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Why the Final Four Shouldn’t Be Such a Shock

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The NCAA Tournament is always full of surprises, and this year has been no exception. However, even with two No. 1 seeds and one No. 3 seed in the Final Four, this round of March Madness has somehow proven to be one of the most unpredictable.

Per ESPN’s Tournament Challenge, only 0.003 percent of submissions correctly guessed the  Final Four. Last year, three times that fraction of brackets were picked correctly even though there was a No. 10 seed (Syracuse) crashing the party.

Year Seeds % Correct
2017 (1) North Carolina, (1) Gonzaga, (3) Oregon, (7) South Carolina 0.003%
2016 (1) North Carolina, (2) Villanova, (2) Oklahoma, (10) Syracuse 0.009%
2015 (1) Kentucky, (1) Wisconsin, (1) Duke, (7) Michigan State 1.360%
2014 (1) Florida, (2) Wisconsin, (7) Connecticut, (8) Kentucky 0.006%
2013 (1) Louisville, (4) Michigan, (4) Syracuse, (9) Wichita State 0%
2012 (1) Kentucky, (2) Ohio State, (2) Kansas, (4) Louisville 0.220%
2011 (3) Connecticut, (4) Kentucky, (8) Butler, (11) VCU 0%

In 2014, there was a No. 7 seed and a No. 8 seed in the Final Four, and 0.006 percent (double this year’s share) of people perfected their selections. Why is this combination such a surprise?

The answer is all in the brand. As of late, the two years that produced zero flawless Final Four predictions were the two years that included mid-majors (Wichita State in 2013, Butler in 2011).  Few had even heard of Wichita State (no, Wichita is still not a state) much less picked them to make that sort of run – remember, the Shockers’ 34-0 regular season wasn’t until the year after they made the Final Four. And that 2013 roster wound up having three future NBA players.

Butler was a slightly different story. The Bulldogs had already made it to the national championship game in 2010 and headed into the 2011 tourney having won nine straight. Yet Brad Stevens’ team wasn’t even favored to make it past Old Dominion in the first round, let alone be a member of the Final Four. Hardly a household name to fans then, even if it’s become one since.

Still, these projections somewhat made sense on paper, given that Wichita State and Butler both would have to beat a No. 1 seed to even make the Sweet 16. Going into this year’s tournament, these were the chances of each remaining team making it to the Final Four, according to FiveThirtyEight:

Team % Chance
Gonzaga (1) 41.5%
North Carolina (1) 29.9%
Oregon (3) 6.6%
South Carolina (7) 1.1%

Gonzaga had the highest probability in the entire tournament pool of making it to the Final Four, yet just 37 percent of brackets put them there.

Back to brand. Especially when money is on the line, people are most comfortable choosing teams that have an established name. In other words, people are most comfortable choosing teams that have high seedings, flashy players, and measurable amounts of experience, regardless of anything else that may be relevant.

North Carolina checks all the criteria on that list. It leads the NCAA in Final Four appearances (20) and ranks second in total tournament appearances (48). Think about it. UNC has made it to the Final Four in over 40 percent of its total tournament trips. So, not only did the Tar Heels enter as a No. 1 seed, but one could say that, well … they’ve been here before. Throw in likely lottery pick Justin Jackson, who has averaged 19.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 4.3 assists through the Elite Eight, and it’s no surprise that 45 percent of brackets picked UNC to make it this far.

Gonzaga, on the other hand, has been in the Big Dance 20 times and has never played in a single Final Four game. But they received a No. 1 seed for a reason. The Zags suffered just one loss in the regular season, posting a points per game differential of plus-23.4 – the best in Division I since Duke’s 1998-99 juggernaut that featured five lottery picks. The next best this season was Wichita State at 19.6.

Point differential matters here. To win 30-plus games in a season is no easy task, but to win them by that much is truly historic. Gonzaga’s schedule was no cakewalk, either, containing fellow NCAA Tournament teams in Iowa State, Florida, Arizona and Saint Mary’s (three times). Still, people chose brand, so more trust was put into teams like Duke (40%), Arizona (45%), Villanova (48%), and Kansas (58%, the most commonly selected Final Four team via CBS).

