History as a Guide
Examining the implications of Boston College’s narrow first round escape
By Adam Hoff
Boston College is one of 16 teams to survive the opening weekend of Madness. Fellow 4 seeds Kansas and Illinois are gone. Defending champ North Carolina is gone. So are Pitt and Syracuse and Tennessee and, well, the entire Big 10. One thing that makes the Eagles a little different than most of the surviving teams is that they suffered through an intense first round game that saw them summon all of their powers to pull out a win. It gave the impression that they had dodged their bullet for the time being and that they were ready to go on a deep run through the tournament.
Moments after BC topped Pacific in double overtime, I was on the phone with my Dad discussing the game. We agreed that it was probably the best thing that could have happened to the Eagles and that “it seems like title contenders often have games like in the first round.” I planned on writing just that over on the blog, but was beat to the punch by approximately 7,422 sportswriters, all arguing that BC’s scare in Salt Lake City was the best thing that could have happened to them. This assumed “good thing,” got me thinking. Is it true that the “whatever doesn't kill me only makes me stronger” type of first round game is a precursor to a great tourney run? Or does it just mean that the team sucks, or is playing poorly, or is tired, or any other reason why they might naturally lose a game?
One way to figure this out is to look at all the top seeds that have had “close” first round games this decade. For simplification, a “close” game is any contest that was decided by five or fewer points (or went to overtime) and a “top seed” is a team seeded one through five. By this measure, there were 23 wins that qualify over the past 6 years. In other words, there were 23 teams that could legitimately consider themselves title contenders and that managed to sneak out of the first round with a very difficult, near catastrophic victory. Just like the victory that Boston College squeaked out over Pacific.
The story that the data tells us is a bit murky. On one hand, nine of the teams that suffered “wake up call” games in the first round immediately went out and lost in the second round. In many instances, the losses came in embarrassing fashion. In fact, you can find a loss like this in virtually every tourney, dating back to 2000.
2000 - (2) St. Johns struggled to get past Northern Arizona, and then went out and got throttled by 10 seed Gonzaga two days later.
2002 - (4) Ohio State squeaked past Davidson (sound familiar?) 69-64, but instead of enjoying a rebirth from their close call, the Buckeyes simply got exposed further in the second round against 12th seeded Missouri, as the Tigers thrashed OSU 83-67. (By the way, this eerie information made the Georgetown win on Sunday a mortal lock.)
2003 - (4) Illinois edged Western Kentucky 65-60, only to take a beating at the hands of Notre Dame a couple of days later.
2004 - (4) Cincinnati edged Eastern Tennessee State by a count of 80-77, but there was no jump-start effect here, as the Bearcats were trounced by Illinois 92-68 in the second round.
2005 - (4) Florida edged Ohio 67-62 last year, only to get pummeled 76-65 by Villanova a few days later.
Results like these tend to dispel the notion that a narrow escape is sure to propel a team forward. However, for the nine teams that got bounced in the second round, another 14 made it to the Sweet 16 and the second weekend of tournament action. This is a group that is more important to the analysis, considering Boston College was able to dispatch of Montana in the second round and march on.
Of the 14 teams that at least showed the ability to shake off a tough first day and win their second game, nine were then immediately knocked off in the Sweet 16. In other words, based on the past six years, Boston College is twice as likely to get beat on Friday as they are to win again in this tournament. Even with the momentum of escaping disaster and mowing through the second round, the track record indicates their chances are still not as good as you would think.
Obviously though, if nine teams lost in the Sweet 16, that means that five teams moved on. The most interesting thing about those teams is that none of them lost in the regional final. Basically, if you can win that Sweet 16 game, the odds are very good that you will ride what has now become legitimate momentum and new life, and sprint right into the Final Four. Not only that, but three of the five “survivors” also won in the Final Four and played for the National Championship. Here are the five surviving teams that have bounced back from Day One difficulties to win in round two, keep things going in the Sweet 16, and reach the Final Four:
2000 - (5) Florida. The Gators edged Butler 69-68 in overtime on the famous Mike Miller shot, beat top seed Duke in the Sweet 16 round, and reached the NCAA Championship game, where they finally lost to Michigan State.
2001 - (3) Maryland. The Terps barely defeated George Mason (maybe we should have warned Michigan State and North Carolina about the Patriots?) 83-80 before rolling to the Final Four.
2003 - (3) Marquette. We all remember D-Wade’s magical run, including the triple double he had in leading the (then) Warriors to an upset over top-seeded Kentucky in the Elite Eight. However, what you probably don't remember is that Marquette was nearly bounced in the first round by Holy Cross in a hotly contested 72-68 game.
(2) Kansas. Two of the Final Four teams in 2003 were almost defeated in huge upsets in the first round. People always forget this now. The Jayhawks barely fended off the Aggies of Utah State in a 64-61 game that went down to the wire. They went on to beat top-seeded Arizona in their region, crush aforementioned Marquette, and then lose a classic against Melo and the Orangemen of Syracuse. (Are they still the Orangemen? Or is it the Orange now? Whatever.)
2004 - (3) Georgia Tech. The Jackets had a rough time with Northern Iowa (the classic, close-but-not-quite mid major team of the last three years) before winning 65-60 and racing all the way to the title game where they lost to Emeka Okafor and UConn.
