Which Team Had the Toughest Path to Get to the Final Four?
Given the way the NCAA Tournament bracket is set up, 1 seeds generally have an easier time getting to the Final Four than a mid- or lower-seeded squad. That's the way it should be -- top seeds did some serious work during the regular season, so they deserve higher odds of getting to the tournament's Final Four.
That's why Cinderella teams are so impressive. Generally, they're not just winning -- they're beating teams that many picked to go far in the dance. And according to our numbers, that was no different this year.
According to nERD -- our measurement of how many points a particular team would win by against an average opponent on a neutral court -- the only non-1 seed in the Final Four, Michigan State, predictably saw the toughest path to the Final Four. But take a look at how the other teams stacked up, going in descending order according to a team's opponent median nERD score.
4. Kentucky Wildcats
Average Opponent nERD: 7.77
Median Opponent nERD: 10.83
Toughest Opponent: Notre Dame (14.84)
When you go undefeated, you should expect a fairly easy path in the big dance. That was mostly the case for the Wildcats, as their toughest opponent, Notre Dame, had a 14.84 nERD entering the tournament, which was 14th-best in the country.
The average nERD among all tournament teams entering the dance this year was 9.65. The median nERD score (essentially the average of Cincinnati and West Virginia in Kentucky's case) against Kentucky was 10.83, and thanks to a -5.43 nERD from Hampton, their average nERD against was 7.77. Take out the first round, and you're still looking at a lower average nERD than what our number-one team on this list, Michigan State, went through.
3. Wisconsin Badgers
Average Opponent nERD: 11.55
Median Opponent nERD: 12.56
Toughest Opponent: Arizona (20.30)
I'm sure putting Wisconsin below Duke on this list will stir up the comments section a bit, but the reason their median opponent nERD is lower is because our numbers were pretty low on Oregon entering the big dance and, conversely, they were high on Utah, the 5 seed that Duke beat in the Sweet 16.
Wisconsin, though, had the biggest win in the tournament, knocking off our number-two power-ranked team, Arizona, in the Elite Eight. And even with a 0.69 nERD from Coastal Carolina, the average nERD against for Wisconsin in the tournament was well above the average tournament team.
2. Duke Blue Devils
Average Opponent nERD: 10.77
Median Opponent nERD: 13.12
Toughest Opponent: Gonzaga (18.20)
As I said above, a big reason Duke comes in ahead of Arizona is because we saw their win against Utah as more impressive than the seeds indicated. Utah, entering the tourney, was a top-10 team per our numbers. And Duke beat them in pretty convincing fashion.
The Blue Devils were also able to knock off Gonzaga yesterday, which, according to our numbers, was the best Gonzaga team we've ever seen. It was another strong run from Coach K.
1. Michigan State Spartans
Average Opponent nERD: 14.56
Median Opponent nERD: 14.85
Toughest Opponent: Virginia (18.39)
No team did more to get to the Final Four this year than Michigan State. Logically, it makes sense, as lower-seeded teams get tougher early-bracket matchups. In Sparty's case, though, those matchups were even tougher than usual.
Michigan State knocked off the second-best 2 seed in the tournament (Virginia), according to our metrics, the best 3 seed (Oklahoma), and the second-best 4 seed (Louisville) to get to the Final Four. That's straight silly.
Like I said before the tournament started, "Picking against Tom Izzo in the NCAA Tournament is like investing in MySpace instead of Facebook."
I hope you didn't invest in MySpace.