Just 9 percent of brackets placed Oregon in their Final Four, compared to 27 percent in favor of fellow-No. 3-seed UCLA despite the Ducks finishing ahead of the Bruins in the Pac-12. Part of that could have had to do with the season-ending injury to big man Chris Boucher, but there are perhaps two bigger reasons. One, UCLA has 48 tournament appearances to Oregon’s 15, including 18 Final Fours – all of which came well after the Ducks’ lone previous trip, in 1939. And second, Lonzo Ball.

We can’t forget South Carolina, which is easily the biggest reason for such bracket mayhem. Sure, they’re a No. 7 seed, they have zero Final Four experience and don’t have a single player who’s a surefire first-round pick. Sure, they had a one percent chance of making it to the Final Four. Sure, just 0.2 percent of nearly 19 million people picked them to make it this far. But should we be this surprised that they did?

The Gamecocks had regular-season wins over Michigan, Syracuse and Florida and has a top-10 KenPom defense that’s one of the most aggressive in the country. They have the SEC player of the year in Sindarius Thornwell. And they have a coach with this perspective (if you have the time, listen to the full 8-minute interview – it’s worth your while).

Maybe it’s not such a surprise. Maybe it’s time that “brand” gets re-branded.

Photos By: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel/Young Kwak/Julio Cortez/Gerry Broome

STATS March Madness 2017 Primer

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East

The Favorite: Villanova (Seed: 1, Final 4 Probability: 29.5%)

Last years’ champs have a pretty tough road ahead of them in the East bracket but obviously have the best chance at advancing to the Final 4 out of the group. Wisconsin in the 2nd round is clearly a bump in the hypothetical road – Wisconsin is STATS #21 team and easily the best 8 seed. We rank Villanova as the #1 team in the nation, though, and we expect them to pass that early test.

Darkhorse:  SMU (Seed: 6, Final 4 Probability: 7.2%)

SMU is a team that can shake up the region. The AAC’s best team is led by the conference’s player of the year, Semi Ojeleye (19.9 ppg on 49.1% FG), and features several other versatile and productive players. The Mustangs are a tougher test for Baylor, Duke, and Villanova (if they happen to make it that far) than people realize. One of those teams could very well be upset, too, which would open up an easier road for SMU to reach the Final 4. There’s a 7.2% chance of that happening – the Elite 8 is a more realistic ceiling.

Bracket Buster: Baylor (Seed: 3, Final 4 Probability: 9.6%)

It’s possible that too many people will have the Bears (who were ranked #1 In the AP Poll at one point this season) going a bit too far. If they get past the dangerous New Mexico State and into the Round of 32, they face a tough path through SMU and potentially Duke, which caps their upside.

Cinderella Team: New Mexico State (Seed: 14, Final 4 Probability: 0.0%)

The top teams in this region are so good that it’s tough to identify any Cinderella candidates. Instead of looking for a Final 4 contender, we look for a team that can a game or 2, and of all the top teams, Baylor is the most vulnerable. New Mexico State beat the only major conference team it faced this year (Arizona State), and they very well could keep it close against a Baylor team that lost to Yale in the 1st round last year. We give them a 13.1% chance of winning that game – very nice for a 14 seed.

West

The Favorite: Gonzaga (Seed: 1, Final 4 Probability: 35.4%)

This could be the year the Zags break through and win a National Championship. Being a #1 seed helps set up an easier path for them, but they will surely be tested as soon as the Sweet 16 against West Virginia (our highest ranked 4 seed). If you don’t think Gonzaga can get it done, look at 2 seed Arizona, who have a 23.4% chance of making it out of the region.

Darkhorse: West Virginia (Seed: 4, Final 4 Probability: 16.4%)

They can certainly knock Gonzaga off in what will be closer to a coin flip matchup than people realize. We see the Mountaineers as a top 10 team, with impressive wins over Virginia, Baylor, Kansas, and Iowa State this season. Potential 2nd round opponent Notre Dame can certainly beat anybody (as proven by wins over Florida State and Virginia), but we still see them as one of the weaker 5 seeds, looking at their overall body of work.

