March Madness 2023: Forecasting the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament

Petre Thomas – USA TODAY Sports

For the fourth time in this website’s history, I’ll be training a model to predict the outcome of March Madness, the annual postseason tournament to crown a champion of men’s Division I college basketball.

Over the past four years, The Spax’s modeled bracket has varied in performance. Since a hot debut in 2019 where our model correctly predicted three of the Final Four teams (including five-seed Auburn) and the national champion Virginia Cavaliers, it has certainly cooled down.

The Spax’s March Madness model’s bracket performance through the years

Of course, scoring a lot of points is generally going to be difficult if you don’t predict the champion correctly. In two straight years of picking Gonzaga to win it all, the Bulldogs were not able to finish the job. Granted, most models in both years had Gonzaga winning it – they were the national favorites for a reason. That’s why an optimal bracket strategy would not be to simply pick the team with the highest probability to win each game like I do for the purpose of this analysis – rather, you should consider each team’s win probability relative to the public’s assessment of their win probability. Maybe some one-seed is modeled as the favorite to win their region, but not by that much, so you choose to pick the five-seed that has a solid 40% modeled probability to beat them head-to-head.

Anyway, let’s get to this year’s picks:

First Four

I slacked off this year and didn’t get this article out before the play-in games occurred, so all four of these games have actually ended by now. The forecast winner ended up going 3-1, the sole error being in Pittsburgh’s 60-59 win over Mississippi State.

South Region

Top Team: The top overall seed in the country is the University of Alabama, and they’re unsurprisingly the clear top dogs in their region as well. It would be a shock to see them fall prior to the Elite Eight, and they would also be favored to beat the two-seed Arizona Wildcats in that matchup. With top NBA Draft prospect Brandon Miller leading the way, Alabama has a chance to make a transformational run.

Potential Disappointment: There’s not a whole lot to say here – both No. 2 Arizona and No. 3 Baylor are forecast to make it to the Sweet Sixteen, and losing to one another wouldn’t really be a huge disappointment. However, it’s certainly possible that one of them falls in the Round of 32 – failing to make it to Sweet Sixteen because they suffered a loss to No. 6 Creighton or No. 10 Utah State would certainly be a slap in the face for either program.

Sleeper Pick: This is probably the least interesting region, to be frank. I don’t think there’s a great sleeper pick, but if I had to pick one I would probably go with No. 6 Creighton. I think there’s a chance that they snag a couple of early wins to find themselves in a Sweet Sixteen matchup against No. 2 Arizona.

Most Probable First-Round Upsets: No. 10 Utah State over No. 7 Missouri (70.70 percent chance)

Midwest Region

Top Team: The Alabama Crimson Tide are the top overall seed in the tournament, but according to sportsbooks, the Houston Cougars are the favorites to win it all. The Cougars have had a great run over the past five or so years, with coach Kelvin Sampson leading them to the Elite Eight in 2022, the Final Four in 2021, and the Sweet Sixteen in 2019. That’s a fantastic run, especially considering the injuries they endured (missing their most talented player in Marcus Sasser in 2022). They’ve already had postseason success, but the 2023 Cougars are even better than past iterations of the team and now all eyes are on a title. Sasser is entering the tournament with an injury and is questionable to play in the first round, but with a healthy lineup, the Cougars should be the safest Final Four pick in the tournament.

Potential Disappointment: The model has a Round of 32 match up between No. 3 Xavier and No. 6 Iowa State as a virtual coinflip. That early of a loss would be a let down for the Musketeers, and with a tough potential outing against Texas in the next round anyway, expectations shouldn’t be too high for Xavier.

Sleeper Pick: I’ll go with another six-seed here, this time the Iowa State Cyclones. Like I said, they’ve a shot to knock off Xavier if they can get past the first round. However, something interesting I noticed is that Mississippi State would’ve been forecast to beat Iowa State in the Round of 64. As you know, they lost to Pittsburgh in the First Four. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, are not at all favored to beat Iowa State. These sort of discrepancies are unsurprisingly common because the transitive property doesn’t apply to sports, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see Pittsburgh upset Iowa State.

