would still put them at the last two seed in our system.
What's even better - Arizona will only have to play one of those teams en route to the Final Four. They could very conceivably make it to the Final Four without playing a top-10 nERD team. That OK State matchup will be hard to predict, but if they move on from that, you have to like their chances to make it to Arlington.
Virginia Cavaliers - East Region
2, 3, and 4 Seeds: Villanova, Iowa State, Michigan State
After winning both the ACC regular season and tournament today, the Cavaliers snagged the last number one seed in the Big Dance. They get a pretty good draw too, staying in the East and playing the first weekend in Raleigh, NC, just down the road from where they won the ACC Tournament earlier today.
The looming giant of this group is the Michigan State Spartans. We have them with a 15.79 nERD, which would slot them strongly in the third seed line. Instead, the committee put them as a four, and Virginia will have to face the surging Spartans one round sooner in the Sweet Sixteen.
Virginia had 15.63 nERD before today's matchup against Duke, so while it increased slightly to 15.90, it wasn't enough to raise them past eighth in our power rankings. However, if they were to play the Spartans (ranked ninth), the numbers would probably put it as a very close game, if not even - definitely not the disparity you would expect to see in a one-four matchup.
Going down to the bottom half, Villanova is a solid two-seed and will probably be the trendy pick to make the Final Four out of the East. However, what makes this region a bit easier for Virginia than the Midwest and South is Iowa State as the three seed.
Iowa State has a 14.74 nERD, which would put them as one of the last four seeds, not a three. This may not matter much to Virginia, as they would only play either Villanova or Iowa State, but if Villanova goes down, whoever gets out of the top half of the East bracket has a very good shot at the Final Four.
Florida Gators - South Region
2, 3, and 4 Seeds: Kansas, Syracuse, UCLA
Starting with the top half of the region, UCLA is the four seed that Florida would have to go through to make the Elite Eight. They have a 15.20 nERD, ranked 12th, which would put them in the three seed line, just barely one spot behind Wisconsin.
Before a matchup with UCLA, Florida would potentially take on a very good nine seed in Pittsburgh. With a 14.13 nERD, Pitt has the numbers of a five-seed, yet they got bumped all the way down four spots thanks to a lot of close losses. They played very well in the ACC tournament this past week, and could potentially give Florida a bunch of problems in the tournament's first weekend given their strong defense.
If Florida can get to the Sweet Sixteen, they would have Syracuse and Kansas potentially waiting for them. We're split on these two teams - Syracuse, with 13.50 nERD is very overrated according to our numbers, while Kansas, with a 17.41 nERD, is quite underrated. In fact, our numbers say that Syracuse should be a six seed while Kansas, as the number three team in our power rankings, should be one of the number one seeds in the tournament, records aside.
Florida is actually our fourth-ranked team, so Kansas could be favored in this matchup if they played today. When you're the number one seed but not even the highest ranked team in your region? That's not good for Florida fans.
Wichita State Shockers - Midwest Region
2, 3, and 4 Seeds: Michigan, Duke, Louisville
Umm, what? If Wichita State wanted to make a repeat Final Four run, they would potentially have to go through Kentucky, Louisville, and either Michigan or Duke to get there. That's brutal.
Part of what makes this even worse for the Shockers is that our numbers have them as a fairly overrated squad. They have a 15.44 nERD, which would rank them 10th - that's on the three seed line, not even close to a number-one seed.
Further, the number two ranked team according to our nERD metric is Louisville at 19.34 - and that's the four seed in this region! They wouldn't even get to wait until the Elite Eight to take them on. If they get past a talented yet up-and-down team in Kentucky on the first weekend, that second weekend of the tournament will be ridiculously hard for the Shockers.
If - and that's a big if - Wichita State can get past the reigning national champions in Louisville, they only have Michigan and Duke waiting for them on the other side. While our numbers have Michigan as a tad overrated (we have them as a four seed), we have Duke as underrated, sitting number six in our power rankings.
Good luck to the Shockers. Just getting to Indianapolis (their Sweet Sixteen region) would be a win, and if they got back to the Final Four, that would be pretty darn impressive.