Bracket Buster: Gonzaga

If there were a #1 seed to strategically fade this year it might just be Gonzaga. Unexpected and crazy things will happen this year, just as they do every year. Don’t be surprised if they’re knocked out in the Sweet 16 or Elite 8, as their bracket is stacked with one of the toughest 2/3/4 trios, not to mention 7-seed Saint Mary’s, who beat Gonzaga twice last season. This may just be the quadrant of the bracket that gets flipped on its head.

Cinderella Team: Florida Gulf Coast (Seed: 14, Final 4 Probability: 0.0%)

Dunk City has one thing going for them that no other 14 seeds do: a relatively neutral 1st round location. That’s the silver lining with drawing Florida State, a contender ripe with NBA talent, as the game will be played in Orlando, just about a 3 hour drive from campus. If FGCU does win that game – and we think they have a 13.1% chance to do so – they’ll have some home court advantage against the winner of the underwhelming Xavier/Maryland matchup. These guys could very plausibly make another run to the Sweet 16.

South

The Favorite: North Carolina (Seed: 1, Final 4 Probability: 35.3%)

They’re not only the clear favorite to win the South Region but also a sneaky pick to win it all this year. Why is it sneaky? They aren’t getting as much attention as conference tournament winners, yet we see them as the mathematical favorites. The Tar Heels have a high floor, with the easiest path to the elite 8 – only the bottom half of their region is stacked, meaning they will only have to just face just one top team on its way to the Final 4.

Darkhorse: Wichita State (Seed: 10, Final 4 Probability: 4.2%)

No double digit seed has a better chance of making a run than the Shockers. STATS’ #20 team in the nation should be a much higher seed, and they’re heavy favorites (72.3%) in their 1st round matchup against Dayton. They started slow this year after losing Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker to the NBA, but then they steamrolled through the Missouri Valley Conference, winning their final 15 games by an average of 22.3 points. The fact they still have decent Final 4 odds despite drawing (potentially) Kentucky, UCLA, and UNC, is a testament to how good this 10 seed is.

Bracket Buster: Kentucky (Seed: 2, Final 4 Probability: 24.7%)

Of course we see them as title contenders, and if they get to the elite 8, they’re a virtual coin toss against UNC. This is about value and perception, though – people may just automatically slot them into the Elite 8 simply because they are the #2 seed, which is a very risky proposition. They may have to face the best #10 seed in tourney history in Wichita State in the Round of 32. After that, they would likely have to face UCLA (another team much better than their #3 seed indicates). They may be a good team to pick to lose early, simply considering their tough path.

Cinderella Team: Middle Tennessee State (Seed: 12, Final 4 Probability: 0.9%)

It’s not often that a 12-seed has anywhere near a 1% chance of making the final 4, but MTSU isn’t your average 12 – they are more like a 10 seed, as STATS’ #41 team in the tournament. It also helps that their 5-seed opponent is relatively weak, with Minnesota ranking as STATS’ #31 team. It all adds up to a very winnable game – MTSU has a 44.6% chance of advancing. Beware, though – the public may be all over the Conference USA champs and winners of 20 of their last 21, but they’re still more likely than not to lose in the 1st round, so Minnesota actually poses the better value.

Mid West

The Favorite: Kansas (Seed: 1, Final 4 Probability: 35.9%)

The Jayhawks just might have the toughest path to the Final 4 of all the #1 seeds. Having said that, they are still the clear favorites and the best bet to come out of the Region on top. Don’t be overly turned off by their Big 12 tourney loss to TCU, as they were missing star freshman and future top 5 pick Josh Jackson for that one, due to suspension.

Darkhorse: Oklahoma State (Seed: 10, Final 4 Probability: 2.7%)

The top 3 seeds here are so good, and they all have 15%+ probabilities of making it to the Final 4. We like the value Oklahoma State presents, though, as the public will be all over their opponent, Big 10 tourney champs Michigan. Michigan is a dangerous 7 seed capable of winning at least a couple games, but Oklahoma State is a good team in its own right, and we see that game as a virtual toss-up. After losing their first 6 Big 12 games, they won 10 of their next 14 games overall, including wins over West Virginia and TCU (twice). The backcourt trio of Jawun Evans (19.0 ppg), Jeffrey Carroll (17.4 ppg), and Phil Forte III (13.3 ppg), are all capable of lighting it up, and they could overwhelm Michigan in the 1st round and break Louisville’s press in the 2nd round.