Most Probable First-Round Upsets: No. 10 Penn State over No. 7 Texas A&M (37.73 percent chance), No. 13 Kent State over No. 4 Indiana (38.82 percent chance), No. 14 Kennesaw State over No. 3 Xavier (31.85 percent chance)

East Region

Best Team: The No. 1 Purdue Boilermakers enter the tournament with high expectations after 7’4 superstar Zach Edey led them to a 29-5 record and a Big Ten title. They’re tied with the Jayhawks for the 3rd best odds (Houston, Alabama) of winning the tournament per Bovada, and both our model and sportsbooks view them as the favorite to win the East.

Potential Disappointment: … but it’s not necessarily going to be a walk in the park. After the first round, the “easiest” predicted matchup for Purdue is in the Sweet Sixteen against Duke. In that affair, the Blue Devils are given a 34.87% win probability. Memphis has a modeled win probability of 37.74% in the Round of 32, and Marquette pose a threat of their own in the Elite Eight. It’s clear that the two candidates for disappointing one-seed are Purdue and Kansas this year.

Sleeper Pick: Watch out for the No. 8 Memphis Tigers. They’re coming off of a win over the Houston Cougars (albeit sans Sasser) to win the AAC Tournament as they enter the Big Dance with some good momentum. The same is true for Purdue, of course, who will undoubtedly be favored to win a potential matchup between the two teams in the Round of 32, but I wouldn’t write off the Tigers completely.

Most Probable First-Round Upsets: No. 10 USC over No. 7 Michigan State (40.47 percent chance), No. 11 Providence over No. 6 Kentucky (49.33 percent chance), No. 14 Montana State over No. 3 Kansas State (31.37 percent chance)

West Region

Top Team: The forecast winners of this region are the two-seed UCLA Bruins. While it’s always sticks out when we don’t pick a one-seed to advance, this result isn’t actually an upset – the Bruins are currently the favorites in Vegas to win the West region at +275, followed by Kansas at +350. The Bruins’ program has had a modern resurgence, with a Final Four appearance in 2021 and a Sweet Sixteen run in 2022. They’ll almost certainly make that three straight Sweet Sixteen appearances this year, with a key potential matchup against Gonzaga testing their ability to go the distance.

Potential Disappointment: Whenever a one-seed doesn’t get out of their region, it can be considered a disappointing tournament for them. The defending champion Kansas Jayhawks enter the West as the top seed, but as I mentioned before, they are not favored to come out on top. Furthermore, they’re actually forecast to fall to four-seed Connecticut in the Sweet Sixteen. It is clear that the Jayhawks will not have an easy road to the Final Four.

Sleeper Pick: Well, Connecticut’s a four-seed predicted to make the Elite Eight, so it suffices to say that they’re a solid sleeper pick to throw into your bracket. There’s not much else I’d buy into – I think picking Arkansas or Arizona State to get into the Sweet Sixteen would be a little too risky.

Most Probable First-Round Upsets: No. 11 Arizona State over No. 6 TCU (52.59 percent chance), No. 10 Boise State over No. 7 Northwestern (55.78 percent chance)

Final Four

The model forecasts the Final Four matchups to beat Houston v. UCLA and Alabama v. Purdue, with the favorites winning and moving onto the National Championship Game. The Cougars and the Crimson Tide are the clear two favorites to win the tournament, so it’s only fitting that they’d meet in the title game. If they do, we predict Houston to have the edge.

Needless to say, this is a pretty chalky Final Four. Just because this is viewed as the most likely outcome does not mean that it’s going to happen – it almost certainly won’t! Maybe Kansas will make it in over UCLA. Maybe Connecticut will get in over either. Perhaps Purdue falls in the Sweet Sixteen and Marquette takes their place. Or maybe some random double-digit seed comes in and takes a spot. Who knows? A good bracket probably shouldn’t pick these four teams in the end.

I’ve only shown a fraction of the possible matchups that can occur in March Madness. I’ll provide the win probabilities for every single one of them, though! If you’d like to see the model’s projections for matchups not listed above, you can search for them in table below which consists of 2,278 rows, one for every possible matchup. Just type the name of the two teams separated by a space. For instance, if you want to search for the Houston-Kansas matchup, type “Houston Kansas” into the search bar to get the win probability (69.34% for Houston).

In the next article, we’ll take a look at simulation results using these win probabilities.

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