March Madness: How Unlikely Is Loyola's Run to the Final Four?
The Loyola (IL) Ramblers have pulled off a truly incredible feat in getting to the Final Four as an 11 seed, something only three teams have ever done before. Sister Jean will forever be immortalized in March Madness lore, and it will be interesting to see if the slipper will fit Cinderella for two more games as Loyola hopes to cut down the nets in San Antonio.
Almost no one predicted Loyola going on this run. Even Sister Jean famously picked Loyola to lose in the Sweet 16. But just how unlikely was this incredible stretch of games by the Ramblers?
First of all, it is important to remember that the Ramblers were a high-quality team even before entering the tournament. Before the dance began, they ranked 43rd in the nation by our nERD metric, driven primarily by their top-10 ranking in effective field goal percentage. Our algorithm gave them a 43.7% chance at pulling the first-round upset over the Miami (FL) Hurricanes.
Our algorithm even had them as one of the 5 optimal selections in FanDuel's NCAA Tournament Pick'em contest.
For @FanDuel’s NCAA Tournament Pick’em game, @numberFire’s optimal lineup was Villanova, Duke, Gonzaga, North Carolina, and...Loyola. https://t.co/fTPzSSaiYg
— JJ Zachariason (@LateRoundQB) March 25, 2018
But while they were a trendy pick to win their first-round matchup, the potential path to a deep run looked bleak thanks to roadblocks such as the Tennessee Volunteers and Cincinnati Bearcats. KenPom gave Loyola just a 6.5% chance of reaching the Elite Eight and a 1.9% probability of making the Final Four. Our stage odds were even lower on them, giving them a 2.25% chance of making it to the Elite Eight and a 0.31% chance of reaching the Final Four.
The Actual Tournament Run
But, as we were reminded of many times this March, games aren't played on paper. During the tournament, Loyola benefited from a far easier path than initially anticipated.
Based off the Vegas moneylines, the only true upset the Ramblers pulled off was when they defeated Tennessee in the Round of 32. Their other three matchups were considered by Vegas to be roughly a 50/50 toss-up.
💰PAYOUT to make Final Four (starting with $100, betting team to win each of their four NCAA games - letting winnings ride)
Michigan $100 --> $443
Loyola-Chicago $100 --> $2,583 pic.twitter.com/2fEB3zeAhv
— RJ Bell (@RJinVegas) March 25, 2018
How did this happen?
The South Region broke down entirely. The Cincinnati Bearcats entered the tournament with a nERD of 16.61, seventh-best in the nation. They blew a 22-point lead in the Round of 32. That allowed the Ramblers to face the weaker Nevada Wolf Pack. And in the top half of the region, the Virginia Cavaliers, Arizona Wildcats, and Kentucky Wildcats all failed to make the Elite Eight. That left Loyola to face a Kansas State Wildcats squad whose best player, Dean Wade, was out with an injury.
This easier-than-expected path certainly buoyed Loyola's chances of reaching the Final Four. Using our game simulator, Loyola had a 43.68% chance of beating Miami, 22.06% chance of beating Tennessee, 31.45% chance of topping Nevada, and a 47.78% chance of claiming victory over Kansas State. The probability of winning all four of those games is just 1.45%, which feels low until you remember that our pre-tournament stage odds had the chances of a Loyola run to the Final Four at just 0.31%.
This is to take nothing away from Loyola's play this March -- they have been absolutely tremendous. It is only to reiterate that the chances of any team winning the four games required to make it to the Final Four is low, and doing so usually requires a bit of good fortune.
Even for a quality double-digit seed, no one could have seen this one coming.