Bracket Buster: Louisville (Seed: 2, Final 4 Probability: 21.0%)

After their cupcake first round matchup – the Cardinals are likely to face stiff tests the rest of the way. Michigan is one of the best 7 seeds, Oklahoma State is one of the best 10 seeds, and Oregon is one of the best 3 seeds. This is likely an ideal #2 team to short in order to try to get ahead of the field, in case they can’t even reach the Sweet 16. Of all 2-seeds, we give them the lowest probability of reaching the Final 4.

Cinderella Team: Vermont (Seed: 13, Final 4 Probability: 0.2%)

We swear this one all comes down to the numbers and is not influenced by Vermont’s magical win over 4-seed Syracuse in 2005 (“T.J. Sorrentine hit that one from the PARKING LOT!” –Gus Johnson). This version of Vermont is also very good, coming in with the nation’s longest winning streak (21 games). They’re deep and balanced (10 players who average at least 10 minutes; 7 players who average at least 6 points), and they hung in there against Butler in December, losing by 12. No team seeded 13 or higher has a better chance of winning a game than Vermont’s 22.0%.

Harnessing the Madness!

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STATS, the global leader in sports intelligence, helps brands find the winning edge in fan engagement. STATS developed fan engagement solutions for Men’s College Basketball Championship Tournament for several of STATS partners, including Allstate and theScore. Both games have tipped-off for the 2017 tournament to engage all college basketball fans.

The Allstate Bracket Predictor gives every college basketball fan the opportunity to harness powerful predictive analytics from STATS and beat their friends, family and coworkers in their favorite NCAA tournament bracket games by using data science. With historical/past years’ accuracy exceeding 70 percent, the Allstate Bracket Predictor utilizes advanced predictive analytics from STATS, allowing users to select any two teams in the tournament and analyze the probability of a victory in a head-to-head matchup.

theScore $100K Team Tourney Challenge, developed in partnership with STATS, delivers the same bracket-picking fun as other contests, but allows friends to team-up and take on other groups of fans. At the end of the 63-game tournament, the group of friends with the highest average score walks away with $100K, while there is also a $25K prize for the best overall individual bracket from the contest. The challenge is only available on theScore mobile app creating a mobile-first sports experience for the connected fans.

Innovative activations such as these are a result of STATS investment in predictive analytics, data science, and customizable digital solutions for brands to create new shared experiences that connect brands with consumers’ most authentic and personal passions – sports.

The Numbers Behind the Madness: Inside STATS’ NCAA Tournament Support

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It starts quietly each winter, as the Los Angeles-based STATS Research team is beginning its preparation for that year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, with a question or two from our television broadcast clients:

Q: How many teams were runner-up one year and then National Champions the next?
A: North Carolina in 1981-82, Duke in 1990-91, and Kentucky in 1997-98 (of course, Kentucky is trying to accomplish the feat again in 2015).

Q: I know a No. 1 seed has never lost to a No. 16 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But how often has a No. 2 lost to a No. 15, etc., in the Round of 64?
A: Here you go:

Round of 64 Results (1985-2014)

W-LWin Pct
#1 seed vs #16120–01.000
#2 seed vs #15113-7.942
#3 seed vs #14102-18.850
#4 seed vs #1395-25.792
#5 seed vs #1276-44.633
#6 seed vs #1179-41.658
#7 seed vs #1073-47.608
#8 seed vs #959.61.492

The volume of questions starts to increase greatly as the tournament approaches, but answering queries like this is only a part of the support package that STATS provides to its broadcast clients. Well before the tournament begins, we start updating our NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Guide, a 2.5-inch thick binder full of historical and current information that we have prepared annually for CBS and (more recently) Turner for the last 12 years. This year’s guide includes nuggets such as these in its various sections:

