In my last article, I posted this year’s iteration of my annual model for predicting the outcome of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament. I provided the modeled win probability of all 2278 possible matchups along with an “expected” bracket representing the outcome if the modeled favorite wins every game. Check that out here.
That bracket isn’t terribly practical, though. Just because the model gives Team A a 55% chance of winning doesn’t mean they’re going to win. That’s not much different from a coinflip! Furthermore, it doesn’t really reflect the other matchups that a team may have to go through. If Team A has a win probability of 20% against Team B in the second round, that doesn’t look too good for them. However, what if Team B’s win probability in the first round against Team C is only 51% and Team A’s win probability against Team C would be 80%? The “expected” bracket doesn’t show this, but that suddenly makes Team A’s outlook much better.
That’s where simulations come in. We can use the modeled win probabilities to simulate the entire tournament. We can run this simulation any number of times and compile the results to see how likely each time is to reach each round of the tournament assuming that the modeled win probabilities are accurate. I ran 10,000 simulations of the tournament – here are the results.
The top overall seed Alabama Crimson Tide are unsurprisingly the favorites to make it to the Final Four and win the region. Furthermore, their 12.5% probability of winning the tournament tops the region with No. 2 Arizona being the next best at 5.2%. Arizona looks to be a formidable team in their own right with a solid 20% likelihood of making the Final Four.
Afterwards, there’s a drop-off before the next tier of teams: No. 3 Baylor and No. 5 San Diego State. Their odds of making the Final Four, National Championship, and winning it all are all virtually the same. Everyone else is a long way down and not really worth a mention.
Well, this one looks like a two man show.
There’s a lot to say about the Houston Cougars. They’re the favorites in Vegas to win the tournament and they boast one of the most stifling defenses in the country. With star Marcus Sasser set to return from injury shortly, the Cougars are poised to show off their best team in years. That’s saying a lot, given that they’re coming off of a Final Four appearance in 2021 and an Elite Eight loss in 2022.
Then we have the No. 2 Texas Longhorns. Texas is ranked 18th in offensive efficiency in 11th in defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com – with a 26-8 record and a recent Big 12 title, this balanced roster is coming into the tournament with some positive momentum.
The Cougars have an astonishing 44.6% likelihood of making the Final Four according to our model, with Texas following them up at 23.0%. The two favorites have 20.8% and 5.5% respective probabilities to win the entire tournament. No one else in the region is over one percent. It’s clear that one of these teams should be the ones to make it out of the Midwest.
No. 1 Purdue leads the East with a 5.7% probability of winning the tournament, followed closely behind by No. 2 Marquette at 4.9%. Spoiler alert, but this is the lowest mark for a region’s top team. Of all four regions, our model has the East as the least likely to field the tournament’s eventual champion.
Purdue and Marquette and virtually neck-and-neck for Final Four odds. Marquette is viewed as having a more favorable path to the Elite Eight, while Purdue is favored in a matchup between the two teams.
Afterwards, we have No. 4 Tennessee and No. 5 Duke – sleepers to steal the region and sneak into the Final Four, but not really viewed as massive title contenders (2.0% and 1.2% championship odds respectively).
Finally, we’ve got the West. Here’s a fun one – take a look at how much this model hates the No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks. It has the remaining top five seeds as more likely to make it to the Final Four – even No. 5 Saint Mary’s! If you want a one seed to fade, the Jayhawks may be the one for you.
At the top, we have the No. 2 UCLA Bruins with a fantastic 36.2% probability to win the region and a very nice 13.5% mark of winning the tournament. That’s behind Houston but slightly ahead of Alabama for the 2nd best overall. In order, they’re followed up by No. 3 Gonzaga, No. 4 Connecticut, No. 5 Saint Mary’s, and No. 1 Kansas.
I think simulation analysis has a lot of value in revealing details in how the bracket shaped paths for the top teams. Last year, my simulations revealed that Kansas had the highest probability of making it to the Final Four. They weren’t viewed as the best team in the tournament and were not favored to win it, but the simulations demonstrated that they had the easiest path to the Final Four. Picking the Final Four teams correctly is a huge boost, so knowing which teams have easy/hard paths is immensely important.
This time around, Kansas isn’t so fortunate. They look like a fade candidate rather than a team poised to win their region. On the other hand, Houston has the highest Final Four probability in the tournament – if you want a safe Final Four pick, they might be your best bet!
Unfortunately, these margins are very small. We’re just playing the numbers here – anything can happen once these teams step on the court. There’s a reason no human has selected a perfect bracket yet, and there’s a reason it’s called March Madness. Don’t put too much stock on the statistics – there’s a lot that they can’t quantify. Most pre-tournament analyses like this one did not foresee the No. 8 North Carolina Tar Heels embarking on a miraculous Final Four run last season. We’re guaranteed to see more unexpected results this March, so don’t expect perfection. If you want to win your bracket pool, all you can do is play the numbers and hope for the best.