Why Wichita State's Loss Was Historic

Our numbers were big on the Kentucky win this past weekend, but why?

This year’s NCAA Tournament has brought us plenty of good basketball, but no game was better than Sunday’s matchup between Wichita State and Kentucky. I don’t think that’s debatable.

On one side, you had an undefeated one seed from a once unknown basketball program, hoping to shock the world (pun is definitely intended). On the other end, there was an eight-seeded team from one of the biggest basketball powerhouses in the country. Unlike most games between a one and an eight seed, it wasn’t David versus Goliath – it was an evenly matched game.

There were 17 lead changes. Both teams shot better than 54 percent from the field. They each made over 44 percent of their three-pointers. And they grinded it out all the way until the final seconds of the game.

Kentucky won the contest – the eight seed was victorious. And it’s now forced the masses to begin questioning how this happened. Was it that Wichita State wasn’t a good team, or did the Wildcats get the win because they were a really good eight seed? Was Wichita State overrated, or did they just get the worst draw imaginable?

I wanted to find out. Our numbers entering the game had Kentucky as a borderline top-15 team in the country, while Wichita State ranked 10th. It was set to be a drama-filled game according to our nERD metric, a statistic that looks at how many points a team would win by against an average squad on a neutral court. We expected a close contest, just like the one that we got.

I just didn’t realize how historically close it was.

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Wichita State as a One Seed

The goal here is to see if the outcome of this game had to do more with Wichita State being bad, or Kentucky being really, really good. In order to figure this out, I looked to nERD. More specifically, I looked at the nERD from every one seed since the year 2000.

What I found was pretty interesting. Of the 56 one seeds that we’ve seen since 2000, excluding the current tournament that we’re in, the average nERD score was 18.89. In other words, you’d expect an average team from the group to outscore an average opponent on a neutral court by nearly 19 points in a game.

The best team since 2000, analytically, was Duke’s 2001 team. They won the National Championship that year, and beat every single opponent in the Big Dance by at least 10 points. That was the team with Boozer, Duhon, Battier, Dunleavy Jr. – the list goes on and on.

Shocker fans can rejoice in knowing that Wichita State was not the worst one seed we’ve seen in terms of nERD since 2000. That title belongs to the 2004 Stanford Cardinal, a team that, like Wichita State, was knocked off in the second round.

They weren’t the second-worst one seed either, as the 2003 Oklahoma Sooners had a nERD of 14.91. They were bounced in the Elite 8 by Carmelo Anthony and company.

But unfortunately, Wichita State was the third-worst one seed we’ve seen since 2000 according to their 15.53 nERD. Out of 56 teams, they ranked 54th. And if you really want to be honest, you’d consider them worse than the three other one seeds in this year’s tournament, making them the 58th-best since 2000.

So that side of the equation is done – Wichita State was good, sure, but they weren’t typical one-seed good.

What about Kentucky?

Kentucky as an Eight Seed

Kentucky’s nERD of 14.73 currently lists them as the 14th-best team in college basketball. Clearly they’re bound to be on the high-end of the eight seeds over the last 14 or so years, but how high?

Well, ladies and gentlemen, they’re the highest – no eight seed has had a nERD score as good as Kentucky’s. No eight seed has been as good as Kentucky is. And no team has been, as a result, as unlucky as Wichita State.

The average nERD score among all eight seeds since 2000 has been 11.37. The best outside of Kentucky was the 2000 Kansas Jayhawks, who lost to one-seeded Duke in the second round of the tournament by five points. Kansas’ nERD that season was 14.62, a solid .11 below Kentucky’s 14.73.

The only thing that did go Wichita State’s way was the fact that Kansas State, Kentucky’s opponent in their first game of the tournament, was a below-average nine seed. Since 2000, nine seeds have averaged a 10.30 nERD score, with the high being 13.34 (Saint Louis in 2012). Kansas State’s was 9.46. If they had won, Wichita State would more than likely be sitting in the Sweet 16.

And if you’re curious, Wichita State’s 2013 nERD score – the team that went to the Final Four – was the third-highest we’ve seen from a nine seed over the last 15 years.

The Most Unfortunate Matchup Imaginable?

Any basketball game can come down to individual matchups on the court. Perhaps a team has won all season long due to their long, lengthy players, but they’ve never faced a team that can match them from a size perspective. Or maybe a squad shoots lights out from three-point land, yet has never faced a team that can really defend the three.

While plenty of those smaller mismatches can be analyzed within the Kentucky versus Wichita State game, the fact remains that both sides of this game’s argument are correct: Kentucky was a really good eight seed (the best one we’ve seen potentially ever), while Wichita State was a bad one seed.

The difference in these team’s nERD scores was a puny 0.8 points. If they were to continuously meet on a neutral court, you’d expect Wichita State to barely come out on top. And that difference in nERD, by no surprise, was the smallest difference we’ve ever seen in a second-round matchup over the last 15 years.