  • Over the last decade (since 2005), only one team that was ranked No. 1 in the final AP Poll prior to the start of the NCAA Tournament went on to win the title (Kentucky in 2012). Last year’s champion, the Connecticut Huskies, entered the tournament ranked No. 18.
  • Since seeding began in 1979, there has been only one year in which all four No. 1 seeds reached the Final Four: 2008 (Kansas, Memphis, North Carolina, UCLA).
  • Over the last five NCAA Tournaments (2010-14), Big Ten teams have won 51 tournament games, most for any conference.
  • Only two men in NCAA history have both played for and coached an NCAA Championship team: Bob Knight and the late Dean Smith.
  • Coastal Carolina’s team nickname, the Chanticleers, originates from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. A chanticleer is a rooster who rules the barnyard with cunning and wit.

For each team in the tournament field, the Tournament Guide includes a four-page team report, that – along with rosters, stats, uniform numbers and the like – contains each team’s tournament history, the head coach’s career and NCAA Tournament record, and a page of player and team notes (like the fact that Larry Nance Jr. of Wyoming has remarkably similar career stats to those compiled by his father, Larry Sr., at Clemson). We produce two versions of the team reports: an early-March edition with a projected tournament field to help CBS and Turner begin their preparations, and then a final edition which the whole entire Research staff works frantically to finish off on Selection Sunday night. (We call that our “All-Hands Weekend” for good reason!).

The fun really starts once the tournament begins. Along with producing a set of matchup notes for every tournament game, we set up chat rooms for each tourney site, so that we can interact directly with network personnel covering the games, getting answers to their in-game questions as quickly as possible. Here are a couple of examples from last year’s championship game between Connecticut and Kentucky:

(NCAA Crew) Can you tell me the longest UConn has gone into a game this season before its first FTA? 

(STATS) Yes, the longest UConn has gone into a game before its first FTA this season was on March 20 vs. St. Joseph’s (Round of 64)… first FTA was with 3:43 left in the 1st half.

(NCAA Crew) Is this the only championship game that UK never led?

(STATS) We were able to confirm that Kentucky led at some point in each of their previous three Championship Game losses (1966, 1975, 1997) … so this would be their first without leading at any point.

And one more exchange from the wild opening Thursday of this year’s tournament:

(NCAA crew) What is the most games decided by one point in a single NCAA Tournament (whole tourney) and what’s the most in one single day?

(STATS) We now have five 1-point games today [Thursday, Mar 19, 2015] which sets a record for the most all-time in a single tournament day.  We have six 1-point games total so far in this year’s tournament; the record for most 1-point games in a single tourney is 7 done four times: 1982, 1984, 1990, 1998.

Nail-biter or blowout, STATS is there to assist its broadcast clients every step of the way. The NCAA calls it “March Madness” for good reason … but we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Press Releases

STATS Takes Over Payton, Buchanan, Robinson, Rice Awards, Announces FCS Banquet Date

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CHICAGO – Nov. 3, 2016 – STATS, the world’s leading sports data and technology company, announced an agreement today that will allow it to hand out a quartet of legacy NCAA Football Championship Series (FCS) awards tied to some of the biggest names in the subdivision’s history.

Just prior to the FCS postseason concluding in January, STATS will present:

  • • The FCS Walter Payton Award, given to the FCS’ offensive player of the year;
  • • The FCS Buck Buchanan Award, given to its defensive player of the year;
  • • The FCS Eddie Robinson Award, given to its coach of the year; and
  • • The FCS Jerry Rice Award, given to its freshman of the year.

Founded by Mickey Charles of The Sports Network, the annual honors date back to 1987, when the Payton Award was presented to running back Kenny Gamble of Colgate. Since then, names of future NFL stars like Steve McNair, Brian Westbrook and Tony Romo have been called up to accept the hardware. Last season, Cooper Kupp – who became the FCS’ all-time leader in receiving yards and touchdowns this season – was the winner. The Robinson Award also began in 1987.

“I’ve always considered the storylines of the FCS to be just as important as the rest of Division I college football,” said Charles. “And lacking a Heisman of their own, what better choice than in the name of a football legend, Walter Payton? I am pleased to pass on three decades’ worth of history to STATS for custodianship and expansion at this time.”

