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Examining the implications of Oregon’s narrow first round escape

By Adam Hoff

The first two days of this year’s NCAA Tournament were a tad disappointing. Other than Eric Maynor’s slaying of Duke, there wasn’t much to get excited about. No buzzer beaters, no amazing upsets, and hardly any decent finishes. One of the few games that went all the way down to the wire and nearly saw a top team bested in the opening round was Oregon versus Miami of Ohio. The Ducks struggled with Miami’s slow pace and barely escaped with a 58-56 win.

As soon as the final horn sounded, I told myself that this narrow win was a good thing, as it would allow the Ducks to grow stronger and know they can win close games; a kind of “survive and advance” mentality. And sure enough, Oregon played much better against Winthrop in round two and moved on to St. Louis. The close win seemed to be a good thing.

However, as with Boston College last year, this assumed “good thing,” got me thinking. Is it true that a “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” early round (first or second 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 27 wins that qualify over the past 6 years. In other words, there were 27 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 Oregon squeaked out over Miami.

The story that the data tells us is a bit murky. On one hand, 11 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 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.

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.

2006 - (2) Tennessee defeated Winthrop on a miracle shot by Chris Lofton, but was blasted by Wichita State two days later.

Results like these tend to dispel the notion that a narrow escape is sure to propel a team forward. However, for the 11 teams that got bounced in the second round, another 16 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 Oregon was able to dispatch of Winthrop in the second round and march on.

Of the 16 teams that at least showed the ability to shake off a tough first day and win their second game, 11 were then immediately knocked off in the Sweet 16. In other words, based on the past seven years, a surviving team like Oregon 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 11 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 teams last year 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 his Syracuse squad.

2004 - (3) Georgia Tech. The Jackets had a rough time with Northern Iowa before winning 65-60 and racing all the way to the title game where they lost to Emeka Okafor and UConn.

As for the 11 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
2006 - (3) Gonzaga and (4) Boston College

Is there anything we can derive from this list that sheds light on the mystery? Obviously, the SEC had a tough time 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:

(1) NA
(2) 1-1
(3) 3-3
(4) 0-4
(5) 1-3

It seems clear that 4 and 5 seeds are screwed in this scenario (only that 2000 Florida team prevailed), which makes sense, considering that they often line up against top seeds in the Sweet 16 and really aren’t top title candidates if they are seeded between 13-and-20 in the field. Oregon’s three-seed status puts them in a more favorable situation, as 2 and 3 seeds are 4-4.

Another consideration is looking at the opponent that these teams played in the crucial Sweet 16 matchup. Since most 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 11 losing teams, seven played against the highest possible seed, while the other four “caught a break” and still failed to cash in. Meanwhile, the five winning teams beat the highest possible seed in three of the five cases. Here is how each matchup went:

Winners:
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

Losers:
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
2006 - (3) Gonzaga lost to (2) UCLA
2006 - (4) Boston College lost to (1) Villanova

Granted, six of the last seven losers have been bounced by the highest possible seed, including four top seeds, but this still doesn’t seem to give us much. Not only does the math indicate that the losers have had it only slightly tougher than the winners (losers have played the highest possible seed 64% of the time, while winners have faced that scenario 60% of the time), but the winners all continued to encounter 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, while it doesn’t seem to be the strength of the opponent that completely determines which “survivors” continue to thrive on the second weekend, Oregon should be glad they are facing an underdog in UNLV. Survivors are just 2-4 against teams seeded higher than fifth but that winning percentage of .333 still compares favorably to the .250 mark achieved against top seeds.

In the end, it is simply going to come down to whether or not Oregon 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, but there are positive signs for the Ducks based on the teams you play, or even which seed you are. The former gives them an increased chance of winning by 8%, while the latter increases their odds by 35% (3 seeds have a .500 record while all other seeds are at .150). The average survivor wins only about 31% of the time, but Oregon’s odds of achieving victory appear to be well over 50%. That is significant when you figure that in the hours after nearly losing to Miami, the Ducks had a 41% chance of going home in round two, and just an 18% chance of going to the Final Four.

For Oregon, they have turned a poor opening round performance into something different altogether: momentum. Based on their solid performance in round two, their seeding, and the Sweet 16 matchup, they are statistically more likely than not to advance to the Elite Eight. If they do that and become the sixth survivor (out of 28) to win a regional semi in this decade, they just might be able to continue the five-for-five tradition of going all the way to the Final Four.

And if the Ducks accomplish all that, there just might 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.

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