As for the nine teams that reached the Sweet 16, only to lose, the list reads like this:
2000 - (4) LSU and (4) Tennessee
2001 - (3) Mississippi and (2) Kentucky
2002 - (3) Arizona
2003 - (5) Notre Dame and (5) UConn
2004 - (4) Wake Forest and (5) Syracuse
Is there anything we can derive from this list that sheds light on the mystery? Obviously, the SEC had a tough team in these scenarios in the early part of the decade, but that ceased to be a trend after 2001. There is variety in the seeding of the teams. In fact, the records in Sweet 16 "survivor" games look like this when broken down by seed:
Perhaps between the 0-3 mark posted by 4 seeds in this matchup and the fact that 4 seeds represented four of the five "embarrassing" losses cited above, we can just simply say that as a 4 seed, BC is screwed. Maybe, but I doubt it. You can see that 2 and 3 seeds are 3-3 while 4 and 5 seeds are 1-6. This merely indicates that superior teams are bound to perform better deep in the tournament. However, given that Boston College probably should have been a 3 seed in this field, we shouldn’t read too much into the number next to their name.
Another consideration is looking at the opponent that these teams played in that Sweet 16 matchup. Since many of the teams that qualify here are 3-5 seeds, the bracket would force them to meet with the team coming out of the 1 or 2 lines by the third round. Of the nine losing teams, five played against the highest possible seed, while the other four “caught a break” and still failed to cash in. Meanwhile, the five winnings teams beat the highest possible seed in three of the five cases. Here is how each matchup went:
2000 - (5) Florida over (1) Duke
2001 - (3) Maryland over (10) Georgetown
2003 - (2) Kansas over (3) Duke
2003 - (3) Marquette over (2) Pitt
2004 - (3) Georgia Tech over (10) Nevada
2000 - (4) LSU lost to (8) Wisconsin
2000 - (4) Tennessee lost to (8) UNC
2001 - (3) Mississippi lost to (2) Arizona
2001 - (2) Kentucky lost to (6) USC
2002 - (3) Arizona lost to (2) Oklahoma
2003 - (5) Notre Dame lost to (1) Arizona
2003 - (5) UConn lost to (1) UConn
2004 - (4) Wake Forest lost to (1) St. Joe's
2004 - (5) Syracuse lost to (8) Alabama
Granted, four of the last five losers have been bounced by the highest possible seed, including three top seeds, but this still doesn’t seem to give us much. Not only does the math indicate that the winners have had it slightly tougher than the losers (winners have played the highest possible seed 60% of the time, while losers have faced that scenario 55% of the time), but the winners all continued to see and conquer difficult foes. Here is the Elite Eight game for each of the winning teams:
2000 - (5) Florida over (2) Oklahoma State
2001 - (3) Maryland over (1) Stanford
2002 - (2) Kansas over (1) Arizona
2002 - (3) Marquette over (1) Kentucky
2004 - (3) Georgia Tech over (4) Kansas
Only the Yellow Jackets got off easy in the regional final by drawing a Kansas team that had come through the upper half of the bracket (top-seeded Kentucky was bounced by UAB). Florida played the highest possible seed in OSU and the other three teams (including the previously fortunate Terps) all had to topple the 1 seed to reach the Final Four.
All told, it doesn’t seem to be the strength of the opponent that determines which “survivors” continue to thrive on the second weekend. Just because Boston College plays the top-seeded Wildcats of Villanova, doesn’t really mean anything. In fact, in games against the highest possible seed, “survivors” (I guess this is the name we're going with for these teams) are 3-for-8, which is slightly better (37.5%) than the record in the “catch a break” games (33.3%). In other words, the Eagles are slightly better off – statistically speaking – drawing ‘Nova than Arizona in the next round.
In the end, it is simply going to come down to whether or not Boston College is cut from the same cloth as Florida, Maryland, Marquette, Kansas, and Georgia Tech. There doesn’t seem to be anything magical about which conference you are from, who you play, or even which seed you are (although it is true that 4 seeds have the worst track record). It simply boils down to this: before Saturday's game against Montana, the Eagles had a 21% chance of going to the Final Four, a 58% chance of reaching the Sweet 16, and a 38% chance of being bounced out in the second round. Now that they have cleared the second hurdle, those odds of going to the Final Four have nearly doubled, improving to 36%.
Of course, BC isn’t the only team in this situation heading into the second weekend. Gonzaga, UNC, and Tennessee were the other top seeds to win “close” games as defined above, and the Vols and Tar Heels have already joined Group A (bounced in the second round), leaving the Zags to join BC heading into the Sweet 16. Gonzaga and BC take on the highest possible seeds in their brackets and the math tells us that only one of these teams, if either, will win its next game and go on to the Final Four. Considering Gonzaga doesn't play any defense whatsoever, you have to like Boston College’s chances of being the team that advances to Indy.
And if they do that, there might just be something to the concept of “that which does not cause us to lose to a Cinderella team in the first round only makes us stronger.”
I, for one, am rooting for them.
(But that is only because I have them in my bracket.)
Adam Hoff is a columnist for the Webby-winning WhatifSports.com.