The same national panel of sports information and media relations directors, broadcasters, writers, and other dignitaries who select the STATS FCS Top 25 poll – numbering over 150 voters – will choose the winners. Those awards join the STATS FCS Doris Robinson Scholar-Athlete Award, created one year ago to honor the wife of Eddie Robinson and her service to community and academics.

These awards will be presented to the winning athletes during the end-of-season banquet that will take place Friday, Jan. 6, 2017 – the night before the FCS championship game in Frisco, Texas – at the Embassy Suites Dallas-Frisco Convention Center. Last January, almost 200 attendees representing a cross-section of FCS roles came together for STATS’ inaugural awards ceremony.

The Buchanan Award goes back to 1995 and includes such notable alums as Dexter Coakley and Jared Allen, while the Rice Award was created in 2011.

“Coming from an FCS school, I’m proud to lend my name to such a distinction, and to help STATS expand its national coverage initiative,” said Rice, a Mississippi Valley State graduate who is almost universally recognized as the greatest wide receiver of all time and was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2010.

Prior to last season, STATS expanded an initiative to serve the FCS community with staples such as a pre- and postseason All-America team, weekly Top 25 poll, national players of the week, award watch lists and season-ending awards.

In addition, STATS created a dedicated FCS website – www.fcs.football – featuring breaking news, real-time scores and other unique content that combined the strengths of STATS’ data, editorial and product expertise. Launched prior to the 2015 season,  the site has accumulated close to two million page views over the past 12 months.

“We laid down a strong coverage foundation last season and, in the process, developed incredible relationships with the schools and the conferences,” said Brian Orefice, STATS’ Director of News. “But we want to ride that momentum into even better content and broader exposure. Thanks to Mickey, inheriting these awards and all they represent can only help us achieve those goals as we try to maintain the legacy of the FCS’ rich past while pushing forward toward its promising future.”

The FCS competes at the NCAA’s Division I level, and is home to 125 schools in 13 conferences across the country. Approximately 150 FCS players are on NFL rosters annually, including current stars like Romo (Eastern Illinois), Joe Flacco (Delaware), Carson Wentz (North Dakota State), David Johnson (Northern Iowa), Josh Norman (Coastal Carolina) and Julius Thomas (Portland State).

NCAA to Use STATS SportVU® Technology at NCAA® Women’s Final Four®

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CHICAGO – March 30, 2016 – STATS LLC, the world’s leading sports technology company, will cover the 2016 NCAA Women’s Final Four using STATS SportVU® player tracking technology. Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis will be the host for the Women’s Final Four, with the national semifinals being played on April 3 and the national championship game on April 5.

STATS SportVU technology will be used to collect real-time tracking data of the games for use by the NCAA and its media partners. The games will be televised live on ESPN, with STATS SportVU data being used to create graphics for broadcast and in-stadium fan engagement. Key stats from the games will be included in post-game notes which will be sent to the media to inform coverage with in-depth statistical information.

“With today’s technology, we are always looking for additional ways to tell the story as our fans are hungry for new and innovative ways to consume the sport,” said Anucha Browne, NCAA vice president, women’s basketball championships. “Working with STATS SportVU will create an enhanced fan engagement experience and provide more in-game statistics than ever before.”

STATS SportVU utilizes a six-camera system installed in arenas to track the real-time positions of players and the ball. This information is used to generate advanced metrics based on speed, distance, player separation and ball possession.

“Our player tracking technology has changed the way player performance data is analyzed in basketball at the collegiate and professional levels,” said Greg Kirkorsky, Executive Vice President of Sales and Marketing for STATS. “Several college teams already use STATS SportVU to simplify their data collection process and improve their performance on the court. The NCAA Women’s Final Four is a great opportunity to showcase the same STATS SportVU technology that is used by the NBA teams to enhance their performance and the STATS SportVU data that is also available to broadcasters.”

STATS SportVU is the official tracking technology of the NBA and is used by franchises to achieve competitive advantage through advanced performance insights.