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    Final Four Paths and Wichita State

    by Nic Reiner on Friday, April 5, 2013


    The unpredictability of the NCAA tournament often leads to Final Four teams meeting via completely divergent paths. Sometimes we talk about a team reaching the Final Four because the bracket broke in a favorable way— a one-seed was knocked out early or a team drew a Sweet 16 date with an 11 seed. Ken Pomeroy recently wrote about how largely, at the top of the field, the best teams’ chances of a title are not affected much by their draw.

    Nate Silver had a take on the seeding topic a few years ago, demonstrating that certain seeds counterintuitively and unequivocally are at a disadvantage. (For instance, he argues that a team would rather be saddled with a 10 seed instead of an 8, because of the ensuing path each team takes after winning its first game.) Both points are valid and provide background for this analysis.

    I’ve attempted to contextualize the paths of each of this year’s Final Four teams. We’ll work only within the last 11 years because that is how far back we have comprehensive adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency data.  (Granted, more work can certainly be done in this area, as 18 tournaments occurred between 1985 – the year the tournament expanded to 64 teams—and 2002.)

    To determine strength of Final Four path, I calculated the Pythagorean winning percentage (Pyth) using the average AdjO and AdjD of each team’s four opponents, the same way strength of schedule is calculated in Ken’s system. 

    Below are the results, broken down into the 10 easiest and 10 most difficult paths to the Final Four, along with who owned them, what seed they were, and strength of the Final Four teams based on their season-long Pyth.

    Most difficult paths to the Final Four
    Seed Year   Team           Pyth  F4PathSOS
     9   2013   Wichita State .8970   .9219
     3   2003   Marquette     .9077   .9208
     5   2010   Butler        .9259   .9102
     8   2011   Butler        .8407   .9100
     4   2006   LSU           .9274   .9079
     4   2011   Kentucky      .9390   .9040
    11   2006   George Mason  .8864   .9037
     4   2013   Michigan      .9476   .9028
     3   2009   Villanova     .9278   .9011
     4   2012   Louisville    .9070   .8977
    
    

    Wichita State this year has been discussed most frequently as the fortunate beneficiaries of a bracket that broke wide open. The West regional was thought to be the weakest and thus most likely to have a surprise contender emerge. So it’s somewhat surprising that Wichita State’s path to the Final Four was far from easy and, in fact, registers as the most difficult in the past 11 years.

    Before 2013 Wichita State, the team with the most fearsome slate was Marquette in 2003, the No. 3 seed in the Midwest regional. Not only did Dwyane Wade’s team have to defeat two of the three highest-rated teams in the country that year (Pittsburgh and Kentucky), they also kicked off the tournament against an abnormally strong 14 seed, Holy Cross. 

    Butler in 2010 and 2011 owned two of the most difficult roads to the Final Four, making what Brad Stevens’ teams did even more incredible.

    Michigan this year claimed the eighth-most difficult path to the Final Four after needing to go through VCU, Kansas, and Florida, one of the toughest trios in any region this year.

    Least difficult paths to the Final Four
    Seed Year   Team           Pyth  F4PathSOS
     1   2003   Texas         .9277   .7706
     1   2008   UCLA          .9744   .7711
     1   2005   Illinois      .9730   .7976
     2   2006   UCLA          .9479   .8009
     1   2007   Florida       .9758   .8123
     2   2004   Connecticut   .9697   .8133
     1   2013   Louisville    .9767   .8222
     1   2004   Duke          .9777   .8229
     1   2009   Connecticut   .9631   .8264
     1   2012   Kentucky      .9679   .8283
    
    

    The 2003 Final Four also featured Texas, a No. 1 seed who had the easiest road to the final weekend in the past 11 years.

    UCLA’s three consecutive Final Four runs between 2006-2008 are by any measure impressive but the Bruins certainly benefited from some favorable breaks during the bookends of that incredible string. Their paths to the 2006 and 2008 Final Fours were two of the four easiest of any teams in the sample. Their 2006 run was the easiest for a non-1 seed.

    Louisville’s road to the Final Four this year has been the seventh-weakest during this timespan. Coupled with their already overwhelming strength, they have made getting to the Final Four look easy.

    Other notable items:

    Of the five Final Four runs made by traditional mid-majors in the past 11 years, 2011 VCU had by far the easiest path, coming in with the 21st most difficult slate. The number is misleading, though, as the Rams had to win an extra game against an above-average, but not great, opponent due to their placement in the First Four.

    Every team that made it to the Final Four in 2011 faced a stronger opponent in the Sweet 16 than they did in the Elite Eight.  In both 2004 and 2005, three of the four Final Four teams had tougher Sweet 16 dates than Elite Eight matchups.

    All 44 teams’ paths to the Final Four are below, in order from most to least difficult:

    Seed Year   Team           Pyth  F4PathSOS
     9   2013   Wichita State .8970   .9219
     3   2003   Marquette     .9077   .9208
     5   2010   Butler        .9259   .9102
     8   2011   Butler        .8407   .9100
     4   2006   LSU           .9274   .9079
     4   2011   Kentucky      .9390   .9040
    11   2006   George Mason  .8864   .9037
     4   2013   Michigan      .9476   .9028
     3   2009   Villanova     .9278   .9011
     4   2012   Louisville    .9070   .8977
     2   2007   UCLA          .9672   .8965
     2   2007   Georgetown    .9689   .8962
     5   2005   Michigan St.  .9535   .8952
     2   2004   OK State      .9603   .8934
     4   2005   Louisville    .9601   .8897
     3   2004   Georgia Tech  .9524   .8872
     2   2003   Kansas        .9673   .8855
     2   2009   Michigan St.  .9371   .8843
     1   2008   N. Carolina   .9712   .8814
     1   2008   Memphis       .9776   .8714
    11   2011   VCU           .8122   .8687
     2   2010   West Virginia .9403   .8683
     5   2010   Michigan St.  .9005   .8638
     3   2006   Florida       .9615   .8633
     1   2007   Ohio State    .9705   .8620
     1   2005   N. Carolina   .9797   .8619
     3   2011   Connecticut   .9270   .8605
     3   2003   Syracuse      .9292   .8581
     1   2010   Duke          .9763   .8566
     2   2012   Ohio State    .9640   .8480
     1   2009   N. Carolina   .9658   .8476
     1   2008   Kansas        .9859   .8417
     2   2012   Kansas        .9485   .8379
     4   2013   Syracuse      .9445   .8356
     1   2012   Kentucky      .9679   .8283
     1   2009   Connecticut   .9631   .8264
     1   2004   Duke          .9777   .8229
     1   2013   Louisville    .9767   .8222
     2   2004   Connecticut   .9697   .8133
     1   2007   Florida       .9758   .8123
     2   2006   UCLA          .9479   .8009
     1   2005   Illinois      .9730   .7976
     1   2008   UCLA          .9744   .7711
     1   2003   Texas         .